18 / January 2016, Matt
Since 1999, Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, has provided the basis of communications across the Internet. Every time you enter a web URL, HTTP is responsible for processing the request and delivering the web page to your screen. This has worked for sixteen years, a protocol that has yet to change while the web has grown and evolved in myriad ways. While it still works, enough different things are happening on modern websites that load times have increased, and the burden across the web has finally inspired change.
In 2009, Google introduced SPDY (pronounced “speedy”), a protocol that would focus on decreasing load time by layering Internet communications rather than sending them individually. This showed early promise, but in February of 2015, Google announced it would remove support for SPDY in favor of HTTP/2. The latter is now in use in updated versions of Chrome, Explorer, and Mozilla, and stands as the most significant update in browsing since HTTP.
What Is HTTP/2?
The primary reason HTTP moves slowly is that it only allows one connection for each TCP connection. Every time a request goes across the Internet under HTTP, it takes a single TCP connection to complete the request. This was fine in 1999, and still manages okay now, but websites have become more numerous and more complicated. As sites have developed, the complexity and sheer numbers have slowed down page loading time. If a single connection request runs into a problem, it slows everything else down, and users run into frustrating lag times.
HTTP/2 provides a workaround for this through multiplexing. This layers connection requests and allows multiple requests to go simultaneously across a single connection, thus solving the bottleneck issue for websites with complex structures. You can think of it as several strands of string twisted together. If you try to push them through a hole one at a time, one of them blocking the hole prevents the rest from going through. Twist them together and push them through as one, and everything gets through in much less time.
Creating this process has taken time and effort, but the results are promising. HTTP/2 has created significantly faster load times for web pages with multiple layers of content. Not only does it use multiplexing, but it also relies on header field compression to cut down on response time for layers that might otherwise take longer to load. Resulting load times have been cut in half or more, creating a more pleasant online experience for anyone searching on sites enabled with HTTP/2.
One sticking point in the development of HTTP/2 had been the enabling of encryption for these sites. Standard SSL security encryption was originally being developed as Transport Layer Security (TLS) as a new requirement within the protocol. This was rejected as an inconvenience, and for a time dropped from the protocol as a nod to pragmatism; some proxy servers would require updates, and the necessity of this step was questioned.
The free market spoke, however, as major browsers including Chrome and Firefox refused to support HTTP/2 without TLS. As a result, the developers returned to the original plan. Any site that wants to function on HTTP/2 protocols must enable TLS encryption.
What TSL encryption does is to enable servers and clients to communicate across an algorithm that provides an additional layer of security to communications, preventing hackers from intercepting and changing what the server sends back. This layer of security is important to many site owners’ businesses, and enabling it proved crucial to getting support from browsers. Thus, it has become part of the protocol as it currently functions.
So what does all of this mean to business owners who are looking for search engine optimization on their sites? One crucial element to keep in mind is that speed counts for search algorithms. If a page has more than a few seconds of loading time, the site will rank lower on Google, Bing, and Yahoo! than other sites with comparable content and reliability scores. Many site owners have limited their media presentations to account for this, particularly embedded videos and large image files.
HTTP protocols will be fully in place for the major browsers by 2016. One positive aspect of the way it is rolling out is that you do not have to redesign your website for it to function in HTTP/2. The transition should be relatively smooth, and website performance should speed up naturally. That said, there are some ways you can tweak your structure to take full advantage of the HTTP/2 protocols. One is to layer your TCP connections so you are ready for the change over to a single connection handling all of your server requests. In addition, any domain sharing or concatenation that you have established to overcome the single-request hurdles should be revisited to strengthen your performance.
Further, once the changeover is fully implemented, you can begin to build more multimedia work into your website. Videos that would aptly accompany your written content may be considered in ways they were not before, both in file size and in volume. You can open up to a more dynamic environment and create a fuller visitor experience. Your content will continue to be the driving force behind your online marketing and your web design, but that content can now be fuller than it has been under HTTP.
