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Google’s Encrypted Search Meets the Myopic SEO

If there was a ever a group of people that can have blinders on when it comes to how the rest of the world views the online space it’s the SEO crowd. Now the SEO world has been given a new thing to fret over and it should be fodder for hand wringing blog posts from now until whenever.

Google has announced that over the near future they will be rolling out encrypted search results which will limit the tracking of search traffic in a way that makes the numbers crowd nervous. Here is some information about why this is happening from the Google blog.

As search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver. As a result, we’re enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users. Over the next few weeks, many of you will find yourselves redirected to https://www.google.com (note the extra “s”) when you’re signed in to your Google Account. This change encrypts your search queries and Google’s results page.

This encryption will result in limited ability to track a logged in users’ search patterns relating to keywords used for search. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan points out the new plight of the online marketer and SEO in particular

Even though SEO traffic in general can still be tracked, those who are doing conversion analysis down to the keyword level will begin to lose out. You wouldn’t be able to tell, for instance, where someone coming to your site after finding it for a search for “blue widgets” actually entered, nor the other pages they viewed.

The Google Analytics blog states:

When a signed in user visits your site from an organic Google search, all web analytics services, including Google Analytics, will continue to recognize the visit as Google “organic” search, but will no longer report the query terms that the user searched on to reach your site. Keep in mind that the change will affect only a minority of your traffic. You will continue to see aggregate query data with no change, including visits from users who aren’t signed in and visits from Google “cpc”.

We are still measuring all SEO traffic. You will still be able to see your conversion rates, segmentations, and more.

To help you better identify the signed in user organic search visits, we created the token “(not provided)” within Organic Search Traffic Keyword reporting. You will continue to see referrals without any change; only the queries for signed in user visits will be affected. Note that “cpc” paid search data is not affected.

I highly recommend that you read Danny Sullivan’s typically exhaustive take on the impact of this move by Google. It’s an interesting read (albeit in his usual lengthy fashion) because this move is being hailed as progress by privacy advocates even though the paid search part of Google’s world (you know, the money part) will not be impacted. Don’t think for a second that a move like this isn’t intended to get some brownie points from the folks in Washington, DC when it comes to how good of a corporate citizen Google is being on its own in a world where online privacy is as political a hot button as there is to push.

What I find most interesting is that Matt Cutts, Google’s SEO industry goodwill ambassador, told Sullivan that when this change is fully rolled out it will only impact a percentage of Google searches that are in the single digits. After all, you have to logged into a Google account AND you have to originate the search from Google.com. I can see those numbers making sense but apparently Sullivan was getting different feedback from the newly paranoid SEO community.

The change will only happen on Google.com, and only for those who are already signed-in at Google with a secure connection. How many people do this? Google software engineer Matt Cutts, who’s been involved with the privacy changes, wouldn’t give an exact figure but told me he estimated even at full roll-out, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers on Google.com.

Postscript: I keep seeing people question this percentage, since I posted this article, not believing it will be that low. I have double-checked with Cutts on it, and he stands by it. Whether people choose to believe his estimate is another thing, of course.

Here’s where the myopic SEO comes into play. It makes sense to me that this percentage of users would be low given the parameters that this new policy is applied. Then why do many feel that this number is too low? Well, that kind of thinking comes from a common malady in the SEO space which is the mistaken line of thinking that what SEO’s do and how they use the Internet even remotely mirrors the average users same patterns. The fact is, while the SEO community from the inside looking out can seem big it’s not in the big picture (looking at sheer numbers). The rest of the world doesn’t know about SEO and being logged into accounts and the impact it has on their search. They won’t even see that a search occurring in this right environment will be encrypted. They won’t have a clue.

It’s this very cluelessness that makes what Google is trying to do as much of a token gesture than anything else. If they were really concerned about the privacy of searchers they would encrypt everything and limit tracking almost completely. Instead they are rolling out a change that will impact few if any. And what about mobile searches? If mobile is the wave of the search future will that be impacted by this move?

