Google lowers search ranking of websites that don't use encryption

The move is intended to promote better security practices across the Web

Websites that aren't encrypting connections with their visitors may get a lower ranking on Google's search engine, a step the company said it is taking to promote better online security practices.

The move is designed to spur developers to implement TLS (Transport Layer Security), which uses a digital certificate to encrypt traffic, signified by a padlock in most browsers and "https" at the beginning of a URL.

As Google scans Web pages, it takes into account certain attributes, such as whether a Web page has unique content, to determine where it will appear in search rankings. It has added the use of https into those signals, although it will be a "lightweight" one and applies to about 1 percent of search queries now, wrote Zineb Ait Bahajji and Gary Illyes, both Google webmaster trends analysts, in a blog post.

All reputable websites use encryption when a person submits their login credentials, but some websites downgrade the connection to an unencrypted one. That means content is susceptible to a so-called man-in-the-middle attack. Content that is not encrypted could be read.

Rolling out https is fairly straightforward for small websites but can be complex for large organizations that run lots of servers, with challenges such as increased latency, support issues with content delivery networks and scaling issues.

LinkedIn said in June it was still upgrading its entire network to https after Zimperium, a security company, found it was possible in some cases to hijack a person's account. People using LinkedIn in some regions are flipped to an unencrypted connection after they log in, making it possible for a hacker to collect their authentication credentials.

Facebook's Instagram was found to have the same problem last month. Instagram's API (application programming interface) makes unencrypted requests to some parts of its network, which could allow a hacker on the same Wi-Fi network to steal a "session cookie," a data file that reminds Instagram a person has logged in but which grants access to an account.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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