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Google To Reward Web Sites That Boost Security

Google wants Web sites to become more secure and said Wednesday it will do its part by motivating organizations to build stronger encryption for their sites. The company is giving a pretty significant incentive: it will reward those who do so by ranking them higher than sites lacking the added support to Transport Layer Security, also known as HTTPS encryption. Another way to look at it is Google will punish those who lack the extra encryption.

It's always troubling to hear reports that allege Google is playing with its search algorithm in a way that can unfairly benefit some to the detriment of others. Given its dominance in search, any action, real or perceived, places it under scrutiny and risk of regulators getting on the company's case.

Yet one could argue Google is now putting a stake in the ground in the interest of everyone who uses the Web. By forcing sites to implement stronger encryption by implementing TLS, the company is using its clout to make it a safer place. This could have major consequences to many businesses that live and die by how well they appear in Google search results. That's especially the case for those who expend efforts in search engine optimization, or SEO. But Google is doing so by trying to force those with insecure sites to step to implement TLS. While not a panacea, it's a step up.

Google has talked up "HTTP by Default" for years. It means Search, Gmail and Google Drive automatically direct secure connections to the Google sites. At its recent Google IO developer conference, the company introduced its HTTPS Everywhere push. Webmaster trends analysts Zineb Ait Bahajji and Gary Illyes explained in a post Wednesday how the company plans to rank sites based on their HTTPS/TLS support.

"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," they wrote. "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."

In the coming weeks Google said it will publish detailed best practices on how to make it easier to implement TLS at its help center. In the meantime, Google offered the following tips:

  • Decide the kind of certificate you need: single, multi-domain or wildcard certificate.
  • Use 2048-bit key certificates.
  • Use relative URLs for resources that reside on the same secure domain.
  • Use protocol relative URLs for all other domains.
  • Check out our Site move article for more guidelines on how to change your Web site's address.
  • Don't block your HTTPS site from crawling using robots.txt.
  • Allow indexing of your pages by search engines where possible. Avoid the noindex robots meta tag.

Google is also recommending those with sites already serving HTTPS should test the security levels and configuration using Qualys SSL Server Test tool.

What's your take on Google's effort to force the hand of organizations to make their sites more secure? Is it a heavy handed and unfair move by taking advantage of its search dominance or an altruistic use of its clout that could make the Web safer for everyone?

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 08/08/2014 at 12:34 PM


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