Back in October 2011, Google first announced it would introduce encrypted search and no longer provide search keywords for users who were logged into their Google account. Originally, Google indicated that the change would only have a single-digit-percent impact on Google’s organic search traffic.
However, since then I’ve watched the percent of organic search keywords that were not provided climb steadily above 60% for all my search terms on Powerpointninja.com. For a website owner and data geek, this was a very disappointing trend—especially given the misleading expectation that Google had set. I came to the same conclusion as many other analysts and SEO experts that the keyword data would never return to what it once was—but I felt as though I still had some limited insights into natural search traffic that I could use.
A couple of weeks ago, I was upset to learn of Google’s recent expansion of its search encryption to all organic search keywords. This time Google didn’t even attempt to notify website owners of its new approach. When you dominate two-thirds of the search engine market and are bigger than Facebook, Netflix, and Instagram combined, I guess you don’t need to explain what you’re doing—you just do what you want.
It’s difficult to lose data that you previously had, especially in a key area like keyword data that seems so elementary or basic to managing a website. In web analytics, I’ve become accustomed to gaining new insights, not losing them so it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Before this news surfaced, I had already come to conclusion that Google was being disingenuous with its desire to protect the privacy of its users with secure search. I believe nobody wins, except Google, when it comes to its move to search encryption.
When you evaluate the secure search topic, there are three key stakeholders: individual users, websites, and Google. I’d like to review what each party stands to benefit or lose from Google’s move to fully encrypted search.
With the increased focus on online privacy, it makes sense that Google positioned its move to fully encrypted search as a way of protecting the personal search queries of its users. As the public grows increasingly concerned about unlawful hackers and big brother (NSA), nobody is going to question why Google is emphasizing secure search.
A Google spokesperson affirmed their position with Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan: “We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users…The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.” This is wonderful news, right? Who wants to have their searches eavesdropped over an unsecure WiFi hotspot? Not me and probably not you either.
In a separate CNET article, Sullivan makes an interesting argument for Google to push the entire Web to be more secure, just like it urged publishers to introduce faster sites for better rankings. For good measure, can we also throw in an SSL unicorn prancercising across a double HTTPS rainbow? It’s not going to happen—unless it was in Google’s best interests.
Privacy is just a vehicle for Google to drive its own strategic agenda. If its individual users’ privacy were the real concern then Google wouldn’t leave a gaping loophole for advertisers to still obtain paid search keywords. Simply because a searcher clicks on a paid ad instead of an organic search result, the search query data is still passed to the website or advertiser. Many Google searchers probably don’t realize their search queries are being shared with advertisers. When you think you’re safe from prying eyes, you behave differently and are more adventurous. Individual users may be more exposed now if they feel a false sense of privacy with Google’s implied secure search.
Ultimately, the real privacy concern would be how an individual’s stream of queries could be stitched together to create an interesting user profile—something only Google is in a position to do. Each website only sees the portion of organic search keywords that brought someone to their site. A publisher would have no idea what other queries individuals are performing and what other websites they are visiting (without the help of a third-party).
In most cases, I’d argue individual users actually benefit from sharing their keywords with the websites they visit. While you may not want your co-workers, neighbors, or parents to know what keywords you’re searching for, you want the relevant websites to understand the purpose of your visit and help you find the content or products you’re looking for. Without organic keyword data, websites have less ability to help visitors accomplish their goals. This gap will lead to less precise content, more assumptions about what visitors are trying to achieve, and a potentially inferior user experience. With incomplete privacy protection and less effective user experiences, individual users will lose.
From a website owner perspective, Google’s reluctance to share organic keywords means individuals and businesses can only see search keywords for non-Google queries and AdWords campaigns. While you still have organic keyword data from other search engines such as Yahoo! and Bing, the vast majority of search traffic comes from Google. It’s like losing one of your favorite TV channels from your satellite or cable package—it sucks.
