Preparing Your SEO Plan for HTTP/2

We all know page speed is an important factor when it comes to search ranking. But there’s something big coming. A new web protocol is promising impressive page speed increases, which you might be able to use to increase your SERP.

WHAT IS HTTP/2?

The http in front of your website’s URL stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol and is the protocol servers use to communicate with browsers to deliver websites (among other things). HTTP/2 is the latest version of this protocol, and it’s quite an update. There are a few things this new version tackles, but the main thing is speed. While it’s not officially rolled out yet, many browsers and web hosts are ramping up support for it. When you type a URL into your browser, you’re sending a request to the server that hosts that website saying, “Hey, start sending me stuff,” and if all goes well, it does. HTTP/2 greatly improves the way data is sent from the server to your browser. One of the ways HTTP/2 does this is by handling multiple requests at the same time.

Imagine filling a 10 gallon bucket by turning on your faucet, allowing one gallon to flow, shutting off your faucet, and repeating. Not so efficient. HTTP/2 lets you crank that sucker on (and even add more faucets) and not stop until you’ve got 10 gallons. Okay, while it might not a perfect analogy, hopefully it helps you get the idea. Generally, http requests are only in the 10s of milliseconds range, but if your homepage has 50 elements that require a 10ms request each, that’s half a second of nothing but connecting to the server and asking for files.

Just this one change is huge. A site with 10 external .js files and four .css files will now only require one request instead of 14 separate ones.

WHY?

As sites get bigger and more complex, people are looking for ways to increase site speed beyond shrinking images and tightening up code. Lowering the number of http requests is one way to do this. Using that technique and many others, Google started developing SPDY, the precursor to HTTP/2, in order to speed up the billions of http transactions between its sites.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is a group of engineers dedicated to “making the Internet work better” and they’ve written the documentation pertaining to HTTP/2. Together with developers from the SPDY program, the IETF have finalized HTTP/2 as a standard, stating, “The result is that HTTP/2 will help provide faster user experience for browsing, reduce the amount of bandwidth required, and make the use of secure connections easier.” Essentially, the main focuses of HTTP/2 are compressing data and prioritizing the flow of it from server to browser while delivering that data in a more efficient manner.

SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH SEO?

Using the 500ms request time example from earlier, we can see how this can affect SERP ranking. If your site generally loads in 1.5-2 seconds, shaving off 500ms is a timesaving of 25-33%, which is nontrivial when viewed under the competitive SERP position microscope.

For you SEO Developers out there running on Apache servers, keep your .htaccess files at the ready as development on the mod_http2 module continues. While support grows and HTTP/2 fully rolls out, Google will no doubt have new suggestions for continued improvement of page speed via .htaccess rules.

Major browsers like Chrome and Firefox are currently only supporting HTTP/2 over HTTPS, so getting an SSL/TLS certificate is one way to ensure you’ve got a head start in this area. Besides, Google is already favoring HTTPS over HTTP, so grabbing a certificate is not a bad idea anyway.

Obviously, a faster site is better for users and better for search rankings. And with the announcement that GoogleBot will soon support HTTP/2, now is the time to start thinking about transitioning to HTTPS so you can take advantage of HTTP/2 as it rolls out.

WRAPPING UP

I’ve thrown around HTTPS and HTTP/2 a lot here, but don’t be confused. HTTP/2 will not require any change to future or existing URLs, so don’t go throwing “http/2://www.google.com” into your browser. Users will not have to change anything about the way they browse the web, and SEOs won’t have to create redirect rules to handle new URLs (except in the case of HTTPS). In fact, most users will only notice a change in site speed – not a revolutionary change in web protocol.

There isn’t a ton to be done at the moment to prepare for HTTP/2 aside from getting an SSL/TLS certificate. Just keep an eye on your web host and watch the browser support. Of course, you could grab a coffee and dig through the RFC document for the nitty-gritty. The HTTP/2 shift will mostly happen behind the scenes with web hosts updating their hosting software and hardware, but you don’t want to be caught unaware when your site is suddenly loading slower than everyone else’s.

For now, a quick Google search returns one host actually advertising HTTP/2 hosting, and you can find a few more through organic search if you’d like to really get a jump on this. Just remember that not all browsers support this yet, and the majority that do only do so over HTTPS. So enjoy the (somewhat) free speed boost when it comes, and see if you can’t squeeze even more speed out of it!