Google has always maintained that user security is a high priority in its continued efforts to provide users with a better browsing experience. The actual impact a secure website has upon performance seems to be further increasing, with the tone of a recent blog post implying that the effect of HTTPS on rankings might increase in the future.
When Google announced in August 2014 the adoption of SSL as a ranking signal in their search algorithm, it was implied it would be a lightweight signal impacting less than 1% of global queries. Many SEOs were surprised when in December 2015 – a mere 16 months later – Google announced that they were taking further steps to promote HTTPS pages everywhere, by requesting content over HTTPS by default.
Such a change means that from now on Google will always attempt to crawl HTTPS pages even if these are not linked or signalled anywhere else, then fall back to the HTTP equivalent only when the former are not found. In other words, when two URLs from the same domain appear to have the same content but are served using both the protocols, Google will typically choose to index content on the HTTPS URL.
This already important announcement also carries a significant intimation disguised within the phrase “even when… [the HTTPS versions are] not linked to from any page”. The phrase illustrates how highly regarded HTTPS content is becoming to Google, given that backlinks are a near vital element in helping Googlebot locate content but no links are actually required to prompt the crawling of HTTPS equivalents.
So what does it mean for SEOs and webmasters?
Back in 2014, many jumped on the opportunity to get an easy boost in search rankings by simply switching to HTTPS, then the trend slowed down as brands assessed the true impact. Following this December announcement, 2016 is seeing an increase in the number of sites moving to HTTPS. A large number of websites hosted on both HTTPS and HTTP protocols will most probably redirect the non-secure version to the HTTPS version and non-secure sites will likely invest in an SSL certificate to become visible on the HTTPS scene.
The definitive impact upon rankings is still fairly vague at this point. Is HTTPS still working as a simple tie-breaker between two equally poised websites or does it actually boost rankings in a significant way? It is still too early to tell in most cases but we are starting to see an impact upon rankings on some of the sites which have undergone the switch.
The screenshot below is taken from Google Search Console and shows the number of clicks for a given page on a website which migrated from HTTP to HTTPS in December. We can clearly see a drop in the number of clicks for the HTTP page while the HTTPS version of the page starts receiving a similar amount of clicks straight after the switch. The HTTPS page has simply replaced the HTTP equivalent in Google’s rankings.
What else should you be considering?
HTTPS is not the only HTTP improvement being discussed by Google. John Mueller, Google's leading Webmaster Trends Analyst, has recently been talking about the HTTP/2 standard which is the next step in terms of improving the HTTP transfer protocol.
HTTP/2 represents improvements for both efficiency and speed. When implemented correctly, it can bring about phenomenal speed enhancements, which make for a better user experience and now with it firmly on Google’s radar there could be potential ranking improvements on the line as well. In fact, John Mueller revealed back in November 2015 that GoogleBot would soon be able to request web content over HTTP/2 which it could not do at the time.