HTTPS Protocol

In August 2014, Google announced that its page ranking algorithm would begin slightly favoring pages that were running the more secure HTTPS protocol vs. older HTTP sites. Only seven percent of sites that held a #1 Google position were running on HTTPS at the time of the announcement, but a week later, the number had increased to eight percent.

While this may not seem like a big jump, one needs to consider the time investment and risk large sites must accept in order to make the switch to the more secure HTTPS protocol. Fast forward to today, nearly two years later, and we see that around 30% of the #1 rankings are held by sites running HTTPS. This is significant, and indicates the growing trend and motivation for sites to upgrade.

Is Google Rewarding Sites Using the HTTPS Protocol?

Although Google is probably not attempting to manipulate web developers and businesses into switching to HTTPS, considering the implications of a high Google ranking, it stands to reason that many companies would take their algorithm update into strong consideration. There are other reasons to upgrade, namely, the increased security that may bring customers peace of mind when entering their personal data into an HTTPS site vs. one with an HTTP protocol, but Google’s algorithm change may be the dominant factor motivating change for web developers at the moment.

The Significance of the One-Third Mark

Although an exact percentage of sites holding #1 rankings and running on HTTPS could not be confirmed by Google, the 30ish percentage mark is a reasonable estimate at this point. Extrapolating data, if two years after the announcement around 1/3 of the #1 sites are running HTTPS, we could say that this number will increase to around half approximately 16 to 17 months from now. Many companies may still be dragging their feet regarding the risky shift to HTTPS protocol, believing that they actually have quite a bit more time before their protocol choice has a more significant bearing on their Google ranking, but there’s something that’s easy to overlook here. The fact is, all signs point to the likelihood that Google will be adjusting their algorithm once again in the near future, this time in stronger favor of HTTPS sites.

From a business perspective, this is quite logical; if Google originally began incorporating the HTTPS protocol as a ranking factor when only a small percentage of sites were utilizing it, this single issue would not be able to hold much weight in the overall algorithm, considering the huge number of quality sites that would have been overlooked before they’ve had a chance to upgrade their own protocols. However, as more and more sites upgrade, Google has more HTTPS sites to select from for their ranking equation, a fact that will allow them to increase the significance of the HTTPS protocol over time without sacrificing the quality of the content from which to rank and select.

Risks of Switching to HTTPS

If there were not risks involved in switching from HTTP to HTTPS protocol, more sites would have done so by now, considering the potential advantages. However, as of July 2016, only 7 of the current top 20 ranking websites have fully switched over to HTTPS. That translates into 35%, so this figure is logical considering that around a third of Google’s #1 spots are held by HTTPS sites. These top 20 sites take up a huge percentage of search volume, so once they all make the switch, Google will certainly be in a stronger position to increase the weight of the HTTPS protocol in their algorithm. As of now, however, the following risks have kept some businesses from implementing the change:

  • 1. Switching from HTTP to HTTPS protocol is similar to moving your entire site to a new domain; obviously, small errors can lead to big issues. All links and tags must be switched to the new protocol in a meticulous fashion.
  • 2. Even with careful implementation during the switch, fluctuations in page rankings are to be expected during the first few days at a minimum. In some cases, it can take months to regain a high Google ranking after switching to HTTPS, even with the algorithmic favorability. Experts recommend waiting until your slow season to upgrade to HTTPS protocol.
  • 3. If your site currently has any glitches or issues that have not been corrected, switching over to HTTPS will only magnify these issues, downgrading Google rankings as opposed to improving them. The numerous redirects alone required to switch from HTTP to HTTPS are going to slightly lower your ranking, so at a minimum, be sure to fix any HTTP errors before making any changes into HTTPS mode.

Is It Time to Make the Switch?

In many cases, the motivation to switch over to HTTPS may still not be strong enough for many large site owners. Smaller or newer sites, where far fewer redirects will be required, are in an excellent position to benefit from Google’s algorithm change, but at this point, some of the big sites may actually see a slight reduction in their ratings after a switch, as the number of redirects may outweigh the favored HTTPS status. Again, all of this is subject to change as Google shifts more and more weight to those sites running HTTPS protocol.

Looking forward is a critical factor to all business success, and the upgrade to HTTPS can’t be avoided forever. With careful timing and planning, more and more sites will be able to properly implement the change. Eventually, when nearly 100% of webpages are utilizing HTTPS protocol, the playing field will again be leveled and focused on content, speed, and whatever other factors materialize between now and whenever that full implementation has occurred.