SEO’s and the Internet marketing world have a ridiculously skewed view of the world at times. The ability for people in the online space to extrapolate their online behaviors to the rest of the world who have no idea that the letters SEO when used together mean anything at all is mind boggling sometimes. I think some people need to get out from behind their screens and take a walk or something to get an idea of what the vast, vast majority of the world does online. In fact, the younger the SEO the even less aware they are of the large numbers of older users that are using search that never come close to being technical or aware that they can have a Google account etc.(and this will hold true the next 30 or so years so figure it out).

In the end, this change will make a difference to the SEO’s work but as with all things in this space, change is more normal than just about anything. There are always workarounds that are found and developed. Do you really think Google wants people to not do SEO? No way because that keeps companies paranoid enough about their search positions for their online presence and also keeps them paying for pay per click advertising to ensure they are “being found” when the organic side of their strategy isn’t getting it done.

My suggestion to the SEO community is to get out of the office more. A huge part of the world doesn’t see things like you do and we should all be grateful for that fact. Many just use search as the utility it is. There is no science or technique, just need. They come to Google to get information then they live their lives. They don’t know the ins and outs of the engines, don’t care and likely never will. They just want to get some information. I for one am very comfortable with that group being over 90% of the search public. It makes sense to me.

What are your thoughts?

  • http://www.deanjshaw.com dean

    Very well-put Frank.

    Sometimes you can work too closely in a forest to see the trees. Seriously, how many people not only sign into their Google account but also search from google.com? A small fraction I suspect.

    This is a move to appease Washington so that people like us can continue to measure the other 95% of search activity. So for those SEO types running around with your hair on fire over this. Take a deep breath and be reassured that Google wants what you want and just needs to get cozy with the privacy freaks in Washington might want to end all tracking.

    This is not as big a deal as its being portrayed as.

  • http://www.marketingpilgrim.com Andy Beal

    Great analysis and I love that you’ve not sat on the fence on this one! :-)

    As a recovering SEO, I can totally understand their fears. It will be a battle of perception until we see the impact in the wild. Google is notorious for lowballing numbers (click fraud rates anyone?) while SEOs are equally exaggerating them.

    Even though the average Google user doesn’t care to log in to a Google account, I wonder how many of them are logged in because they checked their Gmail that day?

    The comfort I take from this is Google Analytics. Google has spent a lot of time and money on GA and to make a change that would render it mostly useless, would be, to use your term, myopic. I suspect that this will play out over the next few weeks and we’ll all wonder what the fuss was about. ;-)

  • http://www.bigpictureweb.com Josh

    Frank – I read a lot of what you write and agree with you most days. This post really rubbed me the wrong way.

    You’re getting caught up in the privacy hype, and because you don’t know the ins and outs, you assume that Google did this for good and that SEOs are over-reacting.

    In actuality, how does this help privacy? Anything in GA is already stripped of all PII, so masking the search term in the name of privacy is a red herring. And you bought it… and then wrote about it as if it were a good thing.

    If by ridiculously skewed, you mean well-informed, then yes. And that’s exactly why we’re mad. We see through the PR BS where others (including you, apparently) took the bait hook, line, and sinker.

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      Honestly I am not sure where the idea that I said this is a good thing is coming from but I’ll go with it.

      What I am saying is that I agree that this will not impact much of the overall search universe because the parameters for this “red herring” are limited in scope. Personally, I never search from Google.com. Do you? How many people do that? Mostly folks who are not tech savvy so they are unlikely to be logged into a Google account. The impact on this is going to be nominal at best.

      Google is using this to help their cause with the government. That is painfully obvious but I stick with my take that the SEO worldview is not accurate in many instances because industry assumes that how it looks at search is what normal folks do and, no matter how much you argue to the contrary, it simply is not.

      • http://www.bigpictureweb.com Josh

        I’m not sold on the minimal impact people are predicting. It makes me uneasy when any company says not to worry about an undesirable change.

