Since Google announced that it is considering HTTPS protocols as a ranking signal, SEOs have speculated on the real impact of having a secure connection to your page.

Our analysis shows that HTTPS could be making a significant impact.

Google officially announced that a HTTPS protocol is regarded as a positive signal to its algorithms in August 2014. A move, the search engine claims, that is designed to protect the safety, security and privacy of its users.

Google stated that, as a ranking factor, HTTPS would have significantly less weighting than other known ranking factors, such as content, domain authority and so on, but it is a factor nonetheless and one that the search engine may decide to strengthen over time.  

So a few months on from the announcement, how much of an impact is HTTPS having on search results and can we see any trends that demonstrate how much importance Google is placing on a secure connection?

Using our unique dataset, Roadmap, which consistently monitors search engine rankings and ranking factors across some of the most competitive and most heavily scrutinised SERPs, we have been able to assess the real impact of HTTPS.

Brands are switching to HTTPS

What the data does show, at a very top level, is that there is an increasing trend for HTTPS protocols to appear in search results in general, albeit a very slight one.

Just 5.52% of top 100 ranking pages in May 2014 featured a HTTPS protocol, but this figure has increased to close to 7% (6.93%) in November 2014.

Fig 1: Combined proportion of search results with HTTPS protocols across top 100 positions in Gambling, Travel, Retail, Legal and Finance sectors.

Whilst that does demonstrate an increase it doesn’t really indicate that Google is taking a hard stance in favour of HTTPS protocols, but remember that this is a ‘whole of market’ analysis, covering all key markets and all 100 positions within them.

What is happening on a sector by sector basis?

When we look at individual sectors, we start to see an increased number of results featuring the HTTPS protocol.

In the financial sector for instance, an industry where consumers would naturally expect and demand secure connections, there is a greater number of HTTPS pages ranking in search results.

The number of ranking pages has increased from 9.31% in May 2014 to 12.46% in November whilst in gaming, the number of ranking pages with HTTPS protocols has grown from 10.58% to 15.14% in the same period.

Getting on the first page

Whilst the above points to some form of trend, the relatively small figures don’t really suggest that Google is placing too big an emphasis on HTTPS connections in determining whether a site should rank.

However, when we look purely at the most prominent positions, we start to see more of an indication that HTTPS is playing a role.

For instance, when we look purely at the sites ranking in just the top five positions in the financial sector, we see the proportion of HTTPS results increase more notably.

In this case, we see an increase from 10.51% of ranking pages in the top five in May, to 17.41% in November – close to one fifth of top five search results in the financial sector.

Fig 2: Proportion of search results with HTTPS protocols across top five positions in the Finance sector.

That data looks at the financial sector as a whole but from what we can see, it is clear that Google is placing a much greater emphasis on security on some segments of that market that others.

Google has made no secret that the short term (or payday) loans market is one that it has been monitoring and looking to clean up for some time, so is Google using HTTPS as a mark of authority and trustworthiness here? Well, the simple answer is yes. 

The first graph represents the proportion of HTTPS results for the top 100 positions in the short-term loans vertical. Here, we see that around one quarter (25.23%) of ranking pages are HTTPS.

Fig 3: Proportion of search results with HTTPS protocols across top 100 positions in the short-term loans sub-sector.

However, when we look purely at the top five positions in the same vertical, the role that HTTPS plays is striking.

Fig 4: Proportion of search results with HTTPS protocols across top five positions in the short-term loans sub-sector.

Here, more than 70% of pages in the top five positions are behind a HTTPS protocol, compared with 36% in June. The message from Google here is clear – if you want to rank, a HTTPS protocol is extremely helpful.

Looking at the growth of HTTPS domains by position in this vertical in particular, we begin to see just how much of a role secure protocols are playing in the market.

Fig 5: Proportion of search results with HTTPS protocols by position for the short-term loans sub-sector.

The trend lines clearly demonstrate the prominence that Google is giving to secure protocols in the most prominent positions. Over the course of the last six months, fewer than half of the pages in the short-term loans market ranking in positions 10-20 have been HTTPS results, but as we start to move onto the first page, the picture is very different, particularly since November.

83% of position one results in this vertical are HTTPS pages, with 60% of position two results and 76% position three. 

But what about the lesser-scrutinised markets?

It’s true that the short-term loans sector gives us very easy and clear evidence that Google is favouring HTTPS. Google has publically gone on record that it is looking to clean up this particular SERP and a secure connection is a very easy indication for Google to identify authoritative brands in what is a much-maligned sector of the financial market.

