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As announced yesterday, Google will begin to encrypt searches made by logged in users, which also means that sites will no longer receive referral data from these searchers. 

This referral data, which reveals the organics search terms which led visitors to a particular webpage, is vital in assessing the performance of keywords, optimising landing pages and more. 

The decision to remove this source of data has been justified by Google on privacy grounds, citing the example of people using wi-fi in public places. Referral data from paid search ads will still be available, whether the user is logged in or not. 

There is plenty of anger at this move by Google, perhaps best summed up by the headline of Ian Lurie's post: 'Dear Google: This is War."

I've been asking some of our guest bloggers and search and e-commerce experts what they think of this move... 

What impact will this have for SEOs and web owners? 

James Gurd, independent e-commerce and marketing consultant

The negative impact is the hit to optimisation. SEOs and web managers rely on the organic keyword data to evaluate which keywords are performing well vs. those that aren't. They then can analyse landing pages and site paths to identify what might be putting off traffic for specific keywords, come up with hypotheses for testing and test different landing page/content solutions to improve engagement and conversion.

While this is done to add value to the website, it is achieved by improving the user experience. By removing the keyword data, you are effectively blind as to what is really happening. For example, if I have a landing page that has 5,000 visits each week but really low engagement and poor conversion, I can currently dig into the keywords and find out which ones are contributing to the poor stats.

With Google's new change, all I would see is one piece of data for generic keywords with no granularity. How can I optimise the website effectively with a reduction in data quality?

Kevin Gibbons, Founder, SEOptimise

It's difficult to say,but at the moment, assuming we won't be able to access keyword data and there's no way of working around this, it gives greater emphasis towards keyword research and rank tracking from an SEO perspective. As this is likely to be the most accurate of predicting the volume and value of traffic from individual keywords.

There are lots of questions still to be answered, such as how does this affect all analytics providers and tools such as Hitwise and SearchMetrics, which rely heavily on providing market share research at keyword level. So I think there's still a big learning curve ahead before we finally know the implications of what this means to our strategies and the best ways of working around this.

Matthew Curry, E-commerce manager at Lovehoney:

For online retailers, there are two issues:

1) Being able to track conversion rate and page path on an organic keywords basis is important, and I'm not convinced (at least, if the proportion of (not provided) entries increases), that I will be able to accurately do this.

Analysts, including me, expect this percentage to be higher than the single figures suggested by Google, and will therefore cast doubt onto the confidence of some results.

2) Not being able to see the UTM variable for keyword nixes a fair bit of innovative work, through either personalising content based on keyword or phrase (it is somewhat insulting that Google considers this practise to be primarily cloaking, rather than proving a more targeted experience), or in the case of MVT, being able to segment visitors based on inbound keyword in post-test analysis.

Teddie Cowell, Guava:

It's not good from an analytics point of view. The main loss is the referring keyphrase data. They will have a less clear view of how people arrived at their website. Things like bounce rate tracking may also be harder.

Rishi Lakhani, Search Marketing Consultant

It's downright wrong that Google is treating SEO and PPC data as two separate situations. Although SEO isn't technically 'paid for' media, businesses invest a lot in it, especially around user personalisation, and better user experiences.

At the same time, just like paid search, brands need to know what to invest in, and secluding this data isn't right. Google should either apply this broadly, to include paid search, or shouldn't block those referrers, as long as brands have taken care to protect user privacy. 

Malcolm Coles, Product Manager, digital at Trinity Mirror:

It has been quoted as being single digit percentages of logged in searchers, but I suspect this will be a higher figure for searches as you might expect logged in users to be more advanced or loyal users.

This figure is only going to go up as Google pushes G+. It's reasonable to assume that as more people sign up for accounts, they'll stay logged in to Google forever, pushing the percentage who are affected higher.

Dan Barkere-commerce and online marketing consultant:

It damages the usefulness of every web analytics package on the market. It's doubly sad as, after many years of users asking, Google had just released a great update to Google Analytics that improved site owners' ability to understand what was happening in natural search. This doesn't knock that totally on the head, but it makes it less useful.

Google's #1 organisational value is "Focus on the user and all else will follow". But if you're a website owner, this change reduces your ability to focus on the user, as it means you understand less about how users are reaching your website.

Alex Moss, Search Marketing Consultant, Pleer:

This isn't good for SEOs and may even have a detrimental effect on Google later on. If SEOs don't know individual keywords that are performing, we won't know if specific landing pages will actually serve what the user needs.

As an example, if I have a page optimised for five keywords and four of them actually need to lead to a better quality page rather than the one they're landing on, how do we know what those terms are and how to give a better experience to the user?

