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Should you migrate your website to HTTPS for SEO?

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If you’re planning on changing to HTTPS purely for SEO reasons, then we advise you not to make the switch. At Caliber, we work with a number of large travel and retail clients and have not observed any specific performance data which shows a correlation between higher rankings and implementation of HTTPS across our portfolio.

If a client wants to unilaterally move their website to HTTPS as part of an internal security upgrade or for other reasons, then we would recommend the best practices to ensure SEO visibility is defended and the switch is executed optimally. However, we couldn’t say that doing so will benefit their SEO performance or rankings, as there has been no evidence of it internally.

Nevertheless, this is SEO; things are done on a case by case basis and there are other benefits to setting up HTTPS which should be considered when contemplating a switch. In the following interview, Martin Reed, senior SEO strategist at Caliber, reveals all.

Why is HTTPS important and should you make the change?

This topic has been covered many times and, unsurprisingly, everybody has a different opinion. You will find that most blog posts that cover switching to HTTPS aren’t interested in going into depth; they just want to cover the subject because everyone’s talking about it. They’ll often advise readers to go ahead and make the switch because Google says you should. As an SEO focused agency, Caliber recommends that this is poor advice.

My personal position is somewhere in the middle; there are other benefits to making the switch and if you want to benefit from some of this value then you should probably consider the options, or at least position yourself so that you can make that switchover somewhere down the track.

Is it going to take a lot of work to make the switch for a really large website?

It can, potentially, yes. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch and everything’s going to run smoothly; there’s a long process involved in making sure it’s going to be fully compliant. From an infrastructure point of view, you need to ensure that your servers have the ability to adapt to the change.

The essential role of HTTPS is to encrypt all the communications between your browser and the web server. The difference between using this encryption and not using it, is that there are additional steps in the process of this communication.

These steps lengthen the time it takes for the data to start being sent and received, so you need to ensure that your servers have the capacity to handle these additional steps.

Is this because site speed is a more important ranking factor than HTTPS?

Site speed is currently at a far higher importance ranking than HTTPS. From an SEO point of view, there is minimal benefit in using HTTPS, whereas there is much more benefit in having a faster website. This also rings true from a user experience and conversational point of view. In simple terms, HTTPS does not add much benefit when solely focusing on SEO.

However, it’s not quite as clear cut as that. In the past, freedom to run HTTPS efficiently has been limited. You needed more time for the data to be transferred, and therefore required more processing power on the server to handle the same number of requests. Today, we’re at a point where with the right server set up you shouldn’t be negatively impacted by having these added steps. Any performance hit should be negligible because we’re at a stage where we can process it much faster.

A lot of work has been done around improving how HTTPS works at a server level. There are different benefits available in using the technology that should improve overall performance.

How can HTTPS improve the performance of your website and what are its major benefits?

One of the major benefits in using HTTPS is the ability to use HTTP/2. This allows you to open a single connection between your browser and the server, in order to transfer all of the files that are required to load a page.

Historically, every single file that you needed to load to your page – and by file I’m talking about the actual HTML page, all of the images, the JavaScript, the CSS, the stylesheet, any video files and any media – needed to have an individual connection to the server to download it. You’re downloading them one at a time, which means that from a server point of view, it needs to handle many more connections because files are coming in one by one.

It’s hard to predict what an average website would have, but it’s common for a website to load up to 100 different resources per page; that’s 100 different connections that need to be made for a site to load. With HTTP/2, what you’re able to do is open up a single connection. In that single connection you do the initial handshake, you receive the initial page and then you accept it. This means you eliminate the need for the extra overheads with individual connections.

If there is a latency issue (a long way to go between yourself and the server), at a server in Australia for example, the data needs to transmit half way around the world. This means a few hundred milliseconds of delay are added just in transit. If you’re eliminating the transit delay per resource that you’re downloading, then it’s going to speed up the process as well.

HTTP/2 is designed for how we use the internet in 2016. We have a faster internet connection and we’re downloading media rich pages. This allows us to streamline the whole process of downloading all of the required assets for a page.

Surely any big company with a big website will want this new capability that HTTP2 allows. How easy is it to make the switchover for a big website?

There is a possibility that the switch can be unsuccessful for large websites, as stated by a couple of users in online articles. For a smaller website it’s far simpler to make the switchover. A smaller site includes fewer pages – it’s just going to be straightforward.

Regardless of the size of your website is, there are a few key things to consider when migrating to HTTPS:

  • Ensure that you do a 301 redirect from the HTTP version to the HTTPS version.
  • Ensure that any canonical tags point to the HTTPS version.
  • Internal links should also all point to the HTTPS. Even though they’re all going to redirect over, you want to eliminate that need to redirect. When Google is crawling and indexing a website, it doesn’t handle redirects very well, particularly if there’s a redirect chain that goes through more than one step at a time before you reach the final destination.
  • Make sure that all images, JavaScript, and resources on the page are also being loaded through HTTPS.
  • It is key to set up Google search console for the new HTTPS version of your site; because Google splits the data, they won’t treat it the same as the non-HTTPS version. So, before you start, make sure you set it up so that you can see the data as it starts populating.
  • Once you have hardcoded a website, you will need to go back through and update the site to point to the HTTPS version, or use what’s called a protocol agnostic version. This is where you leave out the HTTP. By simply typing // followed by the domain, it retains the same protocol – so HTTP will stay HTTP and HTTPS will link to HTTPS.
  • Remember that if you’re loading JavaScript from, for example, an HTTP source, modern browsers are going to consider that as insecure content, and, more often than not, will block it from loading. This means that if you have a booking form or some type of functionality that requires the HTTP JavaScript, it’s not actually going to load it because it’s being loaded from an insecure source, which means you could potentially break your website.

Are there any other benefits of HTTPS implementation?

Another benefit to consider is the potential improvement of your analytics data. This is due to increased visibility on referrals from HTTPS sites, which would previously have been stripped of referrer data and attributed directly within your analytics platform. In short, when a visitor arrives at your HTTP site having clicked on a link from an HTTPS enabled site, the referrer data is stripped and the session recorded as ‘direct’ traffic.

However, when a visitor arrives via a link from an HTTPS site to another HTTPS site, the referrer data is passed. Likewise, a visit from a non HTTPS site to an HTTPS will also still pass the referrer data.

The long and short of it is you are going to have increased visibility on your referral sources after making the switch to HTTPS, as you will be receiving referral data from both secure and non-secure sites.

Caliber is a marketing agency specialising in integrated SEO, content and social marketing.

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