Last week, the online marketing community was rocked by Google’s announcement that it is Making Search More Secure by encrypting search queries of signed-in users. As stated in the post,“Websites you visit from our organic search listings will still know that you came from Google, but won't receive information about each individual query.”
Non-signed-in users can also encrypt their searches by manually typing in the secure Google web address, https://www.google.com. The “s” after http means you’re on a secure page, as is also indicated by a secure-connection icon in the browser window, usually a lock. (If you’ve never noticed this before, it’s a good thing to look for if you’re ever doing online banking, paying bills, etc.)
What does this means for marketers? Visitors that come to your site via encrypted, organic search will register as an organic visitor, but you won’t see what keywords got them there.
What Does the Update Look Like?
Within Google Analytics (GA), you’ll see the token “(not provided)” to notate encrypted search visits. I jumped into our GA account to see what organic traffic (under "traffic Sources" > "Keywords") looked like in the first week following the announcement.
“(not provided)” has been one of the top referring “keywords” to our website (through midday Oct. 25), falling only behind our brand name. However, from a percentage point of view it accounts for less than 3% of all organic traffic. SEOmoz and Search Engine Land report similar figures, around 2-3%.
Rand Fishkin (@randfish) recommends measuring the amount and percentage of lost keyword data over time to have a clear understanding of encryption’s lasting impact. Google initially stated that the complete rollout will take place “over the next few weeks.” Personally, my searches are not yet encrypted—I still see an http address (no “s”).
Solutions for Marketers
Though the data is hidden, it isn’t completely lost. As shared on the Google Webmaster Central Blog, site owners can still access search query data on a macro level, including:
- The top 1,000 search queries that drove site visitors, and the top 1,000 landing pages on the site, from the past 30 days.
- The site’s average position on search engine result pages (SERPs) for top queries, and related impressions, clicks and clickthrough rate (CTR).
Danny Sullivan’s (@dannysullivan) thoughts: “It is good that the Google Webmaster Central data is there. However, the search data won’t be tied to visitor activity. You’ll be able to tell that someone found your site in various ways, but what they did next—if they converted in some way and so on—won’t be shown.”
In addition to tracking lost keyword data and reviewing Webmaster Tools, Fishkin recommends that SEOs and marketers continue to review and analyze remaining Google keyword data, and potentially pay more attention to Bing, Yahoo and internal search queries, in their analytics.
Not Affecting Google Advertiser Data
Of course, you can always pay Google for enhanced access to keyword data.
Oh yes, there is a caveat: Search data from paid advertisements within Google itself (i.e. AdWords) isn’t blocked. The update “prevents anyone but Google’s own advertisers from doing keyword-level conversion tracking,” said Sullivan. This factor, which seems to negate the emphasis on privacy Google is surrounding the announcement with, has some in the industry calling foul.
Thoughts From the Experts
Says Sullivan: “It specifically—and deliberately—left a gaping hole open to benefit its bottom line. If you pay-to-play, Google will share its search data with you.”
Joost de Valk (@yoast) takes Sullivan’s explanation a step further: “The real reason that Google might have decided to stop sending referral data is different [not about privacy]. I think it is that its competitors in the online advertising space … are using search referral data to refine their (retargeted) ads and they're getting some astonishing results. In some ways, you could therefor [sic] describe this as mostly an anti-competitive move.”
Ian Lurie (@portentint) agrees in an open letter to Google: “You've done this for one reason, and one reason only: To shut out competing ad networks. By removing this data from the referring query string … you've made it far harder for third-party ad networks to measure and quantify traffic quality.”
Brian Whalley (@bwhalley), in a post outlining key marketing implications of the update, offers a more Google-friendly explanation behind the change: “Google's actions here likely come as a result of its recent congressional hearings about how the search engine handles user privacy, security, and advertiser relationships. Google's end to referrer strings demonstrates how it is providing more tools and functionality to protect user data instead of sharing it broadly.”
You? Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil.” So what do you think? It this truly a user-privacy-driven move, or is Google simply acting like the publicly traded company it is and trying in incentivize advertising to increase its bottom line, and damage competitor capabilities in the process?
Either way, this is a major shift by the top search provider, and its marketing implications have yet to become completely clear—at least until we see how far-reaching the impact is, and if others follow suit.
Key Details for Marketers
At a very basic level, here are some at-a-glance takeaways:
- Analytics data, no matter what tool you’re using.
- Reporting to managers, executives, clients, etc.
- Landing page optimization and search-driven content targeting, including keyword research and accuracy of conversion rates.
- Search-driven advertising outside of Google’s network.
- Note: As a HubSpot partner, we know a lot of our readers are HubSpot customers. See how the update will impact you.
- Paid search data for Google advertisers, and related targeting.
We’d love to hear what you think. The comments are open for discussion.
Laurel Miltner is the assistant vice president at PR 20/20, a Cleveland-based inbound marketing agency and PR firm. Follow Laurel on Twitter: @laurelmackenzie.