Combined with the fact that more and more people are joining Google+ and therefore will be more inclined to sign in, this problem will only get worse over time...

Is this just about privacy? 

James Gurd

My view is that it's a cynical commercial decision by Google to ensure the only way you can get accurate keyword level data is by ploughing on with paid search. Yes you can get the data from Yahoo, Bing etc but what's the use when Google has over 80% market share in UK and in some countries like Holland, much higher.

For me there is no logic to the privacy claim. I am a logged-in user every time I use Google on my laptop, and the keyword searches I use contain no private data. What difference does it make to me if a web owner knows that today they had one visit from the UK on the keyword "exercise bike". Nothing. It can't identify anything about me because Google, quite rightly and because of legislation, doesn't pass on personal information. So how does moving to SSL protect privacy? It just doesn't stack up.

Kevin Gibbons: 

I think everyone's been caught by surprise a bit by this one. Normally Google's decisions, whether they are popular or not, aim to make things more relevant and easier for users, but I'm struggling to understand the reasoning behind this change. 

Obviously Google will often have a need to increase revenues when it comes to algorithm updates too, but they mainly look to improve things for users at the same time, at least in theory. Continuing Google's revenue growth patterns of previous years was always going to be a huge challenge, but if this is the key reason behind removing keyword data from analytics then it's a very bold and risky move in my opinion to say the least and could quite easily backfire.

We're currently running a poll about this on SEOptimise, and based on the results so far, a resounding 82% say that this is a revenue-focused change. 

Teddie Cowell:

I suspect it's to prevent other businesses monitoring Google's clickstream data, think about the Bing/Google spat earlier in the year. Clickstream data is a very important, often overlooked data source for search engines these days.

Matthew Curry:

It doesn't offer privacy, at least not from marketers. Searchers will open natural and paid results in tabs following a search, so ultimately the search term is still being passed. it "does" protect from software on the computer, or the network, or ISP, from pulling these terms. I imagine Hitwise is not too happy.

The way this has been framed is a little unnerving, Google should at least make clear its vested interest here, and it has made me distrust the word of Google somewhat.

Malcolm Coles: 

There have been privacy concerns raised around Google's cookie and referrer data. But what should have been a good privacy PR story just looks weird due to their decision to pass the keyword data for PPC not SEO.

I've yet to see a convincing reason for this that focuses on the customer. Paying advertisers want the data, but that's a different matter to the principle of doing something for privacy reasons for searchers.

Dan Barker:

The pitch is that this is about privacy, but there were lots of ways Google could have protected privacy to the same extent without hobbling web analytics tools.

I think the project probably started out as a pure 'privacy' thing, which is great, but the implementation of this also helps Google in other ways. For example, it makes it a little bit harder for SEOs to understand what's going on in Google. PPC was already more measurable than SEO. This further diminishes the measurability of SEO vs PPC.

Probably the biggest thing is that this hides data from its competitors. Over the last few years, Google has massively diversified outside of search. This change means Google themselves have as much data as they've always had, meanwhile their competitors (and everyone else) lose some of that knowledge.

Graham Charlton

Published 20 October, 2011 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (23)

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Simon Dalley

Google have to realise they exist in a symbiotic relationship with website owners and there are things that are actually for the good of their search results.

By disallowing web owners the ability to find out what organic keywords are driving traffic, Google are likely to reduce the quality of their organic search results - what's more they are forcing us to rely on Adwords data (which is probably the idea as it makes them more money). However, by forcing us to rely on Adwords data they are almost saying there is no difference between the way people use sponsored links and organic links - which begs the question - why can't we see the organic keyword stats?

I realise they aren't rolling this out to everything yet but I think it's pretty obvious this is the way they intend to go - and if everyone is going to be logged into their Google Plus account then it won't make a massive amount of difference!

almost 5 years ago

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Richard Sparks

These are all very interesting points. I presume that this was supposed to be a positive PR story on privacy for Google, following the launch of the GoodToKnow site.
It will be intriguing to see what happens as this comes into effect - whether or not it will have as significant impact as we think, or if Google's predicted single figure percentages will be accurate.

almost 5 years ago

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Birger from DC Storm

I've made an extensive referrer test and posted the results on our (German) website:
http://www.dc-storm.de/news/Google+k%C3%BCndigt+SSL-Suche+an+-+Gedanken+dazu/

My UK fellows have translated it into English (though not all updates yet):
http://www.dc-storm.com/news-events/471/google-announces-default-ssl-searches/

If you look at the referrer results it shows clearly that referrer is not removed. Google just removes the 'q' parameter value for organic clicks. If you click on a paid ad Google will pass the 'q' parameter to the target site as usual.

