Google Rolls Out Encrypted Search: Valuable keyword data hidden

There is a storm brewing in the online marketing world that threatens to make marketers’ jobs and the jobs of seos in particular much more difficult.That storm is Google’s recent implementation of encrypted search for those users logged into a Google service conducting searches from Google.com.  This announcement was made under the guise of providing a more secure browsing experience and has attracted the outrage of many online marketers due to the impact on search referrer data.

What has changed?

When you conduct a search online and click on the search result,  the url that takes you to your destination contains information about the keyword you used to get there.  This data appears in your analytics software of choice and is critical information to help you assess how well your organic search campaigns are performing.

However, with google enforcing encrypted search on google.com, none of this information is passed on to the website owner. Basically, all you will know is that a user came from Google.com and little else.  This data shows up in your Google Analytics referrer data as (not provided).

Below you can see a screenshot from one of my sites in Australia.  I am already starting to get (not provided) appearing in my keyword search referral data form US searchers using Google.com. As of November 17, 2011, users logged into a Google account are still able to conduct non encrypted searches but it is only a matter of time before the encrypted search is rolled out internationally.

So Why all the Fuss?

With the removal of a large percentage of the referring organic keyword data, Google has made it much more difficult to measure the effectiveness of your SEO campaigns. How can you determine whether the visits to my site were as a result of a #1 ranking achieved for a specific keyword if Google is now going to hide this data from you?

When asked by Danny Sullivan of Searchengineland.com about the impact on search referral data, e received the following response:

Google software engineer Matt Cutts, who’s been involved with the privacy changes, wouldn’t give an exact figure but told me he estimated even at full roll-out, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers on Google.com

Most of the anger in the online marketing community stems from the fact that Matt Cutts seems to have downplayed the impact by stating that it would be in single digits when people are starting to report much higher percentages of (not provided) search referrer numbers.

What makes the privacy argument difficult to swallow is that Google is still making the keyword referrer data available to Advertisers using their Google Adwords platform. So they are effectively putting a price on referrer data.  This alone has sent traditional Google stalwarts off the wall with frustration.

Today SEOmoz released some additional sample data of 5,000 sites showing that many were in fact seeing (not provided) referrer figures in much higher percentages than Google indicated.

So What do you do?

Here at Traffika we are going to be keeping a close eye on the keyword referrer data of our clients’ analytics data.  If and when the search referrer data of our client sites moves into significantly high percentages then it is going to make it much more important to provide them with a range of performance measures that demonstrate that our SEO efforts are resulting in better overall outcomes, even if we can’t tell you the keyword that was responsible.

In addition I believe it is going accelerate the take-up of a broader range of traffic strategies such as Facebook Advertising and Google AdWords for those clients not already using them, so that they have more traffic sources and measurable data with which to make marketing decisions.

Do you have any experience with this issue on your sites yet?  I’d love to hear about your experiences or perspectives in the comments below.

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