Secure Search? Say Goodbye to Referrer Data

Google have announced they are to encrypt searches by default, using the SSL protocol. Simply put, if you are logged in to Google and using a secure connection, the search engine will hide any keywords you type so they will not appear in analytics. As part of a wider initiative to encourage stronger security standards, users will see the https prefix and can surf safe in the knowledge that their personalised search results will only be seen themselves, and omniscient data bandit Google.

The statement was made on Google’s blog yesterday and will be rolling it out over the next few weeks. The change will only be seen by users already signed in at Google with a secure connection, a small percentage of searches on Google.com. But what of the analytics impact? Negligible, apparently. Websites will still be able to distinguish traffic from organic search listings but may not be able to wheedle out information about individual queries. That does not sound negligible to this sceptical author, no siree.

Anyone carrying out conversion analysis down to the keyword level will surely lose valuable data as a result. This will disrupt analytics. Less than 10% of it, according to Google, but less understanding of user behaviour is bad news for webmasters and analytics tool providers. Indeed, our man on the inside (if you’re at the eMetrics summit, give Dixon Jones a shout!) reports many of Google’s analytics partners are stunned by the move, and dismayed at the 30 minutes notice of the news. Handbags in NYC!

The fact that the modification will not affect ad traffic is puzzling. Well it’s more than puzzling, it downright discredits the increased search security and privacy notion entirely. Yes, it is a privacy issue and we all know Google’s unblemished record on matters of privacy, clearly set out by CEO Eric Schmidt on numerous, creepy occasions. My personal favourite: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about”. Check out this Huffington Post article for more.

So advertisers will still be able to hoard this additional data and use it to assess their campaigns, but the change deals a pretty firm blow to SEO. Consumer wise, it’s a slap in the face from Google who strive so gallantly to protect your information, until of course an advertiser comes calling for it.

From our own agency point of view, it must be stressed that this will not harm our analytics interpretations as we have numerous other information sources for keyword data, including click-through statistics for keywords from Google which we already combine with analytics data. We’ll be keeping a beady eye on our figures to see if the new encryption settings produce any noticeable changes, as well as watching out for other websites following suite – as Google hope.

What do you think, is it a good move from Google, doing their bit to help increase online protection or another half baked effort at privacy? Leave your comments below.

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2 Comments

  1. For a company with as shocking a track record on privacy as Google, it’s s rather unconvincing idea that this is a user-focused move. To my mind the primary advantages to this are:

    – Making advertising using PPC more attractive (or organic less attractive)
    – Allowing less data to get to competitors, and driving users to Google’s own services

    Aside from that, concealing referrer data harms user experience since site owners cannot improve their pages based on knowing a user’s intent and entry point.

    My final thought – if users want to conceal referrers, then that should be a browser level change – and most browsers come with privacy/icognito mode these days.

    All in all, not exactly the most commendable move I’ve seen you make, Google!

  2. I also wonder what the additional motives were for this move. It can’t just be for privacy, especially since the average user has no idea that they were even being tracked in the first place and now has no idea that they are not.

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