by Matt Parisi
In a recent startling move, Google has begun encrypting organic search query data from users signed in to a Google account. The encryption process will take place over the coming weeks as Google rolls out the update to all users. What this means is that Analytics programs will lose the ability to report on site usage statistics by keyword for visits initiated by a logged in user. Instead all visits from logged in users will be grouped under the keyword label “(not provided)”. This represents a major loss of important data used by SEO firms to optimize a client’s online presence.
It’s important to note that this currently only affects a small subset of Google searches as Google Software Engineer, Matt Cutts, has indicated this will affect “single digit percentages of all Google searchers“. This implies that up to 9.9% of organic search data will no longer be attributed to a particular keyword in analytics reporting and represents a major loss of insight to marketers who depend on this data to provide better experiences for users who arrive on websites with particular motivations in mind.
While Google attempted to justify the move in the name of User Privacy, there are two key points that trivialize that justification:
- Search query data will still be available for traffic results from AdWords (Google’s paid search product). This seems to send the message that users’ privacy is for sale. This also is a harbinger that paid search could become more important over time as organic search data becomes harder to attain. It also implies that Google could possibly avail marketers this data in a new “Google Analytics Premium” service offering.
- Users who are not logged in do not have their privacy protected. Is privacy only important for users with a Google account? This seems to be the message from Google as search query data is not protected for Google users who may not be logged in.
There has been much speculation that Google could not follow through on a move that would have such negative consequences for marketers or that Google will ultimately enable this information to be somehow passed to Google Analytics at some point in the future. However, despite vocal marketer objections, Google has continued to dictate significant changes over time based on their own interests. This further reinforces the fact that becoming over-reliant on Google comes with significant risks. This fact was highlighted earlier this year with Google “Panda” update. Secure searches will only increase over time as more and more users have Google accounts, which leads to the conclusion that it is time to start planning for life without organic keyword referral data.
This isn’t to say that we don’t expect Google to change. We expect constant innovation and changing norms as a prerequisite of doing business online. What we object to are the pretenses under which this update was made. If this change was truly about user privacy, please enact these changes across all products such that user data truly is private. Until then we have no choice but to suspect ulterior motives. SiteLab has joined the chorus of criticism following this update.