A lot of changes have been coming at website owners in the last few years, and that is not going to change. While you were busy dodging Penguins, Pandas, and rogue hummingbirds, HTTP/2 was sneaking up on you. And now it’s here.
How much thought have you given to web speed? If you’re like most people, not a lot. You probably know that optimum speed requires every link in the chain to be working smoothly: your computer, the digital connection, the website server you’re trying to reach, the website itself. And I’m sure you know that the type of connection makes a huge difference. You remember dialup, right?
So let’s talk about the thing only the geekiest of geeks talk about. The way information travels across the web, and what it will mean for you.
Back in the Stone Age of HTTP
HTTP/1.1 is a protocol developed in 1999 that most websites are still using. Without getting too technical, when you contact a website, you send a message to the server and it sends back the page you want to see. Sounds simple enough, but requests can backlog and cause delays. That’s why equipment has gotten infinitely more sophisticated, but web pages can still take time to load and sometimes fail. HTTP/2 offers a lot of fixes that will make your website perform better, load faster, and be more secure.
As web consumption evolved, so did viewer needs. We no longer rely strictly on words to convey messages. We load pages with graphics, videos, advertising, popups, polls, forms…often all at the same time. All the stuff that would never have loaded back in the day. And then there’s mobile. You only have seconds for your page to load before users bounce, and all that “stuff,” which is sent in separate requests, slows down loading.
Why HTTP/2 is Important
Essentially, HTTP/2 is a more efficient way of moving information from servers to browsers. Instead of sending multiple requests that bounce around and bottleneck, it bundles every piece of the website (headers, sections, ads, graphics, etc) into a single request. The various pieces of the website are returned at the same time via a process called multiplexing.
Multiplexing downloads everything at the same time, so data-heavy thing won’t botch up download of everything else, even if there’s a delay. With HTTP/1, the heaviest element on the page can block everything else until it’s done downloading. Which is what makes ad-heavy sites so infuriating.
Another great feature of HTTP/2 is “server push.” With HTTP/1, requesting a page is a one-thing-at-a-time process. The browser requests the HTML, interprets it, and requests each of the items that make up the page. This all happens in fractions of seconds, so download usually takes place in a second or two.
Server push is a preemptive response that allows the server to send resources along with the HTML, in response to the initial request. Before your browser has parsed your request, the pieces are already on the way.
Another advantage is header compression. Every page on the web today is overburdened with massive headers that deal with all the assets. Getting all those bytes to your browser can take 7 or 8 trips back and forth, creating unnecessary redundancy. HTTP/2 compresses the headers for faster access.
The impact of HTTP/2 on SEO
In September, Google added full support for HTTP/2. We’ve already discussed how speed and security affects your search engine ranking. Websites that have not yet made the switch to HTTPS can go straight to HTTP/2 instead, and will likely see a boost in ranking as a result.
The biggest problem you may encounter is with the workarounds and redirects SEOs have used in the past to speed things up and work within the restrictions of HTTP/1. Your website may need some serious cleanup. On the bright side it probably needs to be cleaned up anyway. It’s a good time to deal with old problems.
The good news is that faster speed is proven to lead to better conversion rates. HTTP/2 is leaner, faster, and delivers improved user experience. Google favors websites with faster speeds, and experts are speculating that implementation of HTTP/2 might just become an important ranking factor.