For me that has nothing to do with privacy but is just up to Google if they want to pass the search term or not. Interestingly AdWords ads seem to have a higher value to them than the organic results. :)

almost 5 years ago

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joe Cibula

People need to go back to the root of the problem, which is that pay per click and search don't mix. Google has caused more problems over the past 10 or so years; It amazes me that anyone ever built on top of such a shaky foundation. Hypothetically, if a search engine were free [of charge], would you be talking about SEO? Get into another line of work, because 2 things are going to happen: (1) PPC search engines such as Google and Bing need to force people to pay per click to stay in business; and (2) with inverse search engines, you don't need SEO.

almost 5 years ago

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Nikki Rae

Hmm, "Don't Be Evil", huh?

Great comments, guys!

Nikki Rae

almost 5 years ago

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Saffig

If Google had done this for both SEO and PPC then we might have believed them, but then they would have directly impacted their income stream, which no business would choose to do.

I don’t see how withholding keyword data from the referrer can protect privacy at all and as pointed out by others it just prevents website owners from improving the user experience. This might be the case of Google trying to promote privacy, albeit misguided, but not wanting to take a hit on revenue and so proving to us all that they put money before users.

I agree that in the medium term this will directly affect the quality of their rankings and webmasters will not be able to optimize their web pages accordingly. In the short term they will just use the data we have already collected and in the long term people will probably find other ways to get around this.

Google needs to remember that their revenue is driven by people searching for ‘quality’ websites. If they stop the webmasters from improving their website the people might search less or possibly even search using other providers. In reality this probably won’t happen as people are used to search results not being perfect, but only time will tell.

Another daring approach is for webmasters to fight back; if every webmaster in the world added a site wide noindex tag specifically for Google then Google’s organic search results would disappear in a matter of weeks and users would be forced to use other more webmaster friendly websites. But this would only work if every webmaster did this, which is unfortunately farfetched.

almost 5 years ago

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Adrian Land

I wrote a short post about this last summer. It just seems like another 'good' idea that may go fully live without thinking about the consequences. In one swoop analytics and insights could be lost and put the legitimate SEO professionals into the equivalent to the dark ages.

You can see my post here--> http://www.adrianland.co.uk/analytics/google-ssl-search-could-hurt-seo-tracking/

almost 5 years ago

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Richard Acton, Digital Marketing Technologist at Mondelez InternationalEnterprise

Considering "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.", this change will surely have a negative impact to what Google are trying to achieve.

If web site owners are unable to optimise their content for their audience, one would expect information to become less accessible and useful.

I wonder if natural search term reports will still be available in Google Analytics Premium.

almost 5 years ago

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Gav Sethi

I'm surprised at this reaction from all comments & this blog post. I guess we need to look at the next move of mighty Google.

Could this mean that Google's looking at restricting this data to GA (only) together with monitizing Google Analytic's or may be even the data from GA. There's a lot to read in between the lines it appears!

almost 5 years ago

Sonu Sayeed

Sonu Sayeed, Marketing Director at Volusion (UK)

I think your onto something Gav.

almost 5 years ago

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay, Managing Director at 120 Feet

So far it's just applicable to google.com and not google.co.uk or other Google LTDs. On the whole that's a relief for my clients.

There was an interesting post on Search Engine Land yesterday about a class action lawsuit re Google and referrer data, so perhaps Google’s update is related to covering its arse (or as we're talking about Google should this be 'ass'?) and therefore why it went live just on Google.com.

http://searchengineland.com/class-action-suit-targets-google-seeks-elmination-of-search-query-sharing-53895

almost 5 years ago

Niranjan Sridharan

Niranjan Sridharan, Digital Auditor at ABC

@Jonathan - the encryption is in place for google.co.uk as well I am afraid - http://innovation-central.blogspot.com/2011/10/https-google-referer-analysis.html . It is going to be a circus I am afraid unless the default option is not implemented

almost 5 years ago

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Adam Arnold

It's a shame that Google have suggested the SSL update is to improve privacy.

As a business decision, it makes perfect sense. Not only do they drive sign ups for Google accounts (as people see this as a means of improving privacy), they generate additional business for Google Adwords.

almost 5 years ago

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Ani Lopez

Scared by 0.82% of visits with keywords missed? After 4 days of 'non provided' here you have numbers http://dynamical.biz/blog/seo-technical/non-provided-keywords-38.html

almost 5 years ago

Brian Clifton

Brian Clifton, Author, CEO & Web Metrics Strategist at Advanced Web Metrics

@Jonathan Kay
google.com is the first phase of the roll-out. Other domains will have this soon i.e. within weeks.

