Since 4Q2011, clients’ site analytics have shown an increasing number of Google organic searches with “(not provided)” listed as the referring keyword. The cause is Google’s use of SSL (encrypted) search for personalized results. Let’s talk about the meaning, impact and future of this change.
What is SSL search?
In October 2011, Google announced that it was automatically redirecting signed-in users to the https version of the Google search site. All search traffic sent through this URL will be encrypted via SSL as it leaves the searcher’s browser and goes through their router to their ISP, Google and then on to Google’s recommended websites. The primary reason is to protect the privacy of users’ searches if they are conducted via unsecure WiFi or public networks. I would offer two other possible reasons for this move: i) limiting liability; and ii) enhance the value proposition of PPC.
Limiting liability – organizations in both the US and EU have challenged Google’s privacy policies, particularly data sharing and user protection elements. While I’m not a lawyer, I can imagine Google’s liability would be significantly reduced if they encrypt search data for signed in users – users who have, further, agreed to terms of service that can dictate additional protections for Google. Is this speculation? Absolutely… but, for Google, winning at this level means focusing on lawsuits and fighting patent disputes, not brand development through feel-good open data policies.
Value proposition of PPC – if we view websites participating in Google’s AdWords & AdSense networks as legally-contracted extensions of Google, we could hypothesize that this could provide the legal protection needed to allow Google to continue to offer keyword level data to participants. Happily for Google, this also enhances the value proposition of participation in those PPC networks, as it will become the best way to get keyword level data. (Google Webmaster Central still shows the search terms people used to reach your site over the past 30 days but it is not as integrated as PPC data is or would be.)
What’s the impact of encrypted search on site data?
If you depend on Google organic results for any significant portion of your website traffic, you’ve seen the impact of encrypted search within your site analytics as keyword “not provided” within your referrer reports. In the first few months of SSL encryption, surveys showed only around 9% of traffic data being impacted. Since then, voices ranging from Baynote.com to Danny Sullivan have joined the conversation and noted up to 35-37% of organic search data being impacted. Based on my conversations with retail clients, 15-20% of organic search data is being returned as “not provided” for that vertical.
Cue the ominous music… days ago, it was revealed that the newest version of Firefox will also use Google’s SSL-encrypted search as its default. SearchEngineLand.com does a great job explaining the details but this certainly means another 5-20% of organic search data will be rendered not available, depending on the percent of Firefox users and early adopters within your site’s visitor profile.
How to manage?
So what’s a data-driven webmaster to do now that 10-35% of their traffic is being returned as “(not provided)”? The answer is, largely, to imply patterns for the (not provided) searches using keyword data you do have. There are a few interesting considerations brought up by Paul Burani at SearchEngineLand.com, though. In his article Google’s Encrypted Search Data: A Cure for Vision Loss?, Burani notes that searchers who are signed in to Google are more likely to be
- More familiar with the website (and possibly the brand itself).
- More likely to reside in North America.
- More likely to land on a deep URL after a search query (instead of the home page).
Use these considerations to tweak your assumptions, slightly, toward brand-related searches by US visitors. Further, filling the data gap can also be addressed using other methods, including:
- connecting Google Analytics to your Google Webmaster Central account for better Top Query keyword reports;
- looking at non-keyword-related visitor data (return vs first time visits, time on site, top landing pages, etc.);
- data mining your own site’s search function;
- re-considering the importance of Bing and Yahoo! search traffic data.
It’s an unavoidable fact that fully integrated, organic keyword referral data is going to become increasingly scarce. Regardless of underlying factors, that’s likely for the best for end users’ privacy. From a business perspective, for now, the problem is limited to a minority of searches. Assuming the trend continues and a service like Google+ doesn’t arise to provide a legal way around the issue, search marketing pros and third party data providers are likely to continue scrambling for a solution.