However, we do see similar trends across the board, with HTTPS pages increasingly featuring in the most prominent ranking positions.

If we consider the most prominent sectors that Stickyeyes monitors; finance, gambling, insurance, legal, retail, and travel, we see a much less pronounced but nevertheless notable increase.

Fig 6: Combined proportion of search results with HTTPS protocols across top five positions in Gambling, Travel, Retail, Legal and Finance sectors.

If we take the legal sector individually, which for the purposes of our analysis includes markets for business services, clinical negligence, personal injury and wills and probate, we see a very significant weighting towards secure protocols for results in the top three positions.

Fig 7: Proportion of search results with HTTPS protocols by position for the legal sector.

It would appear that the ‘wills and probate’ section of the market is what is really driving this trend, with the proportion of HTTPS domains in the top three search results significantly out-stripping other verticals within this sector.

Fig 8: Which sub-sectors of the legal market are responsible for the greatest number of HTTPS results in the top three positions in the legal sector.

In fact, it would appear from our data that it is only the travel sector where HTTPS is not a strong factor behind whether a page ranks in the top three positions.

In fact, the proportion of secure protocol results ranking in the top three positions in the travel sector has actually fallen from 2.52% in May to 1.33% in November.

Fig 9: Which sectors are responsible for the greatest number of HTTPS results in the top three positions.

There are a number of possible explanations for this. The travel sector is more heavily influenced by aggregators than other sectors in this dataset and results in these SERPs have a greater weighting on the delivery of content, rather than transactional sites.

A lack of competition is also likely to be a factor, with the SERPs tending to be dominated by a very small number of established brands. The similarly low proportion of retail pages with HTTPS protocols could also suggest that site size is a potential factor.

Is depth of range a factor?

Both travel and retail sites typically have a significantly bigger depth of pages than other transactional sites. They tend to have much more diverse product or service ranges than other sectors and, consequently, they have significantly more pages (for instance, product or hotel listings, category pages, etc) and they deliver more content.

Whilst these are still essentially transactional sites, the sheer number and diversity of pages gives Google more to work with.

We can see parallels with this specifically in the gambling sector. Typically, sports bookmaking websites tend to be significantly larger than other sites within the gambling sector, largely because every individual event is listed on its own indexed URL and, because of the nature of sporting events, the lifetime of those URLs is very short. Poker websites can also vary in size, with a very strong emphasis on content (such as game advice, tournament information, etc).

Conversely, bingo and casino websites tend to be significantly smaller. The games served on these sites tend to remain on a single static URL for a considerable period of time. As a result, Google has fewer pages to index. In this case, HTTPS can potentially be a bigger signal of trust and authority. 

Fig 10: Screenshot of the Google SERP for casino, in which four of the top five positions have a HTTPS protocol.

So how does HTTPS influence the search rankings? Well, we see quite clearly that in the casino and bingo SERPs, HTTPS sites make up a significantly greater proportion of the top three search positions.  

Fig 11: Proportion of HTTPS search results in each sub-sector of the gambling market for the top three positions.

This suggests that Google isn’t necessarily looking for HTTPS protocols anymore than it is any other ranking factor. Instead, Google is merely looking for the most relevant content for the query – no real surprises there.

To suggest that HTTPS is a way to increase your chances of ranking is extremely simplistic, but in sectors and industries where smaller sites and fewer ranking pages are the norm, it is clearly an indication of trustworthiness.

What can we learn from this?

Whilst we have demonstrated that HTTPS is growing in prominence as a ranking factor, it isn’t indicative of a wholesale focus on secure connections from Google.

Protecting users is very much in Google’s interests so we would expect to see these trends continue in the coming months and beyond. This will undoubtedly filter out some of the more unscrupulous operators from the marketplace who will not or cannot meet the criteria and the expense of certification for secure protocols.

For smaller sites, particularly in highly regulated and monitored markets, HTTPS is undoubtedly a must if you want to increase your chances of appearing in the most prominent positions.

However, offering content that Google and, more importantly, your audiences can use is clearly still what is going to make your search strategy.

Michael Hewitt

Published 19 November, 2014 by Michael Hewitt

Michael Hewitt is Content Marketing Manager at Stickyeyes and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with Michael on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

It may be sensible to switch to HTTPS for many reasons, but I don't think the information in this article really aids a balanced decision.

