Media agencies are seeing an average of over 10% of their natural search traffic hit by Google’s keyword referral encryption since its UK rollout this month.
New media age surveyed some of the biggest media agencies in the UK, including Starcom Mediavest, VCCP, Mediacom, Mindshare, Media Contacts, Omnicom, Carat, iProspect and Agenda 21, to determine what proportion of their clients’ traffic has been affected since Google rolled out Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption to natural searches in the UK earlier this month.
Those surveyed have seen the amount of natural search traffic affected surge to an average 10%, representing an average uplift of 560% across some agencies’ client verticals compared to pre UK rollout over the last two weeks.
Google started encrypting natural searches in the UK earlier this month, obscuring the amount of referral data advertisers have on visits to their websites (nma.co.uk 7 March 2012).
The move means advertisers will no longer receive referral data showing the natural search keyword terms used to bring users to a website. The search giant has applied SSL to natural searches, which encrypts the keyword referrals made when a user is logged in to a Google account such as Google+. Agencies have been monitoring the effect on traffic in the US, where it was rolled out late last year (nma.co.uk 16 December 2011). But all have noticed a significant spike in traffic affected since it hit the UK earlier this month.
Media Contacts saw an average 454% spike in traffic affected across its verticals taking the average total amount of traffic to be hit by the changes to 9%. Results varied across verticals with travel seeing the highest impact with 11% of traffic missing keyword referral data, up from 2% prior to UK rollout.
Meanwhile its utilities sector saw the amount of traffic affected jump from 2% to 10%, while finance saw a rise to 8.5% of traffic, up from 1.5%. The automotive sector saw a rise in traffic affected with 6% of traffic not containing keyword referral data, up from 1.5% pre rollout.
Media Contact’s head of SEO David Freeman (pictured) said the overall Google’s SSL encryption launch has had a “significant” impact on the level of ‘not provided’ keyword referral data. “Overall, whilst this does provide a more secure platform for users, it is a huge step back for the industry and brands as the industry strives to move away from the last click attribution model to better understand where brands should invest. Without a complete picture at keyword level we can only accurately attribute at a channel level which is a far from ideal solution,” he said.
It will also make it harder to determine the keyword path between paid and natural search, according to Freeman. “Brands and agencies will lose sight of the specifics around the level of conversions which came through brand versus ‘brand + product’ versus generics.”
Mediacom has seen an overall increase in number of visits affected by the changes of up to 2500% since the UK rollout. This means around 10% of natural searches are not showing keyword referral data, up from 1% before UK rollout.
Mediacom’s head of digital operations Rob Weatherhead (pictured) said agencies will need to embrace new ways of measuring and analysing performance to overcome the changes. “As search engine marketers keyword level data is generally where we turn when trying to explain any fluctuations in performance and so not having it seems like a strange concept. What we are facing is a new reality without the full picture on this data,” he said.
However, it is rare for agencies to rely solely on keyword traffic data to assess performance so agencies and brands will have to leverage more data sources for analysis and optimisation, according to Weatherhead.
“While we have had some keyword level traffic data taken away, there remain myriad other data sources at our disposal we can use to assess performance. Overall macro level analysis shouldn’t be affected and more and more this is where the market is going anyway. Away from the granularities of an individual keyword’s traffic and rank, as elements such as search engine personalisation continue to muddy the waters, and more towards overall site traffic and conversions from search engines,” he added.
Starcom MediaVest assessed the percentage of overall searches where keyword referral data is not visible across multiple verticals, which saw over 10% of searches affected - an overall spike of 561% compared to when it had only rolled out in the US. Head of paid search Chris Camacho (below) said the increase of Google+ adoption will drive the percentage up further.
“It seems likely that with Google pushing to increase uptake of Google+ through initiatives such as Google+ Your World, the number of logged-in users will increase over time. While the percentage of users logged into Google while searching does not currently reach the levels of users logged into other platforms, such as Facebook, we believe that it will continue to grow and all players in the digital market should begin to plan how they will work around the loss of data,” he said.
The result will have a knock-on effect across all digital channels, according to Camacho. “Clearly the impact on SEO will be the most significant, forcing SEO agencies to have to find new solutions to both track and prove the value of their work. But the impact will also be felt by other channels in areas such as cross-attribution tracking and in creating integrated digital strategies.”
“Paid and natural search are key to the integration of our marketing strategies, and these integration strategies rely on the visibility of SEO data in order to create the optimum ranking mix across both channels that produces the highest ROI, he said, adding, “An increase in the percentage of untracked search queries would make this difficult, if not impossible to execute.”
Omnicom saw the amount of traffic affected rise to 13.64% across its verticals. It also flagged the fact certain sectors are more vulnerable to the changes than others. Omnicom Group’s head of search Mark Mitchell said Google’s focus on Google+ adoption will drive the number of logged-in users conducting searches, and therefore renders finding alternative ways to measure success all the more urgent.
“As Google continues to promote Google+ and other services that require users to be signed in, along with the recent consolidation of Google’s privacy policies, it seems likely that the proportion of [not provided] searches will increase even more over time. This places an increased urgency on SEOs to start looking at alternative ways of measuring success, and could lead to more content-focused KPIs being used in the coming months,” he said.
Omnicom saw higher amounts of traffic affected for sites that are defined as having more “socially aware” visitors, or a more social focus. “These are now receiving close to 20% of their natural search traffic through the [not provided] keyword. This is to be expected to some extent as these users may be more likely to be signed into Google services such as Gmail, Google Docs or Youtube, however is a far cry away from the initial hints from Google that this would account for up to 10% of natural search traffic,” he added.
Meanwhile Agenda 21 cited the travel sector as seeing the biggest amount of traffic affected, with some clients seeing a 1850% increase in visits from encrypted searches.
Carat’s head of paid search Dan Robins believes the changes are making it harder to view natural and paid search strategies holistically. “Although Google pinpoints its reason for encrypting natural search data as being for the benefit of consumers, to me it proves its wider plan is to drive its paid search business. Advertisers that can see their paid search traffic data, but not their natural search data may then be tempted to reallocate investment from natural to paid search as a result,” he said.