Normally, analytics software allows webmasters to gather precise data about which search keywords delivered traffic to their sites. Keyword referral data has been a cornerstone of search analytics since the beginning of the industry.
It seems like this is now changing. On October 18th, Google announced that searchers logged into Google accounts will now be automatically sent to the encrypted version of Google, at https://www.google.com. (Note the extra “S”)
This secure version of Google does not pass on keyword referral data. Basically, this means that webmasters will no longer know which keywords drove search engine traffic from Google. For an industry as data-centric as SEO, this loss of data could be crippling to many marketing efforts.
How exactly will this work? Logged in users will get redirected to Google Secure Search. Searches they perform will be encrypted. Analytics software will still record any secure Google traffic, but the keyword itself will be hidden. Instead, analytics software will record the visit as “not provided.”
It’s important to note that these changes only apply to organic search. AdWords will still record keyword data as usual, even from secure search.
Why the Changes?
Google is claiming that these changes are designed to improve user privacy. On the face of it, this seems to make sense. Defaulting to secure search is a win for privacy.
However, many industry analysts have observed that this change is mostly a privacy victory “on paper.” Primarily, the concern is that AdWords will still report on keyword data as usual. AdWords will also continue with features like retargeting and geotargeting, which could easily be considered “creepier” than just keyword information.
A more cynical perspective that many SEO experts have taken, is that Google is working to obscure search referral data as a competitive move against rival ad networks.
Well known SEO expert Ian Lurie argues that by removing referring keyword data, Google is using its virtual monopoly on search to shut out ad networks that rely on search keyword data to measure and target their advertising.
The Size of the Impact
It’s important to note again that secure search will only be the default for users who are logged in to Google accounts. Google estimates that this will represent less than 10% of overall Google searchers.
To give a practical sense of scale, we’ve sampled some of Where 2 Get It’s search data. The graph below shows the volume of lost keyword data over the past few days.
Since secure-by-default began rolling out on October 18th, this particular web property has lost 290 keywords. When compared to the total 31,625 Google visits in the same timespan, this seems fairly insignificant. Less than 1% of Google keyword data has been lost so far.
However, this change is still rolling out, and most experts expect that the percent of logged-in users will rise over time. Google is certainly eager to get more users actively using Google accounts. Google+, gmail, and other key Google services rely on logging in to Google.
Although this loss of data will be damaging to SEO analytics, there are a range of options available for marketers to continue to monitor and measure Google search traffic.
Firstly, non-logged in searches still get reported as usual. Web analysts should now begin tracking “not provided” keyword data, and watching what segment of overall search traffic it occupies over time.
By knowing what percentage of keyword data has been lost, it would be possible to extrapolate up from the keyword data that does get reported, and generate an estimate of what the missing keywords might have been.
Analysts also continue to have full data from Google, Bing, and other search engines. For marketers who may have been ignoring this smaller set of data, it could now become more valuable.
Google Webmaster Tools is also an extremely valuable resource for dealing with this analytics challenge. It seems like WMT will continue to report on all keyword data, although obviously with considerably less precision than web analytics software.
The loss of keyword analytics represents a step backwards for analysts and SEOs. However, this is a business decision for Google, and it seems unlikely to be undone, despite the industry outcry. Ultimately, Marketers have no choice but to adapt, and find new ways of measuring SEO campaigns