@Gav Sethi
this effects ALL web analytics solutions – not just GA

Both here and elsewhere people have commented on the “double standard” of doing this for organic search but not paid search, and therefore inferred an ulterior motive from Google. That is, either to pander to the needs of Adwords advertisers, or to include this as part of GA Premium (paid-for Google Analytics) i.e. “privacy is not so important if you pay us“.

I don’t believe either to be the case. The gaping hole of showing search terms from ad click-throughs will surely be closed. Having a two-tier approach to privacy based on what you clicked on has never been Google’s approach in the past.

I seriously think this is a communication mess-up – rushed and not thought through properly. This appears to be happening more often these days from G.... In fact, I find the whole idea of bombarding users with feature announcements week-on-week to be counter productive. Yes it shows products developing (good), but it also gives the impression of lack of focus and planning – as is the case here (bad).

Brian Clifton
Author and former Head of Web Analytics Google, EMEA

My thoughts on this are also at:
http://www.advanced-web-metrics.com/blog/2011/10/19/organic-search-terms-blocked-by-google/

almost 5 years ago

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Joe

So SEO steps closer to the paid-for realm. What's the worst case scenario? SEO companies have to tighten their belts and fork out, or have less data, and hence give the end user a more generic experience. So what?

SEO evolves, just like everything else in computing. The world moves on. What's the worst that can happen to you? You lose your SEO job. So what? I'm sure you weren't working in SEO five years ago. I'm sure you can adapt.

over 4 years ago

Lucy Paget

Lucy Paget, Digital Projects Manager at ICAEW

I wonder if this has anything to do with the cookie laws that will be implemented early next year? As we get closer to the deadline the story will be picked up by more mainstream media and privacy issues on the internet will become a "hot topic" once again. Google will be able to say it's ahead of the game and is already taking the "right" steps, although G+ users are logged in that's not enough justfication for keeping information on what they've searched for, and I doubt Google want an ugly "Do you want to accept cookies?" banner on every page of thier SERPs - so perhaps this is their way round it?

Either way, I can't help thinking that this won't make any user's experience better. *Facepalm*.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Afternoon all,

Some interesting comments on this thread.

@Joe - this isn't just about SEOs, it also affects business owners. The beauty of SEO is that small businesses can invest time and effort in optimising their website to improve performance because they don't have to spend £lots on advertising costs. By removing one important set of data from web analytics, you impede this and make it harder to make decisions based on knowledge and insight. It's one thing knowing which keywords have the highest local market searches, it's another to know how individual keywords affect your website KPIs.

@Lucy you may be right, but why doesn't Google give users a choice? I personally am happy for websites to capture keyword data from searches to help them make sensible optimisation decisions. That data does not compromise my privacy or reveal anything about me that I wouldn't want disclosed.

For me the privacy surge is driven by paranoia and isolated complaints. I don't personally know anyone (and I know at least 3 people, not including myself) who is concerned about keyword data per se. I can understand people getting twitchy about IP being passed as that is easier to trace back to an individual, but keywords? I just don't get it. Perhaps I'm being blissfully naive and we're on the edge of privacy invasion armageddon....

thanks
james

over 4 years ago

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Robert Nemec

I measure the (not provided) almost every single day and the percentage is every day rising. Three days before it was 1 %, now it is slightly more than 2 %.

over 4 years ago

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Stuart Goymer

Yes a very interesting debate. Has anyone considered that this is inline with the recent push to use Webmaster tools to track user data?

It is now available within GA. So as long as your site is verified there is good data still available, including:

• View the top 1000 daily search queries and top 1000 daily landing pages for the past 30 days.
• View the impressions, clicks, clickthrough rate (CTR), and average position in search results for each query, and compare this to the previous 30 day period.
• Download this data in CSV format.

Maybe Google want to offer organic referral and click data in return for 'sharing' your site's technical data with them.

The official Google Webmaster blog release about SSL clearly shows a relation between the two and their plans to improve the data in future.

We could end up with far better data for organic KWP analysis than before.

over 4 years ago

Adam Tudor

Adam Tudor, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at The Black Hole

Totally agree Adam, since the introduction of the 'minimum bid price' and the mysterious quality score, Google seems driven to squeeze more out of the paid search market, bringing in new features and subtly driving up prices. This just seems like another effort to decrease transparency of search as you say and drive up PPC use. On both counts I am sure it will be quite successful.

over 4 years ago

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John

One of the big concerns of ssl enabled search is that we can't able to track the keywords and that's where all our analysis fails.

over 4 years ago

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Lavender

Good answer back in return of this issue with real arguments and describing everything about that.

about 4 years ago

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