Is Encryption the new SEO Kryptonite?

August 12, 2014

Digital Marketing Tansy OBryant By Tansy OBryant

Ever wonder what the “s” stood for in “https”? Secure. The complete acronym actually reads: Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. Google announced last Wednesday that it will be using its search algorithm ranking order to reward websites that are encrypted. Google would like web developers to adopt more secure technology in an effort to protect users’ data from hackers.

Why Now?

In the wake of the Snowden/National Security Agency (NSA) chronicles, and the ensuing discovery of the lack of online protection for emails, Google has stepped up its security efforts. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Kevin Mahaffey, CTO and co-founder of mobile-security company Lookout Inc., explained the importance of encryption by asking, “If you were sending a letter with your credit-card information and Social Security number, would you send it in a secure envelope or a clear envelope?” By encrypting your website, you are putting a barrier between web users and hackers.

Now What?

The recent change has left some SEO-conscious online retailers asking, “Can Google index and rank pages behind the secure socket layer (SSL)?” Many SEO specialists and developers can remember when Google’s Quality Guideline recommended that non-transactional pages be kept in front of the SSL because Google had difficulty rendering and indexing information behind the SSL.

Let’s put this myth to rest. Google indexes pages behind the SSL. Take a look at the example below — site:http://twitter.com.

Twitter

Next Steps for Retailers:

  • Buy a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) Certificate from your existing web hosting company for about $100. Conduct a 90-day marketing experiment to confirm that installing a SSL has truly improved your search reach and visibility.

A SSL certificate verifies the identiy of your business and allows a web server to establish a secure encryption with a visitor’s web browser. Small e-commerce retailers can consider a more affordable option called a “shared certificate”. Using a shared certificate is acceptable or satisfying the AdWords SSL policy requirements.

  • Install the SSL certificate on your web server. The installation method will vary depending on your web server. Take time to get a developer to help you configure it properly, especially if you use a Google Search Appliance or serve Google Display Ads.

  • Identify the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) on your website that you want to secure with SSL. Remember that AdWords policy states you must use a secure connection on pages that collect or transmit certain personal and financial information, like personal login passwords.

  • Configure Make sure to change relative and non-secure links to “https:” Google will have more information in the coming weeks on how to handle relative links. Set up server redirects to automatically route people who try to access secure pages with the http:// protocol. Remember pages such as your login page.

  • Test, test, test to verify that your pages are secure. If your website is already serving on HTTPS, you can test its security level and configuration with the Qualys Lab tool.

The most common error is having “mixed content” on an https: page. That means one or more elements (usually images, flash files or CSS files) are being loaded on an https: page using a non-secure http:// URL.

To avoid errors, search for “http://”. Replace any instances you find with “http://”. FTP the changes to your web server and try testing again.

Visit this support page from Google for more information on implementing a SSL with an Adwords Account.

Bottom Line

Google currently uses over 200 signals that determine search rankings, but having a secure website may soon be a signal that affects your overall reach and visibility.

Who truly benefits? As an e-commerce retailer you may experience a small increase from the new algorithm change. As more and more site owners begin adding the SSL the benefit of this ranking signal will become diluted.

We’d recommend that retailers manage their expectations and proceed with caution. When was the last time Google announced it would give an organic ranking boost for adopting a particular type of site structure? Google has created thousands of videos and posts about quality guidelines that improve visibility, but has never said outright that it will “reward” you for a specific practice, which makes this first-time recommendation conspicuous.

 

Blog post by Tansy Obryant, ChannelAdvisor SEO strategist