To HTTP or to HTTPS: What to Know, When to Move and How to Do It

Written by neatly.io on 24th July 2017

Whenever Google makes an update to its search algorithm, which realistically is several times a day, everyone takes notice. So when Google announced back in 2014 that HTTPS was going to become a stronger ranking factor, there was a lot of talk about whether to make the jump.

So has HTTPS made a difference to search rankings and should you make the jump?

What is HTTP and HTTPS

HTTP stands for “hypertext transfer protocol” and makes reference to how we communicate over the internet. There is also another protocol which is HTTPS, this stands for ‘hypertext transfer protocol secure’.

HTTPS ensures that any sensitive information, i.e. credit card data or passwords, is secure from point of entry to the processing server.  When inputting any form of data on a website, it is then sent to the companies server and processed. HTTPS ensures that this information arrives safely at the intended destination.

When Google made first made the announcement about the minor ranking boost from HTTPs, a lot of sites made the switch quickly afterwards. Others chose to wait and see what the effect would be.

In January 2017, Chrome made an update which now clearly displays if your site was secure or not. Rather than relying on the user to look for the https or green bar, they now label the site as ‘secure’ or ‘not secure’:

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 15.51.17
Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 15.52.33

Now, this only effects your website if you have some kind of registration form or if you are an ecommerce website (however if you are an ecommerce website, an SSL certificate has been a must have for sometime!). If you do not have any functionality that requires a user to submit a form then nothing will display in the address bar.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 15.53.40

So, even if you do not use Chrome as your default browser it is worth browsing your site in Chrome and see what those users are seeing.

Advantages

Does SSL increase my search rankings?

SSL has been a ranking factor for the Google search algorithm for a couple of years now, so there’s plenty of research out there that’s looked into the effects. Google did announce that HTTPS would only be a minor ranking factor, and at this time that’s certainly the case.

But this is not necessarily the key determining factor to moving to https. Remember a URL restructure of any kind is not a small task, check out WIRED’s big upgrade when they tried to move to HTTPS.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 15.56.21

Source: Search Engine Land

Does SSL make my website secure?

It does makes your site securer but the fact is there are still a number of threats your website can face. Therefore you should not assume that once you have https in place, your website is secure and there is nothing else to be done.

Does SSL improve my customer experience?

More and more of us are concerned about the security of our data, who has access to it, where it’s stored and so on.

As we mentioned earlier, it’s even easier for people to see how secure the websites they’re visiting are. People also know what to look for when browsing online, so if you don’t have SSL in the appropriate places, then you could be losing out on customers.

Moving to HTTPS

So, when should you make the switch to https?

There are a number of scenarios in which you should decide to make the switch:

  • You are selling online and do not have an SSL certificate in place. With the public now being educated on the dangers of insecure websites, an ecommerce website without an SSL is likely to suffer from poor quality conversion rates and low revenue figures.
  • If you are a new site about to launch,  it is very likely you will end up migrating in the future, it is much simpler to do at the beginning!
  • You process any form of personal information on your website i.e, a members area.

Ecommerce

If you are selling online then an SSL certificate on any page that requires any form of information to be sent i.e. creating an account, shopping cart or checkout is an absolute must, not just because of SEO but also for consumer confidence. Even without the large ‘non secure’ statement at the top of your browser we have become more aware of the signs to look for when determining if a website is safe.

Not having https in all the correct areas will damage confidence and lead to higher bounce rates and increased cart abandonments. Most hosted platforms offer this service as a standard i.e. Shopify, Big Commerce. However if you host your own platform such as Magento or WooCommerce, you are responsible for setting up your SSL (though most hosting companies will set this up for you).

Moving the entire website to https has the potential to massively affect your search rankings and organic traffic and if you are considering this then it would be worth checking these out.

When not to migrate to HTTPS?

If you have been penalised by a Google penalty i.e. Penguin, Panda et al.  It would be a better idea to resolve your penalty issues before moving your site to https.

By migrating your website, you are effectively changing every URL and this should always be approached with caution. Should you be suffering from a search penalty, migrating URLS could indicate to Google that you are trying to escape your penalty by confusing the issue.

Checklist for moving to HTTPS

  1. Select your SSL certificate

Depending on the type of SSL certificate you require, these are now relatively cheap, you can even use Lets Encrypt for free SSL certificates.

  1.  Create a URL Map to create your redirects

http://mywebsite.com is a different domain to https://mywebsite.com
A URL map will enable you to setup 301 re-directs within your HTAccess file.

  1.  Update your internal links

If you are using relative URL’s then you can pat yourself on the back and skip this section.
If you are using the absolute URL then it is advisable to update these and not rely on the 301. In fact you could update to a relative URL at the same time.

For more information on relative and absolute URL, you should checkout this article.

  1.  Images and Internal files

Internal links are not the only links on your website and you should ensure all image, stylesheets and scripts are also updated, so the following:

<script src=”http://yourwebsite.com/js/libary.js />

will need to be updated to:

<script src=”https://yourwebsite.com/js/libary.js />

If you have a particularly large site then I would recommend using a tool such as Screaming Frog, which scan your website for broken links (both external and internal). If they are all showing HTTPS then you are cooking on gas!

  1.  Add your site again in Google Search Console

You will need to create a new profile within Google Search Console when you switch to https:// and go through the same verification procedure. Once this has been completed you should also submit a new sitemap to inform Google of the change.

When logged into your Google account it is recommended that you pop over to Google Analytics and annotate your account with the date you switched to record any major changes to your website.

  1. Update your .htaccess file

There are many methods of implementing 301 re-directs, however I tend to use the HTaccess file (when using Apache). Each URL should have its own re-write rule and you should avoid wild card or catch all re-directs that all go to your homepage. You will kill your traffic overnight.

It is worth taking the time to ensure your re-directs are all working and correct as any mistakes can take several months to fix and recover from.

  1.  Update your Robots.txt file

You need to include your new sitemap and make sure it doesn’t stop spiders from indexing your website.

  1.  Test your website (then test it some more)

There are a number of services you can use to check broken links or issues with your https implementation. SEM Rush have a cool tool which allow you to carry out a site audit and identify any issues with your https switchover.

  1.  Timing

Depending on your business, it is quite likely you will have quiet periods throughout the year and you should choose your timings carefully. Unless the Christmas season means nothing to your business I would not recommend September to January. If things don’t go quite to plan you want to minimise the impact to your business as much as possible.

  1.  Monitor your website

Using tools such as Google Analytics, search console and others you should carefully monitor your website to ensure any issues are identified early on and addressed quickly.

Summary

Https is not going away and is the best option for all new sites. However while it is a ranking factor, it is not at this time a significant one, and this should be taken into account when considering migrating.

It is definitely a big decision and not one to be taken lightly, if in doubt, I would recommend engaging a SEO company, ideally with a referral from someone you know and has gone through the same process. While there might be some expense initially, and rushed job could end up costing you a lot more in the longer term!

 


Also published on Medium.