        Scope aside, I’m most enraged by the fairness of it all. Google is essentially implementing a tax on keyword data. If you want to see it, you have to pay them for it by buying AdWords.

        It IS painfully obvious that this is a government play, but it’s also painfully transparent that what is good for the goose (SEO) is not good for the gander (PPC). The lack of parity negates any positive intentions Google may have tried to convey in my mind. Pure shenanigans if you ask me.

      • http://www.searchengineconsultant.com.au searchineer

        Frank, there are quite a few small businesses that use GA and this data is very important for them. I am sure you would know there are a lot of businesses trying out seo them self. I am not talking about multi-mill companies with huge search marketing team. I am talking about a small business who cannot afford huge spending.

        Google is a company and can do anything with their policies but there is a common trust they built over the years by letting every one use data. Now masking that isn’t fair.

        I am an SEO, Its not that I dont care about this. Its another challenge that we will try-learn and get over it. I am worried about those DIY’s who will go blind.

  • http://www.deanjshaw.com dean

    Re: Personally, I never search from Google.com. Do you? How many people do that? Mostly folks who are not tech savvy so they are unlikely to be logged into a Google account. The impact on this is going to be nominal at best.

    I know its still being rolled out etc. but checking my metrics today – (not provided) = .36% of my organic search activity. I’m not losing sleep over that especially if Google’s intention is to protect the 99.64% of the data I can see from Washington bureaucrats

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      Amen.

  • http://taylor-and-associates.com Allen Taylor

    I completely agree. I’m not losing sleep over. I seldom use Google.com for search. More often, I’ll use a toolbar. But the average Internet user is likely going to Google.com and they don’t have a Google account. If they do, they don’t log into it much. Unless a person uses one of Google’s services on a regular basis, there’s no reason to have a Google account or sign into it. I, like you, think this will affect a small number of searches.

  • http://docsheldon.com Doc Sheldon

    I have to disagree that most users are unlikely to be logged into Google. Anyone that isn’t tech-savvy is probably less likely to make any effort to log OUT, would be more likely, IMO. If they’ve visited, Google+, gmail, Picassa, YouTube, or any other G-property, without logging out, then they’re in the mix – out of the mix, actually.

    I don’t think their privacy concerns have that much to do with PII that is invisible to the rest of us, though.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re not still guilty of a bit of myopia at times. ;)

    • http://www.seoskeptic.com/ Aaron Bradley

      I agree with Doc about the relative number of logged in users that search on Google. Whatever the percentage, it is not trivial.

      But in some ways that’s irrelevant: whether that’s 1% or 99% SEOs will be left guessing as to the actual number of (non-paid) Google referrers for any given keyword. No, it’s not the end of the world, but it makes something of a dark art even darker.

      I almost always smile when I think of SEO forecasting, which is the darkest of dark arts, but necessary in order to obtain budgets for organic search engine optimization. At the best of times this is chiefly smoke and mirrors (with formulas like “based on our current search volume and ranking and observed conversion rate, if we increase our search visibility for this head keyword and X number of related keywords we can expect an increase of Y dollars in N months at a cost of Z dollars), but now this will become guesswork laid bare.

      I appreciate your post and largely agree with its sentiments, Frank, but the fact that most Internet users “just use search as the utility it is” really doesn’t say much about the challenges this poses for search marketers. 90% of drivers may not know or care how their car works, but they absolutely care about how knowledgeable a mechanic is that they’re paying to work on their vehicle. The clients of are website owners who want to increase their search visiblity, not the general public.

      But as any search marketer who has been doing this any length of time knows, the only thing you can count on from the search engines is change (indeed, the dynamic nature of search engines is one of the things I most enjoy about my career). As with any other change, SEOs will either adapt or change professions. :)

      • http://www.searchengineconsultant.com.au searchineer

        “As with any other change, SEOs will either adapt or change professions” – SEO is a gamble, an addiction… somehow seo’s will only try to be within this space and I have hardly known any one who left it…

        now businesses will hear a lot of calls that says… “look Google has made it even harder for you to do SEO, we know how to handle things like this… outsource SEO to us” ;-)

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      Thanks for checking in, Doc. It’s an interesting situation to say the least and I think we all need to take a deep breath and see where this heads rather than try to predict it.

  • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

    Well said Aaron (especially the car analogy!).

    The one thing that SEO’s seem to use conveniently is how their success is measured. What happened to “Rankings don’t matter because of personalization etc etc?” The reality is that an SEO has to make sure that the primary measure of success is an increase in conversions (however they are defined from site to site). They may also have to truly settle in with the fact that the conversion is not always and may never be fully attributable to SEO efforts. What in the Internet space is a true single source of conversion success / failure? Nothing that I can tell.

    Your point of guesswork being laid bare is really the crux of all of this hubbub. I had a conversation today with someone I really respect and I simply said that there will be some big SEO winners out there but they will be the ones that educate their clients as to these changes, adjust to how they are measured for success and essentially provide a greater level of customer awareness and service.

    No one in any industry should be able to get by with smoke and mirrors. If this makes the SEO’s job a bit harder then that’s the way it will be. No one is entitled to Google’s data the last time I checked and if an SEO is using that platform as the main basis for their business then their business is in Google’s hands not theirs and that is the SEO’s fault not Google’s.

    Honestly, I agree with Andy in that this needs to play out over a period of time rather than be fought in the court of public opinion. We may all find that the great SEO Kerfuffle of October 2011 was all for naught.

    Then again, maybe not. Isn’t Internet marketing grand?

  • http://www.industrialtraffic.com Keith Chisholm

    So what happens to the amount of mobile users that are logged into their accounts on their phone. Is this going to wipe out all of their data too. It just seems like the numbers that Matt Cutts is talking about are far too low to be realistic. I know that most people don’t think the same way that SEO’s do, but there are tons of people that don’t even turn off their computer at night. If they are logged into gmail or any other , they remain logged into gmail all the time. Google doesn’t have a session time out so you can remain logged into gmail forever and they will never kick you out. I guess we’ll see how this pans out, but this will certainly make targeting keywords more difficult

  • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

    @Keith – I think your assessment of waiting to see how this pans out is right on the money. Since this announcement we have seen a lot of emotionally charged responses from the SEO community. While there may be truth in a lot of it there won’t be any real information to draw conclusions on for quite some time and it is likely that results will be vary greatly depending on what kind of site you have etc. SEO’s always want numbers and evidence well in this case they will have to wait to get just that.

  • http://writingfordigital.com James Mathewson

    Good take. My only concern is that searching from a logged-in state will become more prevalent in the future as more users use Google Docs and Google+ in their every day work. Currently, it’s a rounding error. But I can see a time when it varies from 10 to 20% depending on the query. If and when it comes to that, this will be a big deal, especially the variance by keywords. If it was a uniform percentage, you could just wave your hands and say that your referral data by keyword is lower than actual by some percentage. My sense is this will vary and become difficult to report on as a result.

    Why is this a big deal? In my company (IBM) a 20% difference between reported and actual referrals on the word “cloud computing” could result in millions of dollars in leads that are not reported in one month. That might be the difference between continuing to invest in organic optimization and putting those dollars into other tactics, not all of them digital (gasp).

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @James – Point well taken.

      When you are are talking about larger numbers this can be an issue for sure. That’s why it’s going to be best for everyone to sit back, have a drink and let this play out for a while. This is one of those incidences where the impact will differ greatly from site to site. There will be some who don’t notice a thing while others, like yourself that could have serious ramifications as a result.

      This variation is going to be hard to manage. Honestly, I think many SEO’s are most ticked that their job may have gotten much more difficult and more work will need to be done. I get how that might anger some but if you are dependent on another’s platform for your business you are like a ship tossed about on the ocean. You never have control and you are at the mercy of the waves.

      Thanks for checking in.

