Typically, we have always thought that only ecommerce websites needed to be secure or use HTTPS. That has since changed, due to an announcement from Google about at year ago that said it planned to use HTTPS as a ranking single in its organic search algorithm. Google encouraged all website owners to “switch from HTTP to HTTPS” to “keep everyone safe on the web.”
Considering Google’s recommendation, should you switch your local business website to HTTPS, even if you don’t take credit cards online? If so, what are the benefits and, conversely, the drawbacks? This article addresses both questions and walks through the steps to transition from HTTP to HTTPS.
HTTPS as a Search Engine Ranking Factor
A year after Google’s announcement, I have yet to see any website owners report huge ranking increases based solely on moving their site to HTTPS, including those I was personally involved in, counting my own.
A few research studies attempted to determine the effect that moving a site to HTTPS would have on search engine rankings. Each drew the same conclusion: There is no significant ranking benefit. Not one.
Although, just like the studies, I failed to see any particular ranking increase for my site — BillHartzer.com — I did notice a jump in page views. Before the change to HTTPS, visitors only visited one or two pages; now, they’re viewing more.
I think this has less to do with better search engine rankings, however, and more to do with the fact that visitors have greater confidence in the site because it is secure.
That said, transitioning to HTTPS could “indirectly” result in better search engine rankings. Allow me to explain.
During the move — and even prior to moving — you will want to “crawl” your site to find all of the pages listed on it.
A crawler is web software that will visit each page, just like a search engine. As it scans the site, it will save certain information, such as the URL, title tag, and other link data, to determine which pages link to others.
You may discover problems with pages and internal links during the process. Fixing those will ultimately cause you to clean up the site, which, in turn, may help your search engine rankings.
The kinds of problems you could encounter include:
- Pages that redirect to other pages (the links on your site are not up to date);
- Pages that are “not found”;
- Old web pages that you thought were deleted but still exist;
- Links to other sites that you didn’t know about or had forgotten;
- Links to an outdated page or a website that no longer exists:
- Links to two versions of a web page;
- Page title tags that are missing or duplicated;
- Meta description tags on the site that are missing, duplicated, or too long;
- Broken images or missing image “alt” attributes:
- Hacking activity. Sometimes, website owners don’t know that hackers have accessed their site and placed links or pages on it — something that happens quite often, unfortunately.
How to Move Your Website to HTTPS
Follow these steps to move your site to HTTPS.
Scan your site using a website crawler tool prior to the move. (I recommend Screaming Frog SEO Spider.) Use the data the crawler gathers to do the following:
- Make a list of all of the internal pages on your website. You may even have subdomains (e.g., support.yourdomain.com) that need to be on the list. You’ll use this list to set up 301 Permanent Redirects on the web server from HTTP to HTTPS.
- Review your internal links and fix them. Make sure that when someone clicks a link on your website, it points to an HTTPS URL rather than an HTTP URL. You can also use the crawler data to find out which pages link to other pages within the site so that you can update them to the new location.
- Identify all other files that need to be updated. For example, if your website has images (and most do), update the internal code so that it points to the HTTPS image file, and not HTTP. The same goes for CSS files as well as others, such as “.JS” files.
- Ask your web host to install an SSL (secure socket layer) certificate. You will need to purchase a certificate. Costs range between $30 – $100 per year. You can get one installed for free if you switch your site to CloudFlare, a service that filters out your website’s “bad” traffic before it hits your web server and caches the pages that haven’t been updated so that they load faster.
- Identify all of the links pointing to your website. Use a backlink tool such as Majestic, Open Site Explorer, or Ahrefs to figure out which links are the most important and update them to point to the HTTPS version of your website.
Begin moving the site once your web host has installed the SSL HTTPS certificate. You’ll need to set up the proper redirects, contact link owners, and crawl your website to ensure all of your internal links point to HTTPS pages, not HTTP.
Notify the search engines when you have moved the site and made certain it is functioning properly. Verify the new version of the website in the Google Search Engine Console (formerly called Google Webmaster Tools) and Bing Webmaster Tools.
Most likely, you will find problems to address as you go through the process, including technical issues like server errors or 404 errors (404 is Internet-speak for “page not found”). These will inevitably pop up during the crawl of your site, and you’ll be able to fix them at that time.
Negatives of Moving to HTTPS
The benefits of moving your website to HTTPS outweigh the negatives. There are a few, however, including the fact that you are required to purchase an SSL certificate and that setting up HTTPS calls for a good deal of technical expertise.
You’ll need someone who is well-versed in web server issues to help with the move, or you can work with your web hosting company to assist with the transition. If you lack the technical knowledge required to deal with these issues, however, it’s best to hire someone who has the expertise.
I’ve also seen problems arise when a move was done improperly. In one case, the technical SEO team was not notified. Internal links were not fixed and the website’s sitemap file (the file that tells the search engines all of the URLs on the site) still referenced the HTTP version. As a result, the site saw a drop in search engine rankings.
There are several benefits of moving your website to HTTPS, even if yours is a local business, and you don’t deal with sensitive data, such as taking credit cards.
Visitors will trust you and your business more if your website is secure. Although the search engine ranking benefits are minimal at this point, invariably, they will increase over time. By going through the process of moving to HTTPS, you’ll have a chance to review the technical SEO factors and fix existing issues.