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.