In mid-July of 2015, I decided to flip the Sugarrae.com site to https using SSL. In the last eighteen+ months, Google has been pushing hard to “make SSL happen.” They even said it might give you a bit of a rankings boost, no doubt knowing that tons of SEOs and business owners would begin flipping their sites hoping to gain an edge.
Switching to SSL is not as simple as grabbing a secure certificate and flipping the switch. And once you do get it active without issue, you need to make sure it's maintained.
Do I think Sugarrae needs to be secure? No. Did I think there was a ranking boost significant enough to make the switch? No. But I think that Google isn't backing down from this crusade. Sugarrae is a branded site within its niche with a decent backlink profile. So I figured I'd test what happens when you make the flip. I also wanted an environment where I controlled every aspect of the flip to remove the potential for outside variables (a developer failing to implement a task I gave them, etc.) to cause issues.
What was done
- Secure certificate ordered (and ensured it was installed correctly and worked).
- Made the flip and then tested the site in both Firefox and Chrome to see what warnings popped up. The most common issue is going to be that you're requesting unsecure files for the page (such as calling the graphics for the secured version of the page from http://sugarrae.com).
- Used Firebug > Console to find what global elements were kicking errors or warnings and fixed them.
- Fixed a common issue with redirecting https://www to https://.
- Sugarrae is on WordPress, so I used phpMyAdmin to find all instances of http://sugarrae.com in the database and replace them with https://sugarrae.com (which addresses links within posts, widgets, etc.).
- Then I ran the Broken Link Checker plugin to find any instances where updating all the internal links within the content to https caused issues (it breaking old redirects, etc.) and updated any links.
- I updated my htaccess file to ensure all legacy redirects were updated to directly redirect to the https version of the URL instead of them utilizing a chained redirect.
- Updated my PLP plugin (which cloaks my affiliate links – affiliate) to use https as the base URL for links (which updated all PLP links).
- I then ran a DeepCrawl to find anything everything else might have missed.
- I verified both https://www and https:// in GWT and submitted a sitemap for the https:// version. I also submitted an updated sitemap on the GWT profile for http://.
- I was already using Universal analytics code, so I only needed to update the default URL for the “Property Settings” and “View Settings” in Sugarrae's GA account to use the https version. I also changed the GWT association for Sugarrae within GA to use the https version.
- Annotated the change in GA, because you should annotate all the things.
Immediately post flip
Google was pretty quick about assessing the flip.
On Monday, July 13th, 2015 (2 days after the flip) I saw a 16% increase in organic traffic versus the previous Monday. But by the next Monday, organic traffic had returned to normal levels. Of course, Google also launched a Panda update, so that update could have affected organic search numbers this past week. But my site shouldn't be susceptible to Panda (though changes for my competitors could affect my organic traffic). More importantly than any possible gains was the potential for loss, of which, I saw none. The flip also reset all my social sharing numbers to zero, as expected, with the exception of LinkedIn.
Six months later
It's now been six months since the flip. It would seem that organic traffic is slightly down since the switch vs. the period prior. But that trend has been slow, is a single digit percentage (9%), and other factors could be at play. However, it's up 19% over the same period in the prior year.
Additionally, a few months after the flip, I found a bug in my htaccess that was allowing pages to render without the https – and had been for several months. Though the canonical directive should have prevented any search engine related issues from that error, it's hard to say if the site's traffic saw any minor effect from it. However, that bug was fixed a few months later without any noticeable effects from fixing it.
I've also seen reports that flipping to https isn't a seamless process in Bing. In the case of the Sugarrae site, I saw a 17% drop in sessions coming from Bing after the flip from the period right before. But, it's up 6% over the same period the year prior. However, with my site being in the SEO industry, the majority of my search related traffic comes from Google, so I feel like the sample size in my case is too small to make any relevant conclusions.
While Sugarrae organic traffic is slightly down in both Google and Bing over the prior period, it's up from a year over year standpoint. So, flipping to https has benefit, right? I really don't think so. Because my traffic saw an increase in both Bing and Google YOY, I suspect that the increase is due to factors outside of the flip to using an SSL. Especially since Bing claims to give no ranking boost to SSL sites.
Those alternate factors could be the result of various things. Remember that my site is not static. I publish new posts, some of which end up ranking better than others. Some posts are on topics with higher search volumes for the keywords they rank for than others. When I speak at a conference, my site gets new links. You get the idea.
Switching your site to SSL for SEO purposes
If you're flipping to https purely for SEO reasons in hopes of achieving a rankings boost, you're likely to be disappointed. I've found no identifiable boost I can confidently attribute to making the change to https.
While some outlets are reporting that more than 25% of the top ranking sites in Google are now https, I truly don't believe that's a result of Google giving any significant favor to https results. I think it's more likely an effect of the top ranking sites being extremely SEO aware and making the flip to https because Google advised it. Adding to that, Google representatives have made public claims that https may break a tie between otherwise equal rankings. And SEO dependent companies (as a result of top rankings) are more likely to put in the effort in an attempt to seize every advantage they can get.
Aside from losing the social share counts and the time and expenses involved with going https without much benefit, there appears to have been no negative effect from my flip to using SSL.
Informed implementation matters
However, I'd also be remiss not to note that my site was flipped in an informed manner. I've seen several sites that have significantly hurt their rankings as a result of an improperly and hastily implemented flip to using SSL.
One site failed to use redirects to force https rendering. Coupled with no use of the canonical directive, they saw a stark and easily attributed traffic loss from their flip. Another site decided to change their entire URL structure “since they were changing their URLs to https anyway.” Not a strategy I would recommend. They saw a traffic loss that only saw a 90% recovery post flip. While Google has stated that there is no link authority lost when moving to SSL, I'd bank that only applies if the only change made is that the URL has changed from using http to https. Otherwise, regular URL structure change effects likely apply.
Correlation does not imply causation
The above was my personal experience and resulting hypotheses and opinions as a result of switching the Sugarrae site to https, coupled with what I've seen on various client sites. Your mileage and experience may vary. But hopefully taking a tour through my site flip (and results) can help better inform yours – should you choose to make the leap.
If you've switched a site from http to https, I'd love to hear what your experience and result was in the comments.