It's the biggest cliché in marketing stats, but this is one of the few articles where 'correlation is not causation' should actually be a red flag.

In the middle of the article, there's this line:

"The message from Google here is clear – if you want to rank, a HTTPS protocol is extremely helpful."

The summary gives this line:

"For smaller sites, particularly in highly regulated and monitored markets, HTTPS is undoubtedly a must if you want to increase your chances of appearing in the most prominent positions."

But the analysis here is a bit like me noticing the number of pink cars on a street full of millionaires has increased and declaring "pink cars make you a millionaire".

In order to get a little closer to answering the question in the headline, it would be great if you could drill into some of those segments and answer:

1. Have the sites which have switched to HTTPS gone up? (how much?)
2. Have sites which have not switched to HTTPS gone down? (how much?)
3. Have 1 & 2 happened to an extent that is significant, or enough that a reasonable assumption could be drawn even though we're looking at just one among hundreds of variables?

Sorry for the negative (but hopefully useful) reply. Thanks for the hard work that went into researching & writing.

dan

over 3 years ago

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Gareth Rowlands

Very interesting - but how sure are you that the increase in the proportion of sites in the top 5 that have https is not just a reflection of the sites that care about SEO (and were already in the top 5) deciding that they need https since the Google announcement?

over 3 years ago

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Robert Broley

I think that just buying a ssl is a bit of a cliche to honest. I cant see a digital agency buying one as they are not needed and I think Google can work out from your site and data whether or not your site needs an ssl.

Unless you are taking online payments then yes its a good idea but if you are not then I simply would not bother.

over 3 years ago

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Peter Meinertzhagen

Was just about to reply with sentiments matching yours exactly, Dan.

It's very likely that those in top positions in Google care about their top positions and therefore are more likely to switch to HTTPS in an attempt to have an upper hand. This definitely doesn't show that HTTPS is a necessity.

over 3 years ago

Jack Stevens

Jack Stevens, SEO at Shine Search

Got to say I agree with Dan on the most part.

And surely, if more people are switching their websites to HTTPS then there will naturally be more HTTPS website to be indexed and there the percentage is bound to grow.

I still think were quite a way away from seeing a comprehensive overview from a few industries of the "before and after" effect of HTTPS. And anyone making the change is surely involved heavily in an active SEO Strategy and so will be engaging in a number of other activities to try and aid their SEO efforts so how can they attribute the uplift purely to HTTPS.

At the moment, I'm unconvinced, but appreciate it could have a longer term place in the market...

over 3 years ago

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Jon Smith

This does not clear this matter up at all, to truly show the impact of Https on rankings you need to show the rankings of sites without https then with https. I was going to share on LinkedIn but I feel I am just creating rumours

over 3 years ago

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Howard Phillis

Yes I agree with Dan, sounds very much like the "eating ice cream causes drowning" argument

over 3 years ago

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Sam Silverwood-Cope

A good article, but yes agree with Dan regarding causation and correlation.

In my experience the gambling sector only has a couple of players that really care about SEO - so for that reason, most probably haven't got round to changing to HTTPs on the whole - whether it increases positions or not.

The short term loan sector is far more competitive and will try all techniques for prominence in search.

I'll try and get some data to see how the the short term loan pages have changed positions due to HTTPs.

over 3 years ago

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Daniel

I read through the article shaking my head as I scrolled down, waiting for the evidence that supported the assertions made.

However, Dan has eloquently made the point about 'causation and correlation'. There is no evidence that HTTPS has had any impact on the rankings, or if it has, how much of a factor it is.

Lots of pretty graphs, trendlines and bold statements - but no evidence to support them unfortunately.

over 3 years ago

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David Hurst

Whilst HTTPS probably does have an impact, I would expect that Google is smart enough to recognise industry sectors that actually warrant a secure connection. The assumption that applying a secure certificate to any site will deliver ranking benefits, is unfounded.

Cases in point, we have tried this on three major sites in different sectors and have noticed no tangible difference at all.

Additionally, given that the majority of web servers are LAMP, and in particular running a version of Apache that does not support name based virtual hosts for SSL, enabling HTTPS requires a dedicated IP address. And, since the vast majority of the Internet is still not properly IPv6 enabled, those IP addresses would need to be IPv4. Therefore, if Google actually are doing this, it would be more than a little irresponsible considering the global shortage of IPv4 addresses.

over 3 years ago

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Osvaldo Spadano

Dan hit the nail on the head.

