Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land first broke the news that Google is now directing all users to its encrypted search engine. Encrypted search affords users greater privacy when searching, as search query data is not passed along to webmasters and digital marketers. Google Analytics, the leading Web analytics package on the market in terms of install base, reports encrypted search queries as “not provided” within its interface. Now, all Google-referred organic traffic will report search queries as “not provided,” making the process of search engine optimization (SEO) decidedly more difficult.
The sparse details coming from Google indicate this was done for “search users,” though no information was provided on why Monday was chosen for the switch. Previously, only search users who were authenticated into Google’s services (GMail, Google Docs, YouTube, etc.) would have search queries encrypted. Many SEOs, myself included, have been crying foul over Google’s apparent double standard on this particular issue of privacy: paid search advertisers are still privy to user query data. It seems Google has made the determination that user privacy is a noble cause, so long as it doesn’t affect its bottom line.
For the SEO world, what recourse (if any) do we have? How can we now communicate value to those we serve, while advancing the Web experiences of the sites we manage? In practical terms, what does this all really mean?
For starters, it means a lot of people are going to voice frustration, and not only the to-be-expected variety. Small-business owners, brand marketers, C-suite executives are all going to be hugely disappointed with this change. Google organic search drives more than half of the visitors to many client sites that we manage; relaying the news that we have no insight into the terms people queried won’t be a fun exercise. Thanks, Google.
It also means that some businesses will become casualties on the periphery, or at least in full-on scramble mode to recast core components of their offerings. In particular trouble: search retargeting and search analytics vendors. Keyword queries are crucial elements of those technologies; hopefully these businesses saw this coming.
For SEOs, it means we’re yet again revisiting how we communicate the value of our services. It’s impossible to call this an evolution, but instead an unguided meandering as we attempt to navigate this change. We’ve gone from rank tracking, to rank tracking plus web/search analytics, to a focus on analytics and resultant performance data, now to a dozen varied workaround hacks. Convincing clients of the value of our counsel now seems akin to the scene in the movie “Office Space,” where Tom Smykowski is trying to convince“The Bobs” of his worth by saying, ”I have people skills! What the hell is wrong with you people?!”
Numerous how-to articles, timely email offers from technology providers, and even a fantastic Moz Whiteboard Friday (on a Tuesday) have all surfaced to help SEOs deal with the reality now before us. I offered up a similar set of recommendations for dealing with keyword (not provided) in a column from nearly a year ago that still has a lot of applicability today.
This is the new reality facing SEOs in Monday’s wake. But keyword queries are only a part of the larger story. This is more than Google behaving like a bratty child, taking its toys and going home. I suspect these are calculated chess moves aimed at controlling the entire online advertising environment. Google is also rumored to be developing an alternative to cookies as the primary mechanism to track audiences and provide intelligence to display advertisers. That initiative is also being led under the guise of “user security” and privacy.
I’m hopeful that history will prove me wrong, and that I’m nothing but a conspiracy theorist, but amassing an unrivaled amount of consumer data and then selling it back to advertisers seems to be the long play for Google. And initiating these moves during a time of heightened consumer privacy sensitivities (thanks to the NSA controversy) would certainly provide convenient air cover.
It’s not unrealistic to envision a future where connecting with prospective customers requires a transaction with Google. SEOs, digital advertisers, online publishers, Web consumers, anyone with a pulse – everyone should care about this.