The HTTP/2 protocol was published in 2015 with the aim of creating a faster, more secure Internet. Adoption has been gradual and is ongoing, but there are clear benefits for marketers who make the upgrade. So what exactly is HTTP/2 and how does it affect SEO?
The variety and quantities of information transferred on the Internet have changed dramatically in the past decade. Content formats are larger and more complex, mobile usage has increased significantly, and there is a growing global population of Internet users on a daily basis.
It is within this ever-changing landscape that a group of developers built SPDY (pronounced ‘speedy’, aptly enough), to build on the syntax of the original Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP).
As the name suggests, SPDY was developed with the core aim of finding faster ways to transport content on the Internet that would reduce page load speeds. SPDY was primarily developed by a group of Google engineers and it provided the platform for HTTP/2, towards which Google has now shifted its support.
HTTP/2, with the aid of some of those SPDY developers at Google, is an initiative driven by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to build a more robust platform for the Internet that is in keeping with the needs of modern users. It was published in May 2015 with the aim of refreshing the HTTP protocol, which has not seen any real radical overhauls since HTTP 1.1.
Most Internet browsers support HTTP/2, as do a growing number of servers, but according to W3Tech, only 13.7% of the world’s top 10 million sites have moved to this standard, as of May 2017.
That number is on the rise, however, and marketers should be aware of the implications of this significant upgrade.
What makes HTTP/2 different?
HTTP/2 is built on top of the same syntax as HTTP 1.1, so it serves more as a refresh than a complete overhaul. That is quite a purposeful decision, as the onus is on making this a smooth transition that brings benefits for Internet browsers, servers, and end-users.
- HTTP/2 is binary, instead of textual
- It is fully multiplexed, instead of ordered and blocking
- It can therefore use one connection for parallelism
- It uses header compression to reduce overhead
- It allows servers to “push” responses proactively into client caches.
At a conceptual level, this means that HTTP/2 reduces load times by improving the efficiency of communications between browsers and servers.
Rather than a sequence of exchanges between the server side and the client side, one connection can host multiple exchanges at once and, quite importantly, the server side can proactively make responses without waiting to be called.
Site owners can compress some of these resources to increase load speeds, but we require a fundamental change in browser-server communications to resolve these issues in the long term.
That’s exactly where HTTP/2 comes in.
On a practical level, these interactions between browsers and servers start to look as follows:
This simplified example serves an illustrative purpose, as we can see clearly how effective the HTTP/2 approach would be at a grander scale.
It does this by both making and receiving multiple calls simultaneously through one connection, rather than making them one at a time.
How effective is HTTP/2?
Given the stated importance of making the Internet faster for users, we can quite readily make comparisons to see how effective HTTP/2 is.
A HTTP Watch study compared different versions of the same page, in particular drawing a comparison between standard HTTPS and HTTP/2.
This waterfall chart shows the difference from a technical standpoint, and also the assumed benefits for a user.
The page loads 22% faster, providing a significant improvement to the end-user’s experience.
The comparison was made on quite a simple page, so the benefits can be extrapolated out to a wider data set containing more complex assets.
What does it mean for SEO?
As with so many website improvements nowadays, the SEO impact will be felt indirectly. Google does not factor HTTP/2 readiness into its algorithms, but it does reward sites that provide a slick user experience. That includes page load speed, so it is fair to say that moving to HTTP/2 will have a positive effect on a site’s SEO performance.
Mobile has been the focal point of efforts to increase speed recently and undoubtedly, mobile performance will be improved by the shift to HTTP/2.
Nonetheless, it is worth considering that a move to HTTP/2 has benefits across all devices and all digital channels, whereas new coding languages like AMP HTML have limited applications. The two can work very effectively in tandem, of course, but the benefits of HTTP/2 are particularly widespread and long-term.
As such, we should view HTTP/2 as a platform for faster, more secure digital connections, which can only be a positive for SEO.
What do marketers need to do to upgrade to HTTP/2?
First and foremost, your website will need to be on HTTPS. In fact, this is the most laborious part of moving to HTTP/2, as once your site is secured the process is really rather simple. There are hints at the importance of this move, as HTTP/2 is often referred to as a “faster, more secure” protocol for the modern Internet.
If your website is already secured, you may only have to update your server software to the latest version.
In fact, you may already be on HTTP/2 without necessarily knowing the switch has happened as part of a server update. You can use SPDYCheck to verify this.
There is a list of known HTTP/2 implementations on Github too, which is pretty exhaustive and is updated regularly.
Look at your analytics data to see where your visitors come from, but they most likely come from HTTP/2 friendly sources such as Google Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. Most browsers already support the new protocol, so the onus is on websites to make the switch.
It is also worth noting that if a site is on HTTP/2 and makes a connection with a resource that is still on HTTP 1.1, they will simply communicate in the latter language.
