Google recently switched on encrypted search by default for any user logged in to a Google Account (Gmail, Picasa, Google+ Google Analytics, etc.). Google’s objective in doing so is to better safeguard the privacy of its users as they perform searches on Google. With encrypted search activated, search queries and search traffic is encrypted (using the industry standard SSL protocol) to prevent eavesdropping from intermediary parties that might have access to a user’s network. Essentially, this feature prevents others from seeing what keywords are being searched for when the searcher is logged in to a Google Account.
Today, for users who’ve received the update, logging in to their Google account will automatically flip them over to the secure version of Google.com (https://www.google.com – note the extra “s”) when performing a Google Web search. While this can be perceived as a positive step towards increased privacy, the key ramification of this, which impacts marketers directly, is that the keyword search terms which refer a logged in searcher to any website is removed by Google. This directly impacts our ability to understand what content resonates with the search audience and how effectively searchers are converting from search.
Google has proclaimed that this privacy measure will only impact 10% or less of search traffic, but as we take a deeper look into the change, this number appears to be an overly conservative estimate. Furthermore, as Google continues to promote its Google+ service, which revolves around users being actively authenticated, we could see the impact grow even further.
Ironically, Google has exempted Adwords search marketing ads from having this valuable keyword data obfuscated to marketers. How this double standard reconciles itself with the spirit of privacy under which this change was brought about is anyone’s guess.
How does this work?
(Websites no longer receive query data from Google when users are signed in)
“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.”
What does it mean for marketers?
So how many people are signed in while searching at any given time? According to Google, when the update is rolled out completely, they expect less than 10% of the queries to be filtered under their new implementation. The update only impacts natural search referrals and does not currently impact paid clicks.
All web analytics and digital marketing solutions that rely on or track organic search at a keyword level will be impacted, including Google Analytics and landing page optimization solutions such as Omniture Test & Target. The update is not fully rolled out, but it seems fairly widespread even at this stage. While Google suggests it will only have a single digit impact on marketer’s overall keyword referral traffic, every site could be different and several sources seem to be reporting a higher impact. Marketers can still hope to receive 85 to 90 percent of the data they’ve always received, and neither Bing nor Yahoo have announced similar plans to follow in Google’s footsteps.
Sites that customize landing page content based on natural keyword referrer data will also be affected. Dynamic landing page customizations will unfortunately see deterioration in effectiveness. This is concerning because it limits a marketer’s ability to do customization in real-time by leveraging keyword referral data that often improves the experience for Google’s users who engage in searches. The impact on ad networks that use this natural query data for retargeting is also unclear.
What should marketers do?
Marketers should already be monitoring their traffic logs and web analytic tools to verify actual impact on each website. The trend of Google keywords being affected by this change will undoubtedly grow as overall Google search query volume increases and more searchers remain logged in to Google services. Brands will have noticed this shift in mid-October when the roll-out occurred.
As the actual increase of obfuscated keywords nears 15%, it should not stop marketers from making actionable decisions through the statistically significant pool of natural keyword data still available.
The aggregate number of obfuscated keyword referrals can be monitored by all major analytic tools, including Omniture, Coremetrics, Google Analytics, and WebTrends.
Different web analytics tools report on those keyword referrals in different ways. For example, Omniture reports those encrypted searches as “Keyword Unavailable”. Adobe’s blog also indicated a platform update to ensure that total Google natural traffic is calculated correctly.
It’s important that marketers evaluate how their specific analytic tools (Omniture, Coremetrics, Google Analytics, etc.) measure and monitor Google encrypted search referrals. Marketers should also get verified on Google’s Webmaster Tools, a source that is not subject to the keyword data filtering caused by encrypted searches and will therefore allow access to more natural search query data. Google’s Webmaster Tools collect data from within Google’s backend data source which does not retain any personalized information. Despite questionable confidence in the tool’s data accuracy, it presents a good place to understand keyword trends alongside typical web analytics reporting sources.
Google claims that search is a customized experience and, therefore, there is a growing responsibility to protect personalized search results being delivered. But for many, removing natural search query data for logged in searchers and not paid search advertising clicks seems contradictory. Bottom line, marketers don’t want any of this data to be filtered out.
Regardless of Google’s motive, the update is a reality, so marketers should already be monitoring the growing ratio of obfuscated keywords appearing in Google’s natural search referral reports. As it stands today, marketers are only slightly wounded, but should be aware of future trends and updates associated with this change. With so much attention on Google+ lately, and knowing Google’s ultimate mission is to have more of their users logged in (encrypted), the percentage of referring queries filtered will likely increase.
- Adam Whippy, SEO Director, and Mike Dobbs, Group SEO Director at 360i