Any business, especially Online Retailers, should be careful with implementing HTTPS to the whole site, just because a random SEO expert within the organisation or agency says so. There are implications, specifically regarding performance, that should be taken very seriously. Response time and page load time performance have much greater weighting than HTTPS on ranking, so trading one for the other might not be a smart move.

The performance issues are related to the additional time taken to establish SSL connections, which can trickle down when many different 3rd party scripts are used (and they are always on the increase).

In some cases, such as when using the Magento Enterprise Edition e-commerce platform, it can significantly slow down the whole site by a factor of 10 or more.

For more details, here is a blog titled "Why Google’s advice on HTTPS will screw your Magento site", which was written after Google's announcement, with a few tips and some practical help to avoid the big issue with Magento Enterprise Edition's Full Page Cache - http://www.elastera.com/blog/why-google-advice-on-https-will-screw-your-magento-site/

Best,

Osvaldo

over 3 years ago

Michael Hewitt

Michael Hewitt, Content Marketing Manager at Stickyeyes

Thanks for the comments folks – always welcome some healthy debate! I think one point I would accept is that I’ve probably been a touch too committal and definitive in some of the statements made.

This analysis was always going to be one that looked for indicative trends, and I think that we have identified a couple of examples where there appears to be an indication that Google may favour secure connections. It was never our intention to say if this is definitely an influential ranking signal or not, but rather to demonstrate what is going on across the board since Google announced that HTTPS was a factor.

What the data does tell us it that a greater number of HTTPS sites are now ranking higher than ever before, and that this is a larger consideration in some markets than others. Whether those sites were already ranking in high positions is a different question but, even if high ranking sites have simply switched to HTTPS, doing so definitely hasn’t had an adverse effect on their rankings.

Dealing with correlation data on a daily basis, we fully understand causation and this is always going to be a subjective area – and perhaps one that we should have caveated more heavily. In terms of the three questions Dan posed on this matter, this ultimately comes down to measuring signal influence – data that we also track but don’t typically share (but will do for Dan!).

Again, data can be cut hundreds of ways to give different results but what we have does demonstrate the most recent change in URLs to HTTPS on a domain vs the ranking change.

September vs October http://www.stickyeyes.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/graph1.png
August vs September http://www.stickyeyes.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/graph2.png

As you’d expect there are numerous cases where each of the possible scenarios occur. When looking at the two most recent months, the data very slightly trends towards the top right quadrant. This doesn’t mean it does or doesn’t haven’t an impact but it is an indication that more domains have benefited from this than not. Either way, we certainly wouldn’t expect it to have a huge impact on ranking movement as an isolated factor.

For those that don’t have access to these levels of trended data, the majority of the 200 signals we’ve historically analysed for influence have a similar strength trend (some positive, some negative) to our HTTPS example. In fact, we’ve not seen a signal which has a highly positive or negative influence in pure isolation. Where we’ve seen slightly larger indication of influence is when we’ve combined signal data (e.g. change in one signal + change in another signal vs. ranking change), but that’s likely another story for another day.

Could all those sites experiencing positive movement also have made other changes which positively impacted their ranking? Absolutely! There is no way to definitively isolate a signal’s impact. Looking at our larger dataset, the influence across any isolated ranking signal is typically minimal; it is the cumulative impact that starts to show change. Without sharing the data across hundreds of signals, what we can say is that whilst the influence of HTTPS may be minimal, it is currently positive.

I think there is ultimately a message of, whether it is as a result of deliberate Google intervention or simply a move by savvy SEOs, HTTPS sites rank in some highly competitive and scrutinised markets. We don’t suggest that moving to HTTPS will earn you a place on the front page and we certainly don’t want to suggest that HTTPS is a necessity (although I concede it may come across like that). That said, it seems clear that having a HTTPS protocol isn’t going to hurt your domain, particularly in certain sectors.

over 3 years ago

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Clerkendweller

If you do move to "HTTPS only" make sure you do it right. Checklist:

* HTTPS for "internal" access too
* Redirect configurations
* Third party hosted content all HTTPS too
* Certificate names
* Certificate signature using SHA2 (not SHA1 or MD5)
* Consistent intermediate certificates
* HTTP Strict Transport Security header (and submission to Google's preload cache)
* Secure flag on cookies
* Consider certificate pinning

And then ensure that SSL/TLS is configured robustly.

over 3 years ago

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