What is SSL? How does it affect SEO?

As a global leader in web searches, Google is relied upon by millions of companies around the world. For large companies with a major national or international presence, single search engine reliance can be a benefit, but for smaller businesses, keeping up with Google’s frequent updates and adjustments can be a significant undertaking. The factors that drive search algorithms, encompassing everything from a mobile website to appropriate metadata, are often complex, leaving website administrators with a constantly changing set of requirements to meet in order to stay relevant on the SERPs.

In general, it’s rare for Google to announce individual site changes that can yield better results; instead, the search giant prefers to keep content advice general rather than offering specific guidance. However, over the last few years, some specifications have been more detailed than others, especially in the wake of 2015’s Mobilegeddon. Another notable, explicit change? Rewarding sites that utilize HTTPS encryption.

An Introduction to URLs

Take a look at the address bar on your browser right now. What does it say?

In general, most web addresses start out similarly, generally with a hypertext transfer protocol, or HTTP, followed by a colon and two backslashes and, often, domain mapping that includes www. While the modern web is sophisticated enough to redirect appropriately even when these elements aren’t included in their entirety, web addresses in the URL bar typically display the full address, no matter how it was initially entered.

Now take a second look. Does the web address say HTTP, or HTTPS? HTTPS, or hypertext transfer protocol secure, is a higher security alternative to HTTP that is growing rapidly in popularity. In order for a site to display the HTTPS text at the beginning of a web address, a server must have its own SSL certification.

What is SSL?

SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, is a standard technology used to secure an encrypted connection between a client and a server, most often between a browser and a website. While not necessarily a requirement for simple sites like blogs, SSL allows secure transmittance of sensitive information, like credit card data and personal details like date of birth and Social Security Number. Normally, this information is sent in plain text, which can be vulnerable to attack, but SSL encrypts the data transmitted in order to provide an extra layer of security.

In order to create an HTTPS connection, both browser and server must have an SSL certification. SLL certificates must have two components, known as a key pair, made up of a public key and a private key, as well as a subject, or the identity of the website owner.

In order to obtain a certificate to create a secure connection, you need a certificate signing request, or CSR, on your server, to generate the key pair. Once this has been accomplished, you will be able to send the CSR data to the Certificate Authority, or SSL certificate issuer, that contains the public key. The Certificate Authority will then use the information provided to create a data structure for the private key without interfering with the key itself. After these steps are complete, you will receive an SSL certificate that can then be installed on your website.

SSL and SEO

Now that you know what SSL means and how it affects your web security, it’s time to consider what SSL encryption means for your SEO. Google has stated that SSL can boost web rankings, but there are other factors at play companies should realize.

SEO Advantages

In addition to Google rankings, SSL does carry a few other SEO advantages that may be advantageous to your business.

Increased Referrer Data

Knowing where web traffic originates is a major benefit for businesses, making it much easier to track what marketing resources are working and which ones aren’t attracting the intended interest. In general, when traffic travels from HTTP to HTTPS site, any referrer data is stripped, removing this valuable indicator in a way that can significantly impact your understanding of site effectiveness. Data to an HTTPS site, however, is always preserved, giving you a boost in the understanding of your unique web traffic dynamics.

Increased Security

Web security matters to users, especially when it comes to entering personal data. This makes it more likely that with SSL, customers will not only find your site but stay on your site, which can be beneficial to your overall page rank. The more traffic and transactions you receive, the better your site looks. In addition, enhanced security prevents tampering, making it less likely a security breach will affect your users or your site’s performance.

Potential Risks in SSL

Unlike many ranking factors, like keyword use, web presence, content quality, and responsive web design, SSL carries with it high costs and elevated risk, creating a logistical debate for many webmasters considering their options. In general, many of the advantages, like increased security and a boost in consumer trust, outweigh the disadvantages, but it’s up to each individual site owner to decide if what he or she is hoping to accomplish is worth the investment.

SSL can be very effective, but this generally involves some technical precision and skill. Moving an entire website to SSL can be a big effort, and if little pieces get left behind, the functionality of your site as a whole could be compromised. A few little mistakes can even lead to troublesome warnings that may scare away users, creating a headache out of something that was supposed to be a benefit. Speed can also be a factor; SSL can take longer to load, especially for large sites that already load slowly. To work around these issues, many sites do not apply SSL on a site-wide level, choosing to limit it to data-related functions like registration and checkout pages to increase security while lowering risks.

Google has been urging webmasters for years to make the switch to SSL, promoting benefits for more secure websites. With a boost in rankings, SSL does carry advantages, but incorrect usage can negate any upsides.

Is SSL Worth It?

You’ve learned what SSL means, how it impacts SEO, and what risks are involved. Does that mean SSL is worth it?

It would be nice if this question had one easy, straightforward answer, but unfortunately, that’s not how things work in the world of digital marketing. SSL may be the right choice for some businesses, but others, especially those with no need to collect sensitive information or businesses already at the top of the SERPs, may find it to be inconsequential. If you feel reasonably confident in your company’s ability to utilize SSL properly, taking the time to weigh risks, evaluate benefits, and ensure implementation is handled properly, this may be a positive step for you and your website. If not, however, charging into SSL when you’re not ready can mean big problems down the road.

As with many things in marketing, the right choice for one company is not necessarily the right choice for another. While many sites can benefit greatly from an investment in SSL to enhance site security, this is by no means universal. Google has made it clear that there distinct advantages, and rewards will come to those who handle the process properly, but as with any website upgrade, there are always risks to be considered. Balancing the ever-changing landscape of search engine optimization is never easy, but with due diligence, attention to detail, and a little creativity, it’s possible to find the perfect solutions to make the most of your web presence.

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