On August 6, 2014, a post on Google’s Online Security Blog announced that the tech juggernaut had recently been experimenting with its search engine ranking algorithms. Google admitted to running tests that factored a site’s level of security into its formulas, giving a slight preference to encrypted results. While strong HTTPS encryption is commonly used to create web pages that ask for personal information such as the shopping carts and check out pages used by online merchants, it is not currently the standard for informational pages that do not involve secure information. If Google continues to prioritize pages that have adopted HTTPS encryption, the practice will affect both web design and online marketing.
For Google, choosing to prioritize sites that have adopted HTTPS is only one of its many efforts to promote a secure web. Google’s own services, including Gmail and Drive, rely on strong HTTPS encryption to keep their clients’ personal information safe from identity thieves. Google has also created free resources to help webmasters prevent and fix security breaches.
There is little information available about how many different tests Google performed or how strong a signal they made encrypted connections in those tests. What they will say is that they were pleased with their findings. “We’ve seen positive results,” claims Google’s Security Blog, “so we’re starting to use HTTPS as a ranking signal.” At the moment, Google calls the signal “very lightweight.” It only affects a small number of queries—less than 1%–and is not nearly as important as more traditional signals such as high quality content.
Google is aware that their algorithms have a powerful influence over the way websites are made and maintained, and they anticipate that their decision will encourage more and more webmasters to fully embrace HTTPS. They also understand that this switch will take time. Although Google has currently set HTTPS as a lightweight ranking signal, they suggest that this may change. The more website owners who choose to adopt HTTPS, the stronger the signal may become.
Adopting HTTPS can be tricky. In an effort to help webmasters avoid common mistakes when making the switch, Google suggests the following basic tips to get started:
- Determine the type of certificate you require: multi-domain, single, or wildcard certificate
- Use 2048-bit key certificates
- For resources that are on the same secure domain, use relative URLs
- For all other domains, use protocol relative URLs
- Visit the Site move article by Google for more information on how to change the address of your website
- Don’t use robots.txt to block your HTTPS site from crawling
- Let search engines index your pages where possible. Avoid the noindex robots meta tag
Opinions about Google’s decision to make HTTPS a search engine ranking signal have been mixed and are based largely on factors such as cost and speed in addition to security.
Proponents of the decision support Google’s efforts to make the web a safer place. Many also recognize that the new algorithm might also improve search results. For instance, one supporter suggested that many malware sites would be less likely to spend the time and money on encryption. They would therefore drop lower in search results, be visited less often, and be less of a public threat. Another supporter sees Google’s decision as a way to correct a separate practice that lowers a page’s ranking for being slow. HTTPS is a common reason for slightly lower page speeds and has therefore negatively affected rankings in the past. Under the new system, developers will be rewarded instead of punished for being concerned about security.
Many of those who oppose Google’s new practice see HTTPS as an unnecessary expense. Certain developers are hesitant to invest the time and money necessary to encrypt web pages that have no personal information merely to maintain their search engine ranking. Some even suggest that Google’s decision was as influenced as much by the companies who stand to benefit from the deluge of upgrades as it was by an altruistic desire to keep the Internet safe. The truly cynical take things one step further, pointing out that HTTPS is not perfect and can be breached by a determined hacker “within a $10,000 budget and a couple of days.”
How Will the Web Change?
Although it may seem premature to discuss how such a small part of Google’s current search algorithm will affect the web, it is unwise to overlook Google’s influence on the Internet. Not everyone approves of Google’s decision, yet most would agree that it will have a noticeable impact on web development in the coming years, particularly if and when the signal in question is strengthened.
More and more webmasters will embrace HTTPS. Websites that currently use HTTP will be upgraded and new websites will be encrypted from the beginning. Encryption is a sophisticated technique, and widespread use of this and other advanced web development strategies will challenge webmasters to evolve along with a constantly growing industry.
Savvy businesses will invest more into web development because they know how important search engine rankings can be for their bottom lines. These businesses will also factor encryption into a comprehensive marketing strategy while simultaneously doing their part to keep the web as safe as possible, precisely as Google intended.
Some strategists worry that prioritizing a page’s security features might allow content to suffer. They fear that if there is less incentive to make a website engaging and informative, businesses will forgo these details altogether. While Google may increase the weight encryption carries in its algorithm over time, it is extremely unlikely that security will ever trump content. On the contrary, a more sophisticated and secure web will in turn be better able to support more elaborate, educational, and entertaining content than ever before.
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