Should You Make the HTTPS Switch in 2015? Might As Well Flip a Coin
Update (5/31/17): We've changed our stance on whether or not you need HTTPS since this post was originally published. See our updated opinion on HTTPS here.
Back in August, Google officially announced that HTTPS was becoming a ranking signal. The move was intended to stress the importance of security—something that continues to be a major problem on the web. Many website owners and SEOs panicked and rushed to buy an SSL certificate even though Google said it was a lightweight signal that would affect less than 1% of all search queries. Four months later, the question remains whether or not it's a necessary move.
HTTPS Post Haste
The rush to switch to HTTPS was primarily based on two factors:
1. Many people in the industry tend to follow whatever Google says without giving it too much thought.
2. Some speculate that while HTTPS is only a lightweight signal now, it will become a major ranking factor in the future.
There have been plenty of attempts to quantify just how big of a factor HTTPS has become (or will become). In early September, Searchmetrics reported that HTTPS had no discernible ranking benefit in Google. In October, Google's Gary Illyes reported that 30% of first page Google results contain at least one website using HTTPS. While that report may sound impressive, it doesn't actually provide any evidence that HTTPS is responsible for any of those page-one rankings. In fact, there's a good chance that most of the sites would be on page one even without HTTPS (e-commerce sites excluded).
At the same time, some website owners and SEOs have complained of lost rankings after switching to HTTPS. Of course, this could be the result of user error. From slower load times to improper site transfers, there is plenty to worry about when making the change.
While some sites have already made the switch, many others are on the fence. As we approach 2015 and budgets reset, there may be more site owners looking to purchase an SSL certificate in an effort to boost rankings. But how much does it really matter?
HTTPS is…Just a Tiebreaker
Almost four months after the official announcement, we have a fairly definitive answer—at least for now. HTTPS is essentially a tiebreaker. If all other ranking signals are identical for two websites—domain authority, relevance, load time, etc.—then an SSL certificate will be the deciding factor. The HTTPS site will appear just ahead of the non-HTTPS site. Google's Gary Illyes confirmed this recently in an interview with Stone Temple Consultants:
"All things being equal in two results, it can make a difference for the result that is using the HTTPS protocol. It’s important to note though that we use hundreds of signals to rank our results, and while the HTTPS signal is one of them, it doesn’t carry as much weight as relevance for example."
So how often do the search results depend on tiebreakers? That's something we don't know, but probably not often enough to make HTTPS a top priority for your site. In other words, you won't get ahead of your more relevant competitors just because you buy an SSL certificate.
Of course, the question remains of what will happen if all things are equal and both sites have HTTPS. Then we're back to the old virtual coin-flip.
Should You Switch?
Here's the bottom line: Ask yourself if SSL is really necessary for your site. In other words, do you need SSL to conduct business online? If you have an e-commerce site, then the answer is obviously yes. If your site is primarily used for lead generation, then probably not.
If you are planning to switch to HTTPS solely for the ranking benefit, then you should first reevaluate how you stack up on bigger ranking factors. Unless your site is perfect (and it's probably not), then HTTPS doesn't need to be your next move. There are probably over a hundred other things you could improve first.