HTTPS As A Ranking Factor
About a month ago Google announced that websites using the HTTPS protocol would benefit in the search rankings via a “slight signal” in the algorithm.
Since then, many SEO companies have started telling their clients to make the switch. “You may as well” and “but they said it helps” are not, however, what we base our SEO strategies on so WME have held out pushing TLS on our clients. This approach comes from three questions we have to answer before making the change: 1) are there drawbacks? 2) what value of a ranking signal is HTTPS? and 3) what will this cost?
Are there drawbacks?
Yes, there are drawbacks to https. The main arguments against are:
Performance – https tends to slow sites down. Even when it’s perfectly optimised. From StackOverflow on https: While the symmetric cryptography used inside the TLS session is cheap, the initial key exchange is not. If you do it right you want to use forward secrecy, which means either DHE or ECDHE. Simple DHE is very expensive to set up, ECDHE is much cheaper but not all clients support it. See http://vincent.bernat.im/en/blog/2011-ssl-perfect-forward-secrecy.html for benchmarks.
Pain – many hundreds of our clients host on cheap, widely available hosts who do not support TSL. This would mean moving hundreds of websites from their current host to hosts who support HTTPS and not just name-based virtual hosting. With the limited availability of IPv4 addresses, costs will go up until IPv6 is implemented across these cheaper hosts.
Cache – related to performance, above, but also its own issue – HTTPS caching is important, especially in a country like Australia. Without caching, your page will load slower for many visitors. Google has already told us that page speed is a ranking factor. So if page speed is compromised by https, which should “win”?
What value of a ranking signal is HTTPS?
We simply don’t know what kind of effect HTTPS will have on rankings yet. SEO is a test of experiments and understanding data. Our data suggests that HTTPS influence on the SERPs since Google’s announcement is very minor. A study by SearchMetrics agrees:
The following graphics is based on the rankings of hundreds of thousands of keywords minus a few outliers in the data (such as Google and Yahoo subdomains.) The curves follow each other smoothly as shown in the chart below.
However, if we focus on the difference between the two curves, the actual fluctuation rarely exceeds the value of 0.2.
This study shows that https has no relation with rankings. Thus Google’s announcement of including https in websites for improving the rank does not affect a large section of the index.
Our study of HTTPS as a ranking factor will continue and if it proves to be a factor we need to consider, we will add it to our strategy.
What will this cost?
Another major factor in transitioning thousands of clients to TLS at once is cost. SSL certificates can easily be purchased for around $10 each but we then need to factor in site performance, load times, personnel time to implement, and the costs associated with those who have to move hosting for non-supported hosts.
We expect the transition to HTTPS to cost clients over $100,000 so this is not a decision we would ever push lightly without testing.
Your SEO company should be very well versed in the latest updates, algorithm changes and yes, ranking signals. However, knee jerk reactions to unknown situations can cause more harm than good. Our current advice for clients is to begin the migration process to HTTPS with hosts that easily offer this option but not to stress too much about this relatively minor change in the algorithm. There are many, many other problems we can work with you to solve first.