The days of the symbiotic relationship between Google Search and search marketers are gone. The popular search engine benefited from having websites optimize and improve the quality and relevance of their organic search listings by leveraging its keyword data. Now it appears Google is prepared to go it alone by removing the organic search queries. The free ride is over–literally.
Without organic keyword data from Google, you now have a sizeable blind spot in your online marketing efforts that will impact your ability to convert organic traffic from Google into repeat visitors or customers. Google offers its Webmaster Tools reports as an alternative method for discovering popular organic search queries. If you’ve used these WMT reports in the past, you will have noticed significant rounding issues and discrepancies with your analytics reports. Unfortunately, the main problem with these reports is that they are disconnected from your engagement and conversion metrics. In essence, we’ve gone back to the mid-to-late 1990s with keyword data, when it was only about popularity and not about the downstream effectiveness or impact of the keywords.
Aside from trying to infer the organic search keyword traffic from the landing pages and other onsite behaviors, websites can only get Google keyword data by continuing to invest in paid search campaigns (hmmm). Previously, you might have been able to ramp up your organic search traffic and reduce your paid search spend, but now that strategy will be less clear cut and more risky without keyword data. With the growing dependency on AdWord campaigns and the added difficulty in understanding how organic search is performing, website owners—large and small—will lose as well.
If this change isn’t a good idea for individuals or companies, why does it make sense for Google? It all centers on Google’s AdWords program, which is the company’s main source of revenue and generated $45.2 billion in 2012. An interesting infographic from WordStream showed how 96% of Google’s revenue came from advertising in 2011. Clearly, advertising revenue is critical to Google’s continued success and future growth.
Now if I asked you what is the single biggest threat or competitor to Google’s AdWords program, you might have thought Bing Ads. However, in reality Google’s biggest competition comes from its own organic search results. Whenever individuals click on an organic search listing instead of a paid search ad, Google makes no money. If companies shift dollars from their paid search budget to funding SEO efforts, Google loses potential ad revenue. Google’s superior search results become its own Achilles heel when it comes to maximizing ad revenue.
While Google wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize its effectiveness in providing relevant results to its search users (no cooking the golden goose), it did find a way to force companies to continue spending on AdWords campaigns and reduce spending on SEO— by severing the keyword data pipeline. It basically ordered a hit on its chief competitor in order to strengthen its overall ad business. Despite what Google states publically, its move has everything to do with driving its ads side and nothing to do with its search users.
By removing an organization’s ability to understand how its web content acquires and converts non-paid Google traffic, the popular search engine will force more businesses to “pay to play” in order to leverage its valuable keyword data. While most large companies already invest in AdWords, Google will hope to expand their spend on paid search ads.
In terms of SEO, what was once clear is now muddy. The shroud of mystery placed over organic keywords will either further complicate SEO initiatives or make it difficult for organizations to justify their SEO efforts. SEO professionals will need to increase their value by focusing on content marketing, page-level (not only keyword-level) analytics, and on-page conversions.
Of course, Google could choose to monetize its organic keyword data by charging for it. However, I think this would only be chump change for Google in terms of its overall ad business. Besides, I think they would be entering into antitrust territory if Google decided to provide this data in only its own analytics solutions (full disclosure: I work for Adobe). Ultimately, the real rationale for no longer providing keywords will relate to Google’s core ad business such as forthcoming mobile AdWords functionality.
It’s unfortunate that in a digital world that is increasingly saturated with data that we’re actually losing valuable keyword insights. We should be moving forward, not backwards. As a smart, data-driven organization, Google used its treasure trove of search data to make this pivotal decision. Clearly, we live and die by the sword of data in analytics. This time everyone is on the receiving end, but as Picasso once said, “Success is dangerous.” As it continues to wield its market power, Google might expose an opening for other search engines or technology startups to capitalize on. Stronger competition will benefit either individual users or websites at Google’s expense.
While I’m disappointed by Google’s recent move as an analyst, website owner, and searcher, I’m confident we can adapt to this new environment. We’ll simply do more with less. I look forward to seeing the new approaches we develop for evaluating how organic keywords perform. Onward and upward, fellow action heroes.