Google Launches SSL Encrypted Searching
The following, as with anything else found on this blog (my personal blog) are my own thoughts and do not reflect the views of my employer or anyone else but myself.
As I am sure anyone in the digital marketing space will have heard by now – Google announced in the past couple of days that they would be launching SSL encrypted searching as the default for logged-in searchers on Google.com. There are many implications of this change but I will leave the technical analysis to this article which I believe does the best job of summarising what it means and what the impacts are. The long and short of it for we marketers is as follows: natural search traffic will appear in analytics without keyword referral data and will appear simply as “not provided”. This was done as a response to some malicious tracking and identification from unsecure Google searches and was done on Google’s end as a change to the search engine rather than as a change to Google Analytics.
Single digit numbers?
Being in the UK we are at present seeing a fairly small number of referrals changing for any of the sites that I have looked at, but I do expect to see that change over time. I think the “less than 10%” or “single digit” figure provided by Matt Cutts to Search Engine Land (in the above link) grossly underestimates the number of true users there are as a percentage because that quote was made in reference to “of searches” I believe, rather than “of searchers.”
As evidenced by folks like Martin MacDonald with his query manipulation discussion in a handful of presentations he has done over the past year, there is a WHOLE lot of search activity (searches) that are not done by humans at all. I would suggest the true number of searchers that are logged in is at least double what we’re being quoted in terms of a percentage of human searches. At this point we are looking at a much more sizeable chunk of the market which will have a large impact when you actually want to look at conversions and true USER behaviour – but we’ll have to wait and see what the true percentage of valuable search data this impacts I suppose.
This will almost certainly change the way we report (though in the UK probably won’t be for a few more weeks until it really hits hard) and brand vs. non-brand will be one of the first things to go in my opinion – as mentioned by Hugo Guzman in the following post.
Checks and balances?
For me though, the slight inconvenience to us as marketers is not my main source of contention it is how blindly Google have defended the move (even some of their best known data lovers). I know that there were some dangerous loopholes and so forth (see additional resources below) but I also know that organic search marketers have now lost our only way to verify or test on our own Google’s assertions “PPC adds incremental traffic x% of the time” or anything to do with branded versus non-branded testing. All of that would now be statistically insignificant and there is no check on that power or independent verification possible anymore. This will only add further speculation and mistrust in Google’s figures about search behaviour as there is no genuine way to verify any longer.
Further to the point, the amount of hypocrisy associated with applying this to organic results and not paid results seems like playing with fire to me and I would expect a strong response from a lot of watchdog agencies on this front. If this was truly undertaken as a means of protecting privacy this surely needs to be applied to all data – which would also be a considerable blow to Google’s position in the provision of web analytics (which coincidentally they have recently started charging large sums of money for premium accounts).
Lastly, it makes me a bit upset the degree to which this has been defended. There would be plenty of ways to pass referral data on in a more secure manner without some of the previous exposed risks with tracking and identification – if it was in the interest of privacy I could not see this being rolled out only to logged-in users it would be to everyone and paid search results would not be excluded.
The potential implications of this are massive to competitor analytics platforms as well as organic search marketers – something that is probably not a big concern for Google – however, the biggest single issue with this announcement for me is the fact that it seems to go directly against Google’s stated preference for webmasters to create great content that is of value to our users. If we can’t know what keywords provide the greatest satisfaction for our users and those keywords that are most likely to lead a user to make a purchase how on earth are we to target our pages and improve our content accordingly. Unfortunately, the logic that follows, is that this data is only readily available if you’re willing to pay for advertising.
This is of course a complicated and complex issue and at the moment I think there have been a lot of overreactions – however, I cannot help but stress my concern about the direction in which Google appear to be heading with decisions like this and cannot see how this particular “fix” is considered the best way to deal with the original issue that triggered the problem.
This feels to me more like a warning shot across the bow of SEO practitioners, affiliate marketers, and loads of other webmasters and though it may not be that far reaching yet, this could have huge implications.
The most important and most difficult part:
SEO would not and will not die as a result of this. What really sucks is this hurts the genuine SEO agencies that take their job seriously, that actually report on their work and create clever reporting and optimise in a manner that provides value to their users and leads to “satisfied searchers” (i.e. ones that convert). Taking this away doesn’t make SEO go away, it makes it harder for the good guys in the industry to continue to provide a professional service.
The fact that we can’t track the results of our work as easily won’t make webspam go away or even be that much less effective – the results will still come from whatever methods are working for a given search engine at a given time and the revenues will still stream into the pockets of those that optimise best, but most won’t know how to communicate what is working.
It looks like Google has moved first, it will be interesting to see what this growing battle might amount to.
Edit: What they’re not talking about (!)
One thing that no one seems to be talking about and was pointed out to me by one of my colleagues at my day job, Rob Hammond, is the fact that whilst Google are no longer sharing the referring keyword they are still sending the site that was visited. If the concern was truly with privacy and the fact that people might see your search history, surely it is no better that they can see the website visited even if not the query. We will leave the graphic details aside but as Rob pointed out, if the concern is that your family, employer, loved ones, etc. might tie a query back to you as an individual for the term “redacted” surely if they could see the fact that you subsequently viewed the website “redacted.com” this would not be any better.
Lastly, as Rob also raised, in addition to the fact that this doesn’t really close the loophole that was allegedly the initial concern, it leaves another potential loophole wide open to be exploited with the data that is passed.