Debate on transitioning to HTTPS from HTTP

Recently, there has been a surge in debates surrounding the adoption of HTTPS for websites. I aim to delve into the SEO ramifications associated with this transition. While some websites seamlessly transition to HTTPS without any discernible impact on their search engine rankings and traffic, others encounter significant challenges.

This article endeavors to explore the potential hazards that an HTTPS migration might introduce to SEO efforts, as well as strategies to mitigate these risks. Furthermore, it will examine the notion that Google could potentially scrutinize websites more rigorously for quality when they migrate to HTTPS.

The decision to switch to HTTPS can have varied consequences for different websites. While some may experience minimal disruptions, others might encounter significant setbacks in terms of SEO performance. This article seeks to shed light on the factors that influence the impact of HTTPS migration on search engine rankings and traffic.

Understanding the intricacies of HTTPS migration is crucial for website owners. By comprehensively assessing the potential SEO implications and devising effective strategies, businesses can navigate the transition smoothly while safeguarding their online visibility and traffic.

Transitioning to HTTPS is not merely a technical endeavor; it entails profound implications for SEO. This article aims to dissect the complexities involved and provide actionable insights to help website owners mitigate risks and optimize their SEO performance amidst the migration process.

Is HTTPS a Decisive Factor in Search Engine Rankings?

Back in August of 2014, Google made a significant announcement affirming that HTTPS serves as a factor influencing rankings. This declaration prompted a flurry of website migrations from HTTP to HTTPS. Naturally, when Google emphasizes something as a ranking signal, it becomes imperative for webmasters to heed the advice and adapt.

However, just a month following this announcement, Google’s John Mueller shared a different perspective during a hangout session. He remarked, “I wouldn’t anticipate a noticeable shift in SEO rankings solely by transitioning from HTTP to HTTPS. The impact on rankings is rather marginal and nuanced. It’s not a change that will instantly elevate your site’s position in search results.”

While Mueller hinted that Google might bolster HTTPS as a more potent ranking factor in the future, presently, the transition to HTTPS isn’t likely to directly contribute to an enhancement in rankings.

In my view, HTTPS currently holds minimal significance as a ranking signal.

The Importance of Transitioning to HTTPS

While I don’t claim expertise in security matters, I recognize the critical need to address the risks associated with running a website on HTTP. To shed light on this issue, I recommend perusing a comprehensive post on the Google Developer’s blog, which adeptly elucidates the significance of HTTPS in accessible language. Should you prefer a condensed version, I’ve outlined key points below for your consideration:

  1. Ensuring the security of communication between users and your website is paramount, and HTTPS serves as a formidable barrier against potential intruders seeking to compromise this exchange. It acts as a shield, deterring malicious entities from tampering with the integrity of your site’s content. Intruders may attempt to inject unauthorized advertisements or coerce users into downloading malware, but HTTPS stands as a safeguard against such nefarious actions.
  2. Moreover, the adoption of HTTPS isn’t merely a matter of choice but a necessity, especially with the emergence of innovative browser features like Progressive Web Apps (PWAs). These modern functionalities demand the assurance of secure communication channels, making HTTPS an essential prerequisite. By adhering to HTTPS protocols, websites not only fortify their defenses against cyber threats but also unlock access to a plethora of cutting-edge capabilities that enhance user experiences.

The impact of the “non-secure” warning on user behavior remains uncertain. A significant exodus from such sites could lead to decreased visitor engagement, potentially impacting their rankings negatively.

For a comprehensive understanding of the security disparities between HTTP and HTTPS, exploring Troy Hunt’s articles is strongly advised.

Transitioning to HTTPS is advisable for most websites. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to acknowledge the potential SEO hazards associated with this transition.

Identifying SEO Challenges in Transitioning to HTTPS

In my role of assessing traffic drops for struggling websites, I often encounter issues stemming from the migration from HTTP to HTTPS. This transition, intended to enhance security and potentially boost rankings, can sometimes lead to unexpected setbacks. Here are several common pitfalls observed during such transitions:

Addressing Domain-Level Canonicalization Challenges

Ensuring all variations of a website correctly redirect to the HTTPS version is crucial. Some instances occur where one version, say “http://www,” redirects appropriately, but accessing the site without “www” leads to an insecure page. It’s imperative for all access attempts to seamlessly direct users to the correct HTTPS version.