  • http://www.searchmarketingstandard.com/ Jaan Kanellis

    The other horrible part is they expect GWT tool keyword data to replace what you are seeing in GA! Seriously? Have you ever compared GA and GWT keyword data. So far off it is sickening.

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @Jaan – You’ve been checking in here long enough. What does this potentially do to your work as an SEO? Will it become an undoable thing now? Do you trust there will be workarounds or additional changes? Even more importantly do you think Google is being evil on this one?

      • http://www.searchmarketingstandard.com/ Jaan Kanellis

        Well in general I just think it was a bit rash decision. Google says they tested it and didn’t see anybody complain. How could they have complained?

        Personally I don’t back out numbers from keywords a lot. I do a lot of work with UGC website so keyword focus is less there. The problem is we all know Google wants to get more people a Google profile. So eventually this data loss will grow and grow.

        I HATE them blaming the change on privacy and still giving it to AdWords buyers. So will the new GA Premium users get this data? If so look for more of a shit storm from Marketers. I mean yes we all use GA and it is free. We get good analytics from Google and they basically get all of our user data to use how they please. Now they are going to hide that from us? That is EVIL.

        • http://www.bigpictureweb.com Josh

          And there it is. Well said, Jaan. Google chalks this up to privacy and still gives AdWords data to buyers. If there is evidence that strongly supports they did not do this for privacy, then “privacy” is PR spin and the real motivation is something else.

          What could that something else be? CMOs are putting more and more money into organic while PPC conversion rates have been falling. If you take data and insight away from organic, you diminish its effectiveness and make paid more appealing. It doesn’t take long to connect the dots to see the shenanigans going on here.

  • http://barryhurd.com Barry Hurd

    I can’t imagine that this is a good sign, just a sign of things to come.

    If Google wants to protect PII (a topic I have a lot of experience with) then you would think they would block all PII from all click data, as they can identify a majority of users even when they are not logged in (PC, IP Address, Router, Wifi Zone, Mobile Subscriber, Usage Pattern, etc, etc)

    As a SEO/SEM professional that works with content curation strategies and massive data sets, it is pretty scary to realize how this changes some of the top level enterprise accounts and that certain data around PII will be a paid service.

    When Google begins to sell my PII as a benefit of adwords purchases, I become pretty disgruntled over the privacy and security ramifications it has over how I consume information.

  • http://www.arcanasphere.com MrAndrewJ

    I discarded so many anguished replies to this post, but they all came from the same root. I wish I was working for someone like you, Frank. This week’s public SEO outburst was pretty much an open display of what every day looks like in too many SEO-based businesses: Fear, impotence, short-sightedness, desperate clinging to the past, demands for free services, name-calling and blame.

    I’m a coder, for the most part, with 15 years experience seeing everything from my websites placed on photocopied flyers to the lowest search engine spam. The flyers worked better. The gimme culture of the SEO community is pure poison.

    Thank you again, Frank, Andy and Cynthia for being a daily ray of hope.

  • http://www.verticalmeasures.com Sarah S

    Will this lead to a Google analytics premium option possibly?

  • http://www.oyunkizi.com kızoyun

    thanks your site.

  • http://www.optify.net/ Jennifer Wong

    Hi Frank,

    We recently conducted a study and found that Google’s “Not Provided” Keywords have increased by 171% over the last 12 months.

    Here’s the full study – http://www.optify.net/press-releases/optify-study-googles-not-provided-rises-to-almost-40-of-organic-traffic-for-b2b-sites

    Some key takeaways were:
    - Google “not provided” now accounts for almost 40 percent of referring traffic data from organic search, an increase of 171 percent since originally introduced a year ago.
    - 64 percent of companies analyzed in the study see 30 to 50 percent of their traffic from Google as “not provided”.
    - 81 percent of the companies analyzed in the study see over 30 percent of their traffic from Google as “not provided”.
    - Recognized referring keywords from organic search declined by 49 percent.

    Thought you might be interested in the new data!

    Jennifer
    @Jenerationy