Further, the support for TSL encryption opens up new e-commerce opportunities. If you have been hesitant to introduce e-commerce due to concerns over balancing security with web speed, this may provide an opportunity to add that powerful element to your web design. Many have used their websites primarily to drive customers to their brick and mortar locations specifically because they are worried about their site performance, even if they do sell discrete products that would perform well with on-site sales. HTTP/2 should help alleviate some of those concerns and allow you to get immediate sales through your website.
Two critical aspects of this change need to be kept in mind. First, the rollout has begun, but you need to be sure that a website optimized for HTTP/2 is actually ready to go. Test the site on current browsers, including verifying that the load time is in fact what you expect it to be. The new protocol has backing from the major browsers, but no new protocol has ever been brought in without some performance hiccups. Take the time to not only ensure your design is ready for the protocol, but also that the protocol is ready for your design.
Second, you cannot assume that everyone will be using updated browsers. Many users do not upgrade when they can, so you may have some users on the latest Chrome or Firefox browser while others linger on Internet Explorer 8. Being ready to take advantage of HTTP/2, then, may hamper your performance as some of your customers experience it.
Similarly, with mobile search more important than ever, you need to ensure that mobile browsers are adapting to HTTP/2 as well as personal computer browsers are doing. This should be the case, but failing to test performance in multiple environments may well cost you customers. Search engine optimization requires you take all of this into account, both to build the most effective website you can and to avoid leaving a substantial portion of your target audience out in the cold.
As with any other aspect of web design, you will find that even the best planning needs to be accompanied by trial and error. One of the most effective ways of doing this is through A/B testing. You can set up two page designs with one key element changed between them, whether that is the size of a video file, the device or browser on which you deploy the design, or any of almost limitless other variations.
From the technical side, your test generally will consider aspects like download speed, efficiency, and the like. You run one A/B test, select the better performing option, and set up another test until you are happy with the performance of your site. Make sure you do the test in various environments. You may find that a responsive design, varying certain elements of the site depending on what device or environment is used to run it, is the answer here, but determining how to best set that up should still come from a hard look at the data through testing.
In addition, you need to look at more subjective elements. Your Internet marketing depends in part on load times, but at least as much on user experience with your site. You should never add elements simply because you can. A temptation with the emergence of HTTP/2 will be for web designers to build more and more complex sites to take advantage of everything now available without sacrificing speed. But sometimes, less remains more. Your customers will appreciate some multimedia presentation to the site, but if it distracts them, you may still lose impact.
Intricate web design and splashy presentations can work very well to bring attention and even increase your site rankings. You can build more types of content into your site, build more connections, attract social media attention, and generally grab more views when you provide more. But that more needs to remain tied to your end purpose. You are not creating a website to get attention as an end goal; rather, you are building a website to attract attention with a final purpose of driving sales. A ten-minute video that people watch before clicking over to another site does little to help you.
The search algorithms that all the major search engines use reward content that is relevant, and will only do more to do so going forward. As sites do more to implement HTTP/2 functionality, Google, Bing, and Yahoo! will absolutely be tweaking their algorithms to reward multimedia content that builds on and complements written content. Using presentation that overwhelms your company’s message, product, and service may give you some initial splash, but it will kill your rankings in the long run.
The answer, as in many aspects of business and life, is to find that golden mean where you match up the approach you take to the results you want to find, rather than letting one overcome the other. This again will require some trial and error. If you are not constantly thinking about how to help your website perform at its best, you are already falling behind your competition. Algorithms change every day, and your competitors are working to keep up. A web design is not inherently great or mediocre; its performance over time defines its effectiveness. You need to keep working at it to maintain and grow.
1st in SEO will work with you to build your content out to take advantage of all HTTP/2 has to offer. We will not, however, sacrifice quality for excitement. When we work with our clients, we ensure that your content and marketing plan remain interwoven and focused on the goal of helping you sustain and grow your business. We have no preconceived notion of what will work best for your web design, but instead look at your individual business plan and build to help you achieve what you want.
Once we build your site, we keep testing and examining your performance. Neither we nor you benefit from a build and leave approach. We test your performance in terms of technical efficiency and results you obtain over time. When we see something we can do to help you improve, or identify a performance slip to resolve, we report to you and identify solutions you can use. We are no mere vendor, but a partner to help you for the long haul. Contact 1st in SEO today so we can put our expertise to work for you.