Google plans to reward websites that always use secure, encrypted HTTPS connections to transmit pages and exchange data – with a boost to their search rankings.
The change is designed to promote improved online security in particular by encouraging developers to implement SSL/TLS (Transport Layer Security) to encrypt website traffic.
Making web connections secure by default is an effective defence against man-in-the-middle attacks as well as offering privacy benefits to surfers. Many web giants are already going https-by-default in response to ongoing revelations from rogue sysadmin Edward Snowden – today allowed an extension to his sojourn in Russia – about the NSA's dragnet surveillance programme. Previously standard practice was to use a secure connection only during site log-ins.
Google webmaster trends analysts Zineb Ait Bahajji and Gary Illyes explain in a blog post that whether or not a site is secure by default will only have a small effect on its ranking – at least for now – while advising that this factor is likely to become more important in future, once enough time for webmasters to upgrade has elapsed.
Over 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 per cent 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.
Security firms welcomed Google's stance as an effective push towards that widely agreed web security goal of HTTPS everywhere and by default.
Jason Hart, a veep at data protection firm SafeNet, commented: “It’s great to see Google taking steps to increase the use of encryption. It’s a smart move and one that’s likely to have a significant impact on the way organisations secure their websites."
"Every company wants to rank favourably on Google, so it’s in their best interest to ensure web pages are encrypted. Data in a plain-text state is easily readable, so any website that’s storing or transmitting user credentials or data in plain-text is putting customers’ data, and the company’s reputation, at risk," he added.
Organisations have historically shied away from encryption due to cost concerns or fears of slowing website response times, but such cost and performance issues are no longer relevant thanks to advances in technology, according to Hart. "There are now high speed encryption technologies available that mean cost and speed need no longer be an issue. So there really is no excuse for any data to be transmitted or stored in plain text,” he explained.
Mark Sparshott, EMEA director at security-as-a-service firm Proofpoint, struck a less optimistic note, arguing that performance issues will still hold some organisations back from applying secure (https) connections by default.
“I welcome Google's move to use HTTPS as ranking signal and downgrade those sites that are not encrypting connections to their visitors but caution that the minimal scope and weighting Google are applying may not be enough of a deterrent for poor security best practice yet."
He added: "Proofpoint’s researchers have observed that most websites were slow to enforce the use of HTTPS because the encryption it uses to secure the connection slows down the web experience which is anathema to the mantra of most web based services where latency can drive their users to a competitor’s service. As such some websites provided it as an option for many years but did not make it the default option until recent times." ®