What you will learn: Why HTTPS websites are growing, and how this trend will affect your Internet marketing efforts.
Who should read this article: Marketing leadership, Internet marketing specialists.
Google, HTTPS and SEO
Beginning in August 2014, Google expanded its privacy initiative by pushing website owners to secure their websites. In Google’s own words:
“… [O]ver the past few months we’ve been running tests taking into account whether sites use secure, encrypted connections as a signal in our search ranking algorithms. We've seen positive results, so we're starting to use HTTPS as a ranking signal. For now it's only a very lightweight signal — affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content — while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.” (From the Google Webmaster Central Blog. Emphasis added.)
So: On the one hand, Google is rewarding websites that shift to HTTPS. But on the other hand – the HTTPS shift is going to make Internet marketing more challenging.
How HTTPS Makes Effective Internet Marketing More Difficult
Here is the big – and soon to be rapidly growing – challenge. The HTTPS shift negatively affects the availability of referral data. What does this mean?
Referral data tells website owners where their website traffic came from. For instance, if a company has display ads on websites A and B, it can review referred data to see how many of its visitors are coming from each of the two websites. If website A refers 1,000 visitors per month and B refers 50 visitors per month, the company can adjust the campaign to put more emphasis on website A.
Referral data enables Internet marketing campaign managers to evaluate performance and continually improve campaigns. But the HTTPS shift limits the availability of this data, as follows:
- An HTTP site sending traffic to an HTTP – Referral data IS passed.
- An HTTP site sending traffic to an HTTPS site – Referral data IS passed.
- An HTTPS site sending traffic to an HTTPS site – Referral data IS passed.
- An HTTPS site sending traffic to an HTTP site – Referral data IS NOT passed.
The last example is where the worries come in. As more sites shift to HTTPS, an HTTP site will lose more and more referral data. Instead, its HTTPS to HTTP traffic will be categorized as Direct – giving marketers no information as to where the traffic actually came from.
There is a workaround: The website owner can implement an HTTPS-to-HTTP redirect script that rewrites the referral URL so that it can be passed. Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter and other websites that rely on advertising dollars are implementing this, but for now, the average website owner is not.
With all of this in mind, companies should convert their websites to HTTPS as soon as possible. Not only will this move ensure that all referral data is captured, but also will boost the website’s SEO performance – and of course, help protect the privacy of users.
The privacy issue is not going away; if anything, it will grow in importance as the public becomes more educated. Combine this with the fact that Google is already seeing positive results from its privacy push, and the conclusion is clear: HTTPS websites are best implemented sooner, not later.
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