SEO considerations when moving from HTTP to HTTPS
Back in March 2014, Matt Cutts gave the audience at SMX West a little tip that making a site secure (i.e. using Secure Sockets Layer or SSL encryption) was going to trend in 2014. Matt wanted to ensure that sites that utilize SSL encryption would see a ranking boost within Google, however at the time there were some people at Google that did not agree with him, nor did they want this to happen.
Well, only a couple of weeks ago Google announced that using SSL encryption will give sites a ranking boost within Google’s SERPs. Although away on leave, Matt Cutts did tweet about this new update on the 7th August 2014:
Within the post tweeted; Google has published some clear guidelines on what they expect to see from a site using HTTPS (aka HTTP over Transport Layer Security or TLS). They also confirmed that due to the positive response, they’ve made this a positive signal for ranking websites, however they also state that this is a very “light-weight signal” and will only affect less than 1% of global search queries. The secure signal will apparently carry less weight than other signals such as a website containing high-quality content, but may become a stronger signal in the future.
It’s still early days and although Google has given some guidelines on what they want to see from a website, there are a number of other aspects from an SEO perspective to take into account when moving your website from HTTP to HTTPS.
Tips when moving HTTP to HTTPS
Moving your website from HTTP to HTTPS is very much like migrating your website to a new URL structure, or even moving to a brand new domain. Past experience has told us that there’s so much that can go wrong if things aren’t implemented correctly.
Google has given some guidelines on moving to HTTPS here and here, and Barry Schwartz over at Search Engine Roundtable covered the topic too. There are also a few other SEO aspects that you should take into consideration before you commit to moving your website to HTTPS.
Firstly, you need to choose the right level of certification (i.e. 2,048 bit certificate) from an accredited/trusted provider. Once you’ve completed this step, there are a few other SEO considerations that will be important to migrating successfully:
- Ensure all your internal links point to the new HTTPS URLs.
- Ensure any external links and new social shares point to the new HTTPS URLs, if you’re still getting links to the old HTTP version of your website Google can become confused and you won’t see the benefit that these new links have the potential to pass on to your website structure. Google won’t be able to decipher which is the most authoritative page that deserves a higher ranking.
- Ensure that all rel=canonical tags within your HTML don’t point to the old HTTP version. Once you move over to HTTPS these tags must be changed to the new HTTPS URLs, as this helps Googlebot understand which version of the page should be used to rank. Again, if you still point to the HTTP version then Google will once again become confused over what page should be ranking in the SERPs.
- Ensure that you’ve mapped out the new HTTPS URLs on a page-to-page level – you basically want an exact duplicate URL structure the only thing that is changing is that ‘http://’ will become ‘https://’.
- Once you’ve got these in place you then want to implement a permanent 301 redirect on a page level. Do not 301 redirect everything (either via global or via a wild card redirect) to the home page as this will kill all your rankings overnight.
- Finally, you need to watch your Webmaster Tools account post go live and monitor for any issues Google may be having with your new HTTPS website.
Following these points will ensure that your website has the best chance of maintaining its current rankings. The reason why I say best chance is because with Google, any major change to a website, even if done correctly, can still result in either short term or long term ranking drop or fluctuation. This could be from just a small drop in one or two places for a few days to some major drops that could last for weeks or even months. Rectifying any problematic change to a website can take time to recuperate, especially with Google’s re-crawl and re-indexation rates.
Here’s an example of a website that recently underwent a URL migration mid-2013, and then a domain migration in early2014 of which the above recommendations were not followed (N.B. this was a standard migration and not a HTTP to HTTPS migration, however the move is essentially the same and as you can see, this particular website hasn’t yet fully recovered):
On a side note and from a business perspective, it might be a good idea to implement this level of change during a quiet period of the year. If Christmas is a busy time of year for you for example, then I’d recommend holding off on this change until the New Year. That way if any major mistake is made, or if Google takes a while to update things, it won’t affect your revenue stream from Google too much. This also gives you a little bit more time if something does go wrong and you need to fix things, whilst you wait for Google to re-index and rank the HTTPS URLs
Reasons NOT to move to HTTPS
One other consideration is to not make the move from HTTP to HTTPS if you have an already existing issue or penalty with Google in place. If you make this move whilst under a manual or algorithmic penalty, it may cause Google to think that you’re trying to escape the penalty and they may lose even more trust with your website making things even harder to recover from. I’d recommend that you fix any existing issue Google is having with your website first, whether it be a links based (Penguin penalty) or content based (Panda penalty) issue and then make the move over to HTTPS.
Finally, if you think that moving your website to HTTPS is going to fix any existing issues or is going to happen without any difficulty, then think again. In the eyes of Google this will be seen as a massive change to your website, and you have to be very careful to get things right to avoid damaging your rankings. With regards to any existing issues or penalties, Google will eventually figure things out and pass on the existing penalty to your new URL structure.
The important thing to remember is to treat the migration from HTTP to HTTPS as important as a URL or domain migration -if done wrong it can have a detrimental effect on your organic visibility within Google. It’s also important to bear in mind the signals your website is sending to Google. If any signals around your HTTP URLs remain, or are created in the future, this can cause Google to become confused and they may rank the wrong page. Help Googlebot to find the new HTTPS pages on your website by keeping things simple; any confusing signals can take Google a long time to figure out and update things in its SERPs.
Finally, do expect some ranking issues -as mentioned earlier, even when done right, a site can hit some ranking turbulence while Google works out the change. Following these recommendations will give your website the best chance of holding its current position.
Just remember, if you don’t get this right it can completely destroy your rankings within Google and can take a lot of cleaning up on your part. If you’re unsure, or need further support on moving your website from HTTP to HTTPS, then get in touch with us and we’d be more than happy to help.
We’d also be interested to hear your experience with moving from HTTP to HTTPS in the comments below – was it a success?Did you have any issues? Did you maintain rankings throughout? If not, how long did it take you to recover and what did you do?