As such, there are no significant drawbacks to making this upgrade for site owners, but the rewards are long-lasting and will provide a better user experience. The SEO impact may be indirect, but it will still be felt as Google makes on-site engagement signals an increasingly important part of its ranking algorithms.
Please visit Search Engine Land for the full article.
Whether you’re a website owner or a website visitor, everyone wants a fast loading website which can carry out sensitive exchanges of information securely.
In 2014, Google announced that it was beginning to use HTTPS as a ranking signal, signalling an increased emphasis on secure connections from the world’s biggest search engine.
Then, last month, the news came that Google’s Chrome browser will begin displaying a “Not Secure” warning message for unencrypted webpages. This message will be displayed in the address bar of websites not running the HTTPS protocol. Imagine a situation where your visitors withdraw from your website after seeing this warning message.
Google does check whether your site uses HTTP or HTTPS protocol. It might not be a crucial factor if you are not very serious about your website. However, if you are an online business, this is not something to overlook – website visitors demand secure connections to the websites they are interacting with.
If you aren’t too familiar with the technicalities of SEO, working with HTTPS might seem a bit intimidating. However, it isn’t as complex as it seems to be. Also, the good thing is that you do not have to understand the behind-the-scenes work when it comes to implementing HTTPS.
So, is HTTPS important?
Yes, HTTPS is undoubtedly essential, and many websites have already made the shift.
At the time that HTTPS was announced as a ranking signal, it was only a “light” one and affected less than 1% of global searches. But Google warned that this could strengthen over time, and we have already seen with Mobilegeddon how Google can shake things up once it decides to put emphasis on a particular element of the web.
For a website that have a HTTPS protocol, the search bar in the browser will display a lock symbol, and on Google Chrome, the word “secure”. However, if it isn’t on HTTPS, you won’t see the symbol and users may consequently be more wary about what data they enter – especially if soon, they start to receive a warning about the site’s security.
Exhibit A: Search Engine Watch
Benefits of shifting to HTTPS
Makes your site secure
This is the most obvious benefit of shifting to HTTPS. When you are enforcing HTTPS on your site, you are guaranteeing that the information passed between the client and the server can neither be stolen nor intercepted. It is basically a kind of proof that the client’s data wouldn’t be messed with in any form.
This is great for sites that need the customers to log in and accept payments through credit or debit cards.
Okay, so if someone even does manage to intercept it, the data would be completely worthless to them. In case you are wondering why, it is because they obviously wouldn’t have the key to decrypt it. As website owners, you would have the key to do so.
You must have heard of middleman attacks. However, with HTTPS, it is close to impossible for anyone to trick your customers and make them think that they are providing their personal information to you, when in reality they are providing this to a scammer. This is where an SSL certificate comes into light.
Good for your site’s SEO
You definitely want your site to rank higher in the search engine results and HTTPS would contribute todoing that. With your site ranking higher, you would have more customers, an increased traffic and an improvement in your overall revenue. It’s not just us saying that – Google said so itself!
Now that you know all of its benefits, let’s look into the steps that you need to follow.
Getting an SSL certificate
SSL is the protocol that HTTPS uses and is something that you need to install. The SSL certificate would have your company name, domain name, address, country, state and your city. Several details including the expiry date of the certificate would also be mentioned here. Now, there are three different kinds of certificates that you can choose from.
Organization Validation and Domain Validation are the kind of certificates that you can get if you have an e-commerce site or a site that collects personal information from users. The third type, Extended Validation Certificates, are for testifying the legal terms of a HTTPS website.
You can purchase these certificates from a lot of websites. The prices differ, so compare them and then make a purchase. Once you have purchased one, get it installed.
Create your site’s URL map and redirect
The ‘S’ in HTTPS makes a huge difference in the URL. HTTP or HTTPS before your domain name are entirely different URLs. This implies that you would have to create copies of each and every page on your site and then redirect them. This redirection would be from your old HTTP page to the new HTTPS page.
It might all sound pretty complicated, but it isn’t in reality. Your URL map can just be a simple spreadsheet. When shifting from WordPress, all of the 301 (permanent) redirects can simply be added to the .htaccess file.
Work on getting at least one page working on the front end
You also have to work on getting your front end on HTTPS. If you’re not confident with the technical side of things, this can seem a little complicated. Therefore it is best to begin with just one page.
If you are an ecommerce site, you can begin with the page that accepts payments. This is the page where customers are sharing their personal banking details and therefore it has to be secure. There are several plugins available that can help you with this, such as WP Force SSL. With such plugins, you can easily force pages to be SSL.
Update internal links, images and other links
There will be several internal links throughout your site and these might redirect to your old HTTP page. If you have been using relative links, you have been lucky. However, if not, you would have to find each of the links and then correct it with the new URL. You would also need to correct links to other resources like stylesheets, images and scripts.
Also, if you use a content delivery network (CDN), you would need to make sure that the CDN supports HTTPS too. These days most CDNs support HTTPS, but not all of them. So, make sure that you check that too.
