An update to Google’s algorithm was announced yesterday via the Google Webmaster Tools Blog, and it will affect websites with sensitive user information to further promote security on the web. This update, according to Google, has introduced HTTPS as a ranking factor. In essence, Google is saying that webmasters that utilize HTTPS on their sites can be ranked higher than sites that do not.
While Google points to this ranking factor as "carrying less weight than other signals," they also state that there is the possibility that this ranking factor may increase in strength over time. While this is breaking news, it’s no news that Google values user security and has been moving in this direction for quite some time. In March of this year, Google announced a new feature in Webmaster Tools that allows webmasters to track the index status of HTTP vs. HTTPS independently.
Google has stated that this new ranking factor will impact "fewer than 1% of global queries," but it will be interesting to see how strong of a signal this will become. For example, is there value for users in securing a website that reports on vegan-friendly restaurants in the tri-state area? The value of secure connections is most recognized for checkout pages on ecommerce sites (which should not be indexed in search results), or sites handling sensitive financial information (such as banks). Among the search community, there is agreement that user security is important, but skepticism as to the cost required to migrate a site from HTTP to HTTPS.
As Google has increased the security of its own data and removed the ability to track organic keywords, page-level optimizations as well as coordination with paid search efforts have become key SEO strategies.
Search Engine Land has outlined some precautionary measures webmasters can take when migrating a site from HTTP to HTTPS. Google will be releasing additional documentation for webmasters looking to make this change.