As any digital marketer knows, SEO is not a destination but a ride that never ends. In this sense, understanding the digital world is not a one and done task but a continuously tedious process of learning and adapting to changes. Operating within the digital space means nothing is ever static. While this can be exciting and opportunistic, it does mean you spend a lot of time trying to keep up. While we have collectively gotten a lot smarter about how we use the internet, the internet is simultaneously becoming more complex. Web security is a fundamental practice of simply existing online but is specifically detrimental for any marketing practice. While the security concerns for digital marketers are much the same for anyone who uses the internet, the way these concerns can affect SEO is important to discuss. SEO is a tactic to improve the quality and quantity of website traffic to a website from search engines. While the consensus is to focus on internal procedures to boost SEO, we cannot forget the external factors at play, including security. For today’s article, we’re going to focus on HTTP security headers as an underrated yet fundamental element of SEO security practices.
What are HTTP Headers?
You may have seen the term HTTP before, likely floating around in front of any URLs, combined with key-value pairs separated by a colon. Essentially, HTTP is a protocol used to communicate between web browsers and web servers. In this regard, an HTTP header is the defining metadata behind the request and the response messages of this protocol.
- In request messages, the metadata generally holds the language of the request, cookies, credentials for the website, and cache data.
- The metadata of response messages contains the size and type of content, cache stored preferences, server data, time and date.
The distinction here is relevant when understanding how these headers define browsers' behaviours. When visiting a website in a browser, the server sends request headers and, in turn, is responded with response headers. While this may sound either like jargon or a process that functions itself, the way these headers are comprised greatly influences your site. Consider these headers as directors, telling the browser how to behave when users communicate with the site.
What are security headers?
The ability of HTTP headers to influence the communication of browsers, a massive source of web navigation, understandably comes with great security regulations. Specifically, security headers exist as a form of HTTP response header to define whether a set of security precautions on the web browser should be activated or deactivated. The intent of these security headers is ultimately to improve website security by introducing restrictions and instructions that prevent unintended security events.
Why are they important for SEO?
With cyber security risks continuously on the rise, security headers are understandably essential. Data breaches are rampant, and it’s vital to protect yourself, but what is the connection to SEO?While SEO falls under the marketing category, it also falls under the digital category. In this sense, we need to be holistic in our SEO efforts to efficiently improve all aspects of a site, including web security. Factors of Google’s algorithms may drive the goal of SEO. However, the ultimate goal is to deliver engaging, relevant, and authoritative content to users. But, what’s the use of great content if it isn’t safe to interact with? This is where security headers come into the picture.An unsecured site puts users' online safety at risk and can subsequently affect your SEO efforts. Implementing security HTTP headers means a search engine can efficiently use the security-related response headers to protect users against possible cybersecurity attacks. Ultimately, appealing to Google’s algorithm and increasing your site’s SEO score.
Important Security Headers
Now that the basic understanding of these headers is out of the way, the question remains; what headers should you be implementing?
Content Security Policy (CSP)
- XSS exploits occur when hackers take advantage of a security hole and upload malicious scripts in an attempt to take over a user's browser, steal data, or become part of a multi-step hacking event.
- Injection attacks are when hackers send data to an application to change the meaning of commands.
Beyond the technicalities, these security threats essentially modify the user's experience with the site as a distraction from a hacking attempt. Implementing this header means users are much less likely to have their data stolen in the hands of your site, giving you a much better reputation and the chance of boosting your SEO.
Strict Transport Security Headers (HSTS)
Technically speaking, HSTS headers prevent an attacker from downgrading the HTTPS connection to an HTTP connection. If a hacker manages to achieve this downgrade, it allows them to take advantage of insecure redirects. An insecure redirect is when a person types example.com into a site without typing in the HTTPS element, allowing the potential for a middle-man attack and sensitive information being exposed to the hacker. Implementing this header ensures the user's connection to the site is not compromised and results in faster loading times. A shocking 53% of people leave mobile pages it takes longer than three seconds to load, meaning these shorter loading times can be very beneficial to your SEO. Not to mention, the opportunity for these attacks to occur is detrimental to user experience and as a result, SEO.
This security header aims to stop certain exploits by protecting against MIME sniffing vulnerabilities. MIME sniffing is the process of examining the content of a MIME file to determine its context. Hackers often use a tactic to trick browsers by disguising a particular file type as something else. This allows the hackers to perform cross-site scripting and compromise the website, often deeming it unusable. The X-Content-Type-Options header stops this from occurring by disabling the MIME sniffing functionality of IE and Chrome browsers, preventing the promotion of a file of one type to a more dangerous file type
If you have ever been a victim of a clickjacking attack before, you know just how frustrating they can be. These attacks are essentially malicious techniques to trick users into clicking on something different to what the user perceives. X-Frame-Options are headers explicitly built to stop these clickjacking attacks. Ultimately protecting your site's reputation and making you appear more reliable. Nothing is more of a red flag than being known as a security hazard. Implementing these headers can ensure your users aren’t deterred from visiting your site and improve your SEO efforts.
The referrer policy header allows you to control what information is sent via your site when a user clicks on a link to visit another site.This header works by limiting how much information is sent after clicking a link. This can be customised depending on the trustworthiness of the site the user is visiting. If you haven’t heard of these headers before, chances are you don’t have them enabled. A quick way to check is to go to www.securityheaders.io and do a scan of your website.The goal is to ensure server logs don’t expose sensitive information to the wrong hands. Ultimately, boosting your reputation as a reliable site greatly assisting your SEO.
SEO Security Summary
While we understand this list is rather long and certainly not as simple to remember as the SEO basics, HTTP headers should never be dismissed. Once you get the hang of things, HTTP security headers are a relatively simple way to improve web application security without changing the application itself. If you choose the most current headers according to your site's vulnerabilities, it is the best way to ensure your site keeps running smoothly. For more information on how HTTP security headers can benefit your site and SEO, contact Anchor Digital. We spend most of our time on the internet trying to keep up with the continuous changes and trajectories, as we are determined to provide you with the most relevant and helpful information.