Moving to https

Rationale is building for moving your site to https but the http to https SEO impact can be considerable and you should take the necessary steps to reduce any negative after-effects. In this article we explain why https migration matters and the steps you can take to ensure a seamless transfer and minimal impact on your SEO.  

What is the difference between http and https?

If you’ve ever seen “https” or “http” in the web address of a website (e.g., you might have wondered what it stands for. 

These are technology protocols that make it possible for website servers to transfer data through to your browser (such as Chrome), so that you can view and interact with websites and links.  Without these protocols the web would look very different from what we know now. 

HTTP: Hyper Text Transfer Protocol

HTTP stands for “Hyper Text Transfer Protocol” and is the technology used to talk between web servers (where website data is held) and web users (through their web browsers). 

HTTPS: Secure Hyper Text Transfer Protocol

HTTPS is similar to “Hyper Text Transfer Protocol” but with the important addition of a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) that encrypts the data being passed from servers to browser.  For example, if you gave your credit card or personal details in a form, that data would be encrypted as it was transferred through the web to the companies using it.  You will know when a site is using SSL because the web address will change from http to https at the beginning e.g.  It is rare to find an online shop or site with sensitive customer data not already using this protocol.  However, a large proportion of other sites, such as standard brochure sites, are still relying on http, given that previously there was no real need for SSL as there was no real sensitive data to handle.  However, increasingly more sites are moving over as they realise the benefits to https and SEO effects this has.  However http to https SEO can be considerable and the right steps must be taken to mitigate.

Why do I need to move my website to https?

Enhanced Site Security

There are various reasons to make the switch but the primary one is that it will ultimately make your site more secure and trustworthy.  There are legislative changes this year to the handling of customer data, with large penalties for misuse or negligence.  An https online environment will help you to make customer data and your site more secure in general.  You can learn more about the rationale behind https and SEO effects here.    

Google Chrome intends to mark all http sites as “not secure” by July 2018

This has been humming in the background for some time now; but a recent blog post by Emily Schechter (Chrome Security Product Manager) has given a date of July 2018 to start marking all HTTP sites as “not secure”, alongside the release of Chrome 68.   This means that your site will display the bottom message if still using just http protocol.  Obviously this doesn’t look particularly user-friendly and may put off visitors to your site.

Google using https as a ranking factor

Perhaps the most subtle but certainly not the least important is that Google takes https protocol into account when ranking sites in search results.  HTTPS was officially acknowledged as a ranking signal in 2014 and, although there are no plans to increase the weight of this signal, we do know that Google favours any site that gives trusted user signals and so it should be considered within any search strategy.    You can view some expert opinions on why https and SEO matters to your website here

Visitors will trust it more

Web users are increasingly bothered about what will happen to their data.  Studies have shown that, even with non-sensitive sites, users will trust those with https and secure signals more.  A big red warning sign from a web browser about a site being less secure will no doubt make users think twice about visiting, especially as more sites make the switch over and the message becomes less common.

It won’t function well with http2

http/2 is starting to be rolled out by content delivery networks and web hosting companies.  To get the vast performance benefits that come with http/2 you will need to be using https because of browser support.

You get better referral data in Google Analytics

Without an https site, referral data from other https sites is blocked within Google Analytics.  So, you just don’t see the source of all the traffic coming from https sites linking to your content, it just goes into “direct traffic”.

What is the process of moving my site to https?

Site migration from http to https can have a considerable impact on search rankings if not updated correctly.  The involved steps, such as accessing htaccess and updating internal links, are not simple jobs and should only be performed by someone trained and knowledgeable in these areas.  “Having a go” at this process could have significant impact on your rankings.   

Google treats a change to https pretty much as it would changing to a whole new domain name.  So, by implementing https, you are effectively changing the page addresses for all of the pages on your site – none of which Google will have indexed.  All of a sudden it will be sending searchers to web pages that no longer exist, as they will be using http protocol.


Google user searches for ABC SEO Agency

Google serves the web page it has crawled, indexed, knows and loves.

When the user clicks, that page no longer exists, it has been replaced by instead.

But Google has no idea that this page exists.  The user gets a 404 error message.  Google logs this as a bad user experience and thinks… ‘Well, I won’t send anyone there again.”  Hey presto, your search rankings drop through the floor.  The http to https SEO impact can be seen straight away.

All of the work that you have done in helping Google identify and rank the pages on your current site could be undone overnight with a migration to https if the correct steps are not taken.

How can I make my https migration SEO-friendly?

Of course, Google is not going to recommend something that is going to negatively impact sites that have taken the time and effort to create great user-friendly, content rich sites that perform well. With the right steps, and following Google’s guidance, you can ensure a smooth migration that does not impact your SEO (although it may wobble for a tiny bit so probably stay away from any big campaigns!)  Below are our recommended steps for an SEO-friendly https migration.  However, we would always recommend the use of a professional agency if you do not have the experience within this area.  At CX Marketing, we can complete your https migration and ensure that you do not lose that valuable search equity.  Talk to us about how we can help.    

  1. Take a url crawl of the existing site to identify all pages and links
  2. Take a url crawl of the new site to identify all pages and links
  3. Check page rankings for keywords on current site for future reference
  4. Map each url to outline which urls on http are going to redirect to which urls on https for a redirect strategy.  
  5. Add a self-referencing rel=canonical LINK tag to each url.
  6. Purchase an appropriate SSL certificate from a reliable CA, ensuring that you have 2048 bit key as a minimum and that your certificate is supported in case anything goes wrong. There are several types of certificates so you should ensure the right one for your needs an pick a reputable supplier.  Letsencrypt (link) also offer SSL certificates.
  7. You should ensure that your SSL certificate is always up-to-date (an auto-renew option is best) and make sure that all of the variations of your domain name are covered by the certificate (e.g. www and non-www)
  8. Your server will need to support SNI
  9. Take a copy of the existing site and put on staging server to make all of your site changes and add your ssl certificate initially.  Don’t ever just go straight to your live site in case there are any irreparable issues.
  10. Hold any content and design changes.  Now is not the time to start making other changes to your site as this is just something else for Google to contend with. 
  11. Install your SSL certificate and use some software such as Keycdn’s SSL Certificate Check to ensure no issues with it.
  12. Choose whether to do in sections or full site migration.  Very large sites may benefit from sections in order to test impact.
  13. Update all of your hard-coded links to https.  Redirect users and search engines to the https pages with server side 301 redirects using a regex in the .htaccess file.
  14. Update any custom scripts so that they point to https versions, including third party hosted scripts.  Make sure to scan your website for any non-secure content.
  15. Update your robots.txt file to remove any hard-coded links or blocking rules that may still be pointing to http directories or files.  
  16. Ensure to embed only https content on https pages
  17. Ensure low traffic time for migration
  18. Put the https version of your site live
  19. Add https versions of your site to Google Search Console and set your preferred domain status.
  20. Submit your sitemap on Search Console for the new version of the site
  21. Verify that site can be crawled and indexed and that it is not blocked by robots with no meta “non-index” tags
  22. Use Fetch as Google to check Google Bot is functioning as it should
  23. Update your Google Analytics profile from http to https in Admin and Property Settings.  This way you won’t lose any history.
  24. Check that correct http status codes are being returned for the pages as you would expect
  25. Monitor search performance for targeted keywords but expect fluctuation for a few weeks