Ensuring Proper URL Redirection

Each URL must effectively 301 redirect to its HTTPS counterpart. In some cases, while the homepage redirects correctly, inner pages fail to do so. Neglecting these redirects risks losing the benefits of existing links pointing to the HTTP version, potentially impacting ranking signals.

Mitigating Duplicate Content Issues

Maintaining both HTTP and HTTPS versions concurrently can result in duplicate content problems. While manageable for smaller sites, larger websites face challenges with crawl budget allocation and PageRank dilution. It’s essential to streamline the site structure to avoid redundant indexing.

Updating Canonical Tags

Canonical tags guide search engines on the preferred indexed version. Incorrectly pointing HTTPS pages to HTTP versions can cause confusion for search algorithms. Ensuring consistency in canonicalization is vital for maintaining search visibility.

Updating Internal Links

Transitioning to HTTPS necessitates updating internal links to reflect the new protocol. Absolute links pointing to HTTP pages must be revised to avoid redirects, minimizing potential PageRank loss associated with redirections.

Resolving Mixed Content Issues

Even though it may not directly affect rankings, resolving mixed content issues is crucial for overall site security. Ensuring all resources referenced on HTTPS pages are served securely is essential to avoid browser warnings and maintain user trust.

Updating Sitemaps

Creating a new sitemap after the HTTPS migration facilitates clearer communication with search engines. While search engines may adapt, proactively updating sitemaps ensures accurate indexing and crawling.

Migrating Disavow Files

Moving to HTTPS requires transferring disavow files to the new version. Failure to do so risks re-avowing previously disavowed links, potentially impacting site credibility and authority.

Maintaining Certificate Validity

Expired security certificates on HTTPS sites trigger browser warnings, deterring visitors. Regularly monitoring and renewing certificates is essential to maintain site accessibility and trustworthiness.

Preventing Hidden HTTPS Pages

Ensuring all HTTPS pages are visible and properly configured is crucial. Inadvertently exposed HTTPS pages without active certificates can lead to security warnings and indexing issues. Implementing canonical tags and redirects can mitigate such risks, or embracing HTTPS entirely can provide a long-term solution for security and indexing concerns.

Potential Impact on Adsense Earnings

Transitioning to HTTPS could potentially lead to a decrease in Adsense revenue for your website. A notable example is Barry Schwartz’s experience in 2014 when he converted Search Engine Roundtable to HTTPS, resulting in a significant 35% decline in Adsense earnings.

While Google has addressed this issue, stating that it’s been resolved, recent cases like Crunchify’s experience in August 2017, witnessing a 10% drop in Adsense revenue after migration, suggest otherwise.

If your site relies on Adsense for income and you’ve shifted to HTTPS, your feedback on any changes in Adsense earnings post-migration would be valuable. It’s crucial to update your Adsense code post-transition to HTTPS to avoid mixed content issues as described earlier.

Potential Loss of Social Share Metrics

A common repercussion of transitioning to HTTPS is the loss of social share counts. Remarkable articles with substantial Facebook likes could reset to zero after the migration, as observed in Rae Dolan’s experience documented post-HTTPS transition.

Facebook provides a workaround for this issue by suggesting adjustments to meta og:url tags, directing them to the old HTTP URLs. However, this workaround relies on the old URLs returning a 200 response, which isn’t the case if they’re redirected to HTTPS, resulting in a 301 response.

While there are various methods to regain lost social shares, the process is complex and not straightforward.

Therefore, transitioning to HTTPS may entail resetting social share metrics to zero, necessitating strategies to rebuild them.

Google stance on HTTP to HTTPS

Switching to HTTPS may trigger Google to reassess your website’s quality, presenting a significant concern during migration. While this aspect isn’t widely discussed, my experience with sites transitioning from HTTP to HTTPS highlights a genuine need for caution, especially for websites with potential quality issues.

