Questions Surrounding Migration to HTTP/2

You have no doubt heard all the buzz around HTTPS as a ranking factor. But there’s an important next step you should consider as you implement HTTPS – one that will improve page speed, user experience and, in doing so, increase the positive signals that yield improved organic rankings.  Right behind HTTPS should be a conversation about HTTP/2. Let’s look into the top HTTP/2 questions people are asking our SEO pros.

What is HTTP/2?

Today, much of the web uses the HTTP/1.1 protocol to transmit information between server and browser. And for a long time, it’s all that web developers knew. But being that it was considered “the latest version” nearly two decades ago, it’s not a total surprise that HTTP/1.1 houses some major inefficiencies, mainly related to speed, security and end user experience.

For one, HTTP/1.1 relies on the sequential passing of information between server and web browser, one at a time. So you could imagine, that if you have 10+ javascripts or CSS files that need to load, you’ll likely run into some challenges with overall site experience. And an even more challenging aspect of HTTP/1.1, is that because of the sequential loading, “render-blocking” javascript keeps your unloaded information from showing at all. Particularly for images and other rich content, this could create a real problem on the site’s end. While there are manual fixes to the issue, they’re high labor intensive, and turn fairly minimal results.

Aside from poor SEO ranking, the more likely end result will be frustrated consumers, loss in engagement and, potentially, even loss in revenue. Luckily, there is hope.

In 2015, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) released the successor to HTTP/1.1, HTTP/2. Official IETF documentation notes:

HTTP/2 enables a more efficient use of network resources and a reduced perception of latency by introducing header field compression and allowing multiple concurrent exchanges on the same connection.  It also introduces unsolicited push of representations from servers to clients.”

 This means that HTTP/2 allows servers to transmit and browsers to load files (images, CSS files, java scripts, etc.) in parallel, essentially eliminating the chance of render-blocking. Once-needed “work-around” optimizations like JS time delays, image sprites, CSS file consolidation, domain sharding and cookieless domains will no longer be necessary in order to ensure faster site speed.

Questions about HTTP/2

Let’s get back to the questions surrounding HTTP/2, many of which revolve around site visibility, security and ranking in the organic SERP. Here are some of the things we’ve heard:

  1. “Does HTTP/2 require HTTPS? Does HTTPS require HTTP/2?”
  2. “This seems kind of far off.  Is anyone running HTTP/2 already?”
  3. “Does Google consider HTTP/2 as a ranking factor?”
  4. “I’m already moving to HTTPS. How difficult is adding HTTP/2 support once that’s done?”

Does HTTP/2 require HTTPS? Does HTTPS require HTTP/2?

The short answer is no, neither element technically requires the other.  HTTPS absolutely does not require your server be configured to support HTTP/2.  On the other side, we know that theoretically, HTTP/2 can be run in a non-secure setting (i.e. HTTP). However, more and more browsers are requiring a secure connection these days to run HTTP/2 so, effectively, HTTP/2 requires HTTPS be in place already.

This seems kind of far off.  Is anyone running HTTP/2 already?

According to w3techs.com’s survey of the web, HTTP/2 is used by 14.1% of websites as of May 16, 2017.  Those sites include Google.com, Facebook.com, Wikipedia.org, Twitter.com, LinkedIn.com, HuffingtonPost.com and many more.

http2 questions

Does Google consider HTTP/2 as a ranking factor?

Short answer: not at this time. The longer answer is that HTTP/2 first became a relevant SEO topic back in November 2015, when Google’s John Mueller shared that the GoogleBot would soon be able to crawl web pages accessible via HTTP/2.  In December 2016, Google verified they were good with crawling HTTP/2. In April 2017, John Mueller spoke again about the new protocol, this time to say that it did not have a direct impact on SEO ranking. He explained,

“HTTP/2 is for speed. Fast sites make users happy, happy users recommend websites, so it’s very indirect.”

Indirect or not, we know the overall goal of Google’s organic ranking algorithm is to serve results that are relevant to the users’ queries and that provide a good user experience.  We’ve seen this in their support of responsive design, mobile friendliness, HTTPS and countless other statements: whether they’re a direct ranking signal or not, Google likes things that make users happy and we all want to make Google happy, right? 😉

I’m already moving to HTTPS. How difficult is adding HTTP/2 support once that’s done?

The first step to adopting HTTP/2 is to migrate to HTTPS.  The reasons for doing so are well worn, including Google’s announcement that HTTPS is definitely a ranking factor.  From an SEO point of view, the most important things to remember in moving to HTTPS is to make sure HTTPS pages aren’t blocked via robots.txt and that you update your pages’ canonical tags, XML sitemap and internal links to use HTTPS instead of straight HTTP.

Once the conversation has been had about migrating from HTTP to HTTPS, it is a natural progression to start discussing a move to the HTTP/2 protocol.  If all else, both are IT-involved changes initiated for user experience reasons.

In a nutshell, the steps to move to HTTP/2 are:

  1. Move to HTTPS
  2. Check your analytics to make sure that a vast majority of your users are using browsers that support HTTP/2
  3. Set up a server development environment to run HTTP/2 according to Apache’s HTTP/2 guidelines or, for IIS users, follow this helpful guide
  4. (although technically not required) is to un-sprite your images and make individual image assets available instead
  5. (although technically not required) is to reduce or eliminate domain sharding
  6. Test and launch to production

The devil’s in the details, of course, so discuss step 3 in particular with your hosting provider, webmaster and/or IT team to get an idea of their calculated level of effort.

When we come full circle with our clients in the discussions about HTTPS and HTTP/2, the complexity can be reduced to one simple truth: consumers expect great experiences. Over time, both HTTPS and HTTP/2 will likely become the defacto standard, and so if the questions aren’t being asked by your team or agency yet, you may want to consider getting ahead of the curve asking them yourself.

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment