Oct 21, 2011 115 reads by Navneet Kaushal

The search industry in an uproar after Google's announcement that they will now encrypt searches and outbound links by default, for signed in users. With the SSL in place, the SEOs and webmasters will not get the valuable search query string via the referrer. The fact that this data will be available to AdWords advertisers, has really angered the search community. The assurance by Google that only 10 percent of searchers will be impacted by this, but the data still remains significant

The Impact On SEOs And Webmasters- Without Referral Data, SEOs Are Blind!

The search industry is wounded deeply by this. Optimization will be hit directly as SEOs evaluate the keywords that work for them from the organic keyword data only. This leads them to design landing pages and other methods to improve the user experience as well as the site's performance. There will be no way to ensure that the traffic gets converted.

Also, at the moment, experts are trying to work their way around this but to no avail. Now an SEO has to give more emphasis on ranking rather than conversion. With no idea about the keywords dictating the users' movement on the site, an internet marketer will be clueless as to how to personalize content based on the keyword or search phrase. Even if this personalization is termed as cloaking by Google, SEOs make this effort to provide users with exactly what they come looking for on the site.

Google has been often quoted as saying- "Focus on the user and all else will follow". However, with the referral data blocked from SEOs then, a webmaster cannot focus on his users at all!

“Google's Double Standards?”

The SEO Community has been venting its feelings about Google's latest move. They have scoffed Google's reasoning of protecting users' privacy, and claim that the real reason Google is hiding keyword data from organic search is to crush third party ad networks and retargeting companies.

Also, the fact that referral data is available to advertisers, but not to organic searches. This has been interpreted as Google's veiled message, that one needs to pay the search engine to get to know the keywords that are getting the traffic.

'Privacy' Is Just A Veil'

Search professional have denied Google's intention of protecting users' privacy by introducing encrypted search. They have called is half baked privacy with users saving their data in the case of organic searches, but not in the case of advertisers. Users may not look at Google all dewy eyed. They will understand that their privacy is important to protect in certain cases, but not enough when it comes to advertisers.

Google wants to prevent users from revealing private information in referrer data through clicks on its organic search results. But the privacy is lost to advertisers in any case. So what's the point? Also, the SEOs have pointed out the previous cases where Google has been called in for invading privacy like e-mail ads and Street View.

'Privacy Could Have Been Preserved In Other Ways'

In the answer to Google's claim to be following suit with Twitter, Facebook, so that it maintains its commitment to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's initiative called HTTPS Everywhere, the SEO fraternity has dissected the HTTPS case too. Further studies were conducted to ensure user privacy through Google’s search results at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The recommendations offered Google many ways to save its users from session hijacking. These included:

  • Google could discontinue the personalized search service
  • Put the ball in users' court and let them choose to use HTTPS for conducting searches.
  • It could also categorize and store histories based on the different networks from which user’s searches originate.
  • It could then give suggestions based on various locations.
  • It could also let the user agents to bind the authentication cookies to the current IP address.

In other words, for the sake of saving privacy and preventing the users sessions being hijacked, Google could have implemented many other ways. Blocking referral data was not the only choice.

'So Why Is Google Doing This'

The real reason, as per the search community, is that Google is doing this to shut out competing ad networks. Now, that the data has been removed from the referring query string, the third party ad networks cannot measure their traffic quality. Also, the webmasters will be in the dark about the ranking ranking results, Adwords data. Another issue is that without the search query data, webmasters will be unable to verify the Google Adwords search counts.

The search fraternity is not at all convinced with the privacy argument and are calling it a cover up for the real plan of killing the competition- third party applications, other analytics providers, search retargeting services and the sites like Bing that use data for relevance.

Now the organic search marketers have no way of working on the landing page targeting. As they do not have any access to the search terms. But the fact that advertisers can do that seems grossly unfair to them.

'Even The 10% Users' Data Matters'

When Google’s Matt Cutts, said that this change will only impact referral data in single digits or up to 10%, webmasters argue that this figure cannot be generalized.

Matt Cutts also Tweeted about it-

Google's Move To Encrypted Search - Matt Tweet

Despite what Matt says, the “not provided” keyword data could form up to 30% for many webmasters. This assumption has also been categorized as unfair.

SEO Community In An Uproar- Google Is Evil Now?

Google is claiming that they have done this to ensure the users' privacy. But the fact that those using Google Ads get the referrer data points to a totally different reason- to get the keywords, paying to Google is mandatory now? The rule of security varies for advertisers brings this move by Google under suspicion. While on one hand Google claims to be highly concerned about user privacy over personalized search, where as on the other hand, AdWords advertisers can “buy” this private data

This has got the SEO community crying foul. The views of those prominent in the search industry are given below:

Joost de Walk“This is what I call hypocrisy at work. Google cares about your privacy, unless they make money on you, then they don’t. The fact is that due to this change, AdWords gets favored over organic results. Once again, Google gets to claim that it cares about your privacy and pulls a major public “stunt”. The issue is, they don’t care about your privacy enough to not give that data to their advertisers. ”

Peter Young“To be honest the fact that its perfectly acceptable for PPC data to be tracked in the same circumstance that Google says it cannot pass organic data through for “privacy purposes” would suggest again this privacy is the least of their concerns. “You can have the data – as long as you pay us” would appear to be the rhetoric here. ”

Patrick Alcroft“To me this seems like a move designed both to make Google appear to be protecting users as well as an opportunity for them to take away data that helps big sites build more effective SEO campaigns. ”

Aaron Bradley“I’m a little perplexed that Google has cited privacy concerns with this move. Unless I’m missing something, there’s no way for a Google Analytics user to trace back a referrer to a specific individual whether they’re logged into Google or not. Even with log analysis you’re only going to get an IP, and you’d have to associate that with a user, somehow (and here a logged in Google user would be no different than an anonymous surfer) ”

Tony Verre“Moreover, those who used analytics just to surmise if people/consumers and how people/consumers found them for something other than BRAND terms, just got a punch in the face [read Mom and Pop shops who can't afford online marketing services and help]. The web might be a key component to survival for them, and taking away accurate data in the name of faux-privacy is a pretty big deal. ”

These reactions are only a few from the industry. The forums all across the internet are rife with these discussions.

My View– As an SEO professional, I am deeply disappointed by Google's move. This will put the movement of industry from 'ranking' to 'return on investment' on the back gear. Most search professionals use Google Analytics to report their clients about the traffic and visitor behavior on their sites. With the referral data held back by Google, there is no way of tracking conversions for organic traffic. This will make it very difficult for an internet marketer to justify the returns for the client. However, I am not hopeful for a roll back of this move from Google.

What do you think? Will Google roll back this move? Are search referrers dying? Do leave your comments.

Navneet Kaushal

Navneet Kaushal

Navneet Kaushal is the founder and CEO of PageTraffic, an SEO Agency in India with offices in Chicago, Mumbai and London. A leading search strategist, Navneet helps clients maintain an edge in search engines and the online media. Navneet's expertise has established PageTraffic as one of the most awarded and successful search marketing agencies.
Navneet Kaushal
Navneet Kaushal
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