When transitioning to HTTPS, Google interprets it as a site relocation, potentially subjecting all pages to a fresh quality evaluation.

Allow me to illustrate this concern with a recent case. Several months ago, I was urgently contacted to assist a business whose rankings for a primary keyword drastically dropped post HTTPS migration. While other pages maintained their positions, any searches involving this keyword yielded dismal results. Despite meticulous checks confirming correct redirects, internal links, and canonical tags, there were no apparent technical faults.

Upon closer inspection for quality issues, the homepage stood out for excessive keyword stuffing. This raised the question of how it previously ranked for the keyword.

It’s plausible that the HTTPS switch prompted a reevaluation, particularly by the keyword stuffing algorithm, which tends to be stringent with new assessments.

We embarked on rewriting the page, significantly reducing keyword density from over 200 to under 20 instances. Given the algorithm’s periodic reevaluation, we anticipated prompt improvements. Upon resubmitting the page, it reclaimed its top-ranking position within 12 hours.

While temporary ranking fluctuations post HTTPS migration aren’t uncommon, the isolated impact on one page for a specific keyword strongly suggests Google’s reassessment regarding keyword stuffing.

This phenomenon likely extends to other quality algorithms like Panda and Penguin. Consequently, for websites teetering on quality thresholds, transitioning to HTTPS warrants careful consideration.

Quality Drop?

Switching to HTTPS might prompt Google to reassess your website’s quality, which is a primary concern during migration. Although seldom discussed, from my observation of sites experiencing drops post-transition from HTTP to HTTPS, there’s considerable cause for worry regarding potential quality issues.

Upon transitioning to HTTPS, Google interprets it as a site relocation, potentially triggering a comprehensive reassessment of all pages’ quality. Identifying if your site teeters on the brink of quality issues is crucial. Employing blackhat SEO techniques or relying on manipulative strategies for ranking suggests your site’s precarious quality status. Consequently, transitioning to HTTPS could prompt a fresh scrutiny of your site’s quality, potentially rendering previously employed strategies less effective.

However, what if you haven’t made the switch to HTTPS yet? Monitoring Google organic traffic can provide insights. Analyzing traffic fluctuations coinciding with algorithm updates can be done via Google Analytics. By navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium and selecting Google/organic, you can identify patterns aligning with algorithmic changes, such as core quality updates, indicating potential quality drops.

Even if observed drops aren’t as stark as showcased examples, proceeding with HTTPS migration warrants caution. If Google detects quality concerns pre-migration, the transition might subject your pages to stricter scrutiny, possibly exacerbating existing issues.

Crucially, it’s essential to acknowledge that the notion of Google re-evaluating sites or pages post-HTTPS migration remains unproven. It’s a theoretical proposition derived from analyzing numerous sites that experienced declines despite correctly executing the migration process.

Should I Transition My Websites to HTTPS?

Despite highlighting potential SEO challenges associated with migrating to HTTPS, I firmly advocate for most websites to make the switch from HTTP to HTTPS.

For new website ventures, opting for HTTPS from the outset is advisable, mirroring our approach with our Wix SEO site.

If you operate an eCommerce platform, handle credit card information, or manage a website necessitating user logins, prioritizing the transition to HTTPS is imperative.

For other site owners, my suggestion is to strategize a transition to HTTPS within the next one to two years. Presently, the “non-secure” warning in URLs might not be a critical issue, but it’s poised to gain significance. Apart from emphasizing mobile-friendliness, Google’s insistence on HTTPS migration stands out as a prominent directive.

While I’ve delineated potential SEO stumbling blocks associated with HTTPS migration, the reality is that most websites make the transition seamlessly. HTTPS is rapidly becoming standard practice, and if you’ve been diligent in adhering to contemporary standards, you shouldn’t experience a decline in search engine traffic post-migration.

I manage a website comprising thousands of pages that I developed a decade ago, currently operating on HTTP. However, I intend to transition it to HTTPS in the near future. Given its heavy reliance on AdSense and extensive social media shares, I’ll closely monitor any developments and provide updates accordingly.

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