Re-add your site to Google Search Console
After you have made all the necessary changes, get Google crawling on it as soon as possible. If you don’t do it, your traffic would be affected negatively. But why is re-adding required? Well, it’s because a HTTPS site is considered a completely different and new site.
After that, submit your new sitemap in your new listing and above that, re-submit the old sitemap as Google will notice the 301 redirects and make the necessary updates.
Once you have carried out all of the steps, you may or may not notice a slight positive change in the search rankings. Whatever you do, make sure that the first step of installing an SSL certificate has been done correctly. Alternatively, you can also use plugins like Really Simple SSL, Easy HTTPS Redirection etc. to accomplish the task.
At the end of the day, the decision of switching to HTTPS is solely yours. If you just have a blog with an email newsletter that people can subscribe to, you might not need to make the switch. However, if you are an online business, switching to HTTPS would be a wise decision.
If you see some issues, keep researching and fixing them. Even if you’re not a technical person, it’s easier than you think.
In 2017 there has been a lot of focus around the impending mobile-first index and serving content through HTTPS. But there have also been two other important unfashionable topics lingering in the shadows: cybersecurity and site speed.
Since 2010, Google have publicly acknowledged that they take into account page load speed and site speed, and with tools like Page Speed Insights (along with a number of other third party solutions) we’ve been able to monitor and analyse our seconds.
However, balancing a quick page load speed and a great user experience hasn’t always been easy. As the internet has become a more and more important part of our daily lives, our online experience has evolved and we (as users) prefer much more visual content.
Big visuals also mean big image files, video files and potentially a lot of JS and CSS to fancy up the written text. This also means that there is more to load, therefore increasing load speed.
The reason that this is becoming more of an issue is because in 2015 mobile traffic overtook desktop traffic in a number of verticals, and mobile users browse everywhere; when they’re on the Wi-Fi at home, at work or using roaming data on the go. Users are noticing slow-loading pages; which means Google have noticed users noticing slow loading pages – and now Facebook has noticed slow-loading pages.
Identifying site speed issues
At the moment, with the noise surrounding mobile responsiveness and HTTPS, a lot of webmasters and development teams are being overwhelmed with changes. It’s also worth remembering that not everyone runs modern stacks or has a clean website; there are still a lot of big websites on legacy platforms.
That being said, there are a number of checks you can carry out that could make a big difference to your page load speed by refactoring your code.
Images and graphics play a big role in both delivering the message of the content and improving the user experience on a website. Getting rid of images isn’t viable, but compressing their file sizes is.
In some scenarios, the delivery of the images could also be optimized. If your images are quite far down a piece of content, utilize lazy-load solutions or even better, utilize a CDN like Cloudflare or Amazon CloudFront.
Another (and slightly less common) solution to improving page load speed is to utilize system fonts.
System fonts are the fonts that come pre-installed on your device. These are great options as they don’t have to be loaded, you simply call the system fonts in your CSS. That being said, choosing a system font can be tricky.
System fonts generally fall into two categories, optimized for screen and optimized for print. The main difference between these fonts is the detail. The only other issue with choosing a system font is that they are really over-exposed.
As every computer and device in the world (near enough) has them, they are not unique; so if typography is important to your brand, use custom fonts. But if Helvetica, Garamond or Seravek will do, use them.
Is AMP really the solution?
I couldn’t go through his whole article without mentioning AMP. AMP allows webmasters to create their slow, heavy pages but essentially serve their content through a new AMP page, that canonicals back to the original slow page.
Accelerated Mobile Pages seems on the surface to be an easy solution, especially for the big content publishers. But it’s not really a solution to the problem, more papering over the cracks.
What made these big sites slow and heavy in the first place is often tied very closely to how they generate revenue, advertising. Big banner adverts, banners spliced into content, overlays, auto play videos in the sidebars (yuck), all there to get your view and edge the website ever closer to another CPM payday.
With AMP, you don’t get to do it to the same extent and will lose out on potential revenue and ad views. How content is formatted is also very controlled, and the fact that Google hosts the content makes it a weird position to put the content publisher in.
Google is obviously willing publishers to utilize AMP and take advantage of the ranking benefits (AMP v non-AMP), but it still an odd situation to be in. A lot of webmasters have migrated to AMP as they manage large web properties that command a lot of traffic, but not because it is a logical business sense to do so, but because they are too afraid not to while their competitors make the move.
AMP is the right move for a number of websites, but I would assess all options first to speed up your website before boarding the AMP ship.
Producing a modern website that works for both SEO and users is not easy. It requires a lot of careful technical planning and development to ensure it contains useful, valuable content; that it’s secure; that it works on mobile; and that it’s fast.
Site speed can often be overlooked as a lesser priority, but it’s an extremely important part of the quartet. There are a number of free ways to test your site speed as well, and a lot of them provide good guidance on how to fix a lot of the issues.
Check out the latest stats on HTTPs adoption, and whether there's a correlation between SERP positions and HTTPS usage.
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