Google’s SSL Search Query Change

Google Panda 2.5.3Query Encryption
Right, oh yeah: on Tuesday, October 18th 2011 Google announced that signed-in users (users signed in their Google account) will, by default, be routed to the SSL version of Google (https://www.google.com).

Before this change, most users used non-SSL Google for their searches. Now, according to Google, “…a web site accessed through organic search results on http://www.google.com (non-SSL) can see both that the user came from google.com and their search query… However, for organic search results on SSL search, a web site will only know that the user came from google.com.”

Google now uses an SSL-encrypted experience for anyone who uses the Google.com homepage while logged in as a Google user. As a result of this change and how the web works, Google no longer passes search referral data to the destination website when a logged-in User clicks on a search result.

In plain English, s’il vous plait

What it means is that, as a website owner, you lose visibility into which keywords a person, logged into Google.com, searched for before they arrived at your website. Even if you use Google-owned website analytics like Google Analytics, you no longer have access to specific keyword information about how those searchers discovered your website.

When you do a Google search today, you input the keyphrase into the search query box and click the Search button and some results pop up.

Previously, if I were to click either the organic or the paid search result, the web analytics tool, whatever it is – your Webtrends, your Omniture, your Google Analytics – at the other end would get some referral data about what sent that visit, which keyword or keyphrase sent that visit. So, for example, it might be “online marketing cork” sent a visit from Google.com search over to my website. It would track whether it’s a paid or an organic ad.

Hah!

Google’s SSL Encryption for Search Queries

Now it has changed for those of you who are logged in to your Google account.

If you are searching from Google and you are logged in, the logged in behaviour, the keyword that referred the visit will be shown as (Not provided). This will show in your web analytics. That’s how you can see it in the Google Analytics dashboard currently.

However, if you click a paid search ad, they will still be providing the keyword ‘online marketing cork’.

So logged out behaviour always gets keyword ‘online marketing cork’ as the referrer. Logged in behaviour gets keyword (Not Provided) if you click on organic results. But if you’re paying Google, you will still be able to see the referral information.

Having a bunch of ‘(Not provided)’ referral keywords in Google Analytics is Ugly Betty. With bells on.

Now Google claims they’re doing this to protect user privacy so that users who are logged in will by default not be showing their searches to the websites that they visit except that, well, if Google were trying to protect privacy, they’ve already to some extent done that by providing a secure search – https search, the SSL search.

So it’s already available. The reason they’re doing this by default is that ad networks today are being very successful using search referral data from visitors, and they’re able to leverage that data across multiple websites. So Google is hoping to remove that ability and be the only ad network that can be aware of your search behaviour, thus sort of blocking out other providers using their near monopoly in search to exclude other people from being able to use this data.

Google can play the “no this is to protect your privacy” card and use that as their excuse. Of course, if that were the case, it seems very odd that you can pay them and still get the data.

Sounds like google wants to diminish the power of seo while increasing the power of paid search. So go figure.

Anyways, you should be measuring the quantity and percent of the lost keyword data. That is a very important metric that you’re going to want to track over time. To do this, you simply go to your web analytics tool, you grab the number of (Not Provided) keywords or referrals, divide that by your total visits from Google organic, and you will get the percent of search referrals affected by this. You want to track this over time because you want to know if that’s going up, if more people who are logged into Google are searching and finding your site, what percent of data you’re losing, whether this is going to be a big problem as Google rolls it out more broadly.

Is it possible that having SSL is going to be a ranking factor and it is better to move to SSL as soon as possible, and thus you can have your referral data too?

It is what it is.

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John Hargaden is CEO of wevolution digital, your full-service digital marketing partner focussed on growing your business online. Case Studies.