If we told you that your website could load faster, your server could call upon fewer resources, you wouldn’t have to spend time trying to increase site speed AND you could get a rankings boost from Google all with one simple change, you’d probably call us opportunistic digital optimists. After all, if it sounds too good to be true, then it must be, right?
Wrong! The future of the technical web has arrived in the shape of HTTP/2, but very few seem to be on board with it just yet – but you can be.
In a recent Google Webmaster Hangout, in which Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller said that GoogleBot (the organisation’s infamous web crawling bot) will support HTTP/2 by the end of this year or early next, I expected a scramble and people shouting from the rooftops. Instead, there were crickets throughout the industry.
You should already have switched to HTTP/2 for many reasons, including a tremendous speed increase, which makes for a better user experience, but now there are potential ranking factors on the line, as well.
What exactly is HTTP/2?
HTTP/2 is the latest update to the HTTP protocol by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The protocol is the successor to HTTP/1.1, which was drafted in 1999. HTTP/2 is a much-needed refresh, bringing advancements in efficiency, security and speed
HTTP/2 was based largely on Google’s own protocol SPDY, which will be deprecated in 2016. The protocol had many of the same features found in HTTP/2 and managed to improve data transmission whilst keeping backwards compatibility.
How will HTTP/2 improve existing processes?
- A single connection: Only one connection to the server is used to load a website, and that connection remains open as long as the website is open. This reduces the number of trips needed to set up multiple TCP connections.
- Multiplexing: Multiple requests are allowed at the same time, on the same connection. Previously, with HTTP/1.1, each transfer would have to wait for other transfers to complete.
- Server push: Additional resources can be sent to a client for future use.
- Prioritisation: Requests are assigned dependency levels that the server can use to deliver higher priority resources faster.
- Binary: This will make HTTP/2 easier for a server to parse as it is more compact and less error-prone. No additional time is wasted translating information from text to binary, which is the computer’s native language.
- Header compression: HTTP/2 uses HPACK compressions, which reduces overhead. Many headers were sent with the same values in every request in HTTP/1.1.
Is adopting HTTP/2 risky? Who is using it already?
According to Can I Use, HTTP/2 is supported by 68% of the browsers used globally. There are a couple of caveats to these numbers, as IE11 only supports HTTP/2 in Windows 10, and Chrome, Firefox and Opera only support HTTP/2 over HTTPS.
Whilst HTTP/2 supports both secure and non-secure connections, both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome will only support HTTP/2 over HTTPS. Unfortunately, this means that many sites that want to take advantage of HTTP/2 will need to be served over HTTPS.
Fortunately, there are new initiatives such as Let’s Encrypt, which goes into public beta today. Let’s Encrypt is a new certificate authority that is providing free security certificates for websites. It’s a great initiative towards a more secure web.
You can check how this will affect your visitors in Google Analytics by going to Audience > Technology > Browser & OS and comparing the supported browsers.
You’ll find that most major server software – such as Apache, NGINX, and IIS – already support HTTP/2. Some of the major CDNs have also added HTTP/2 support, including Akamai.
Why should I embrace HTTP/2?
It’s simple, really: speed, speed, and more speed, which will ultimately result in a dramatically stronger user experience for your users. As time goes on, and people learn the limits of these new protocols, users should see vastly increased speeds on HTTP/2 connections.
As for developers; with HTTP/1.1, many techniques were used to speed up websites that are no longer necessary with HTTP/2. These optimisations used to take additional development time and were made to cover up flaws in speed and file loading, but they also caused additional issues at times.
With improvements/changes to the processes behind domain sharding, image sprites, inlining and batch requests, developers can rest assured that HTTP/2 is likely to make their lives a lot easier in the long run.
Many of the developer-based techniques mentioned above placed additional strain on servers due to extra connections opened by browsers under HTTP/1.1. These techniques are no longer necessary with HTTP/2. The result is lower bandwidth requirements, less network overhead and lower server memory usage.
Looking for search success? Google loves HTTP/2
With GoogleBot adding support for HTTP/2, websites that support the protocol will likely see an additional rankings boost based on the increased speed. On top of that, with Chrome and Firefox only supporting HTTP/2 over HTTPS, many websites that have not yet upgraded to HTTPS may see an additional boost in rankings when they eventually do so.
This last statement comes with the caveat that many technical items have to be applied correctly with HTTPS, or you will likely experience a temporary, if not permanent drop when making the switch from HTTP/1.1.
The number one problem with sites switching to HTTPS will be redirects – not just 302s instead of 301s, but placement or writing of redirects, additional hops or chains and failing to clean up old redirects. There are many additional items that need to be cleaned up, such as internal links, external links, mixed content, duplication issues, canonical tags, sitemaps, tracking systems that need to be changed and more.
Taking the HTTP/2 plunge
We’ve all seen studies on how slower websites restrict conversions and cause users to abandon the process. And conversely how faster site speeds increase sales and conversion rates. The important thing to note throughout this post is that HTTP/2 is significantly faster and adopting it now will result in a better user experience for your visitors in the long term.
Google, perhaps the biggest player on the web, has made speed a ranking factor for a reason, and it will be interesting to see if HTTP/2 itself becomes a ranking factor and how much weight will be placed on the added speed boost HTTP/2 can provide.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; be it designer, developer, SEO, SMB owner or webmaster, everybody should be getting the ball rolling with HTTP/2 ASAP.
To read the full article, visit Search Engine Land.