News flash: Google now uses Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology to encrypt user searches. Okay, this isn’t exactly a new practice by the search engine giant, but it’s becoming more widespread by affecting 100% of all organic searches made through Google. So, what impact does this have on webmasters?
Google’s Early Search Encryption
In October 2011, Google announced their decision to encrypt searches made by users logged into their Google account. You can read more about this now-dated decision on the official Google Blog located here, but the Big G’s reasoning behind search encryption was to protect their “personalized search results.” If a user was logged into the Gmail, YouTube or any other Google service, their searches would automatically become encrypted.
As of September 2013, however, all searches made through Google – whether they are from a Google account user or not – are being encrypted. You can identify this encryption by the https used in Google’s default web address. The S means your connection is securely encrypted.
How This Affects Webmasters
You’re probably wondering how exactly Google’s decision to encrypt all searches affects you. Well, when searches are encrypted, they no longer pass keyword data; therefore, webmasters are left in the dark as to what keyword or phrase visitors used to find their site. In the past, website owners could log into their analytics program to find out which keywords visitors used to access their site, but this is valuable tool is slowly being taken away.
After logging into your Google Analytics account (or any other preferred metrics program), you’ll likely see traffic coming from the search keyword “Not Provided.” Basically, these are encrypted searches made through Google which are no longer passing keyword information. This “Not Provided” annotation has been around for a while, but webmasters are seeing it a lot more since Google has encrypted all user searches.
Knowing the search terms visitors use to reach your site is incredibly valuable, as it allows you to focus your marketing efforts on high-traffic keywords while avoiding low-traffic ones. With this element slowly being weeded out, however, webmasters are looking towards alternative methods for acquiring search data.
Why Are Google Searches Encrypted
It’s unknown why exactly Google made the decision to encrypt all searches. Some people believe it’s the company’s response to the massive National Security Agency (NSA) spying program, which was brought to light with documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Perhaps they are trying to protect the privacy of its users through encryption?
On the official Google support page, they state “Google Search uses SSL to encrypt the connection between your computer and Google to help prevent intermediary parties, like internet cafes, ISPs, and wifi hotspots, from intercepting or interfering with your search activities. For supported browsers, Google may use this option by default.”
When editors from Search Engine Watch emailed Google asking them why searches are now encrypted, they responded, “We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.”
There’s Still Hope…
Even with Google’s recent search encryption, there’s still hope on the horizon for webmasters and online business owners looking to identify search keywords. Before you go around yelling “the sky is falling,” check out the tips listed below. Google’s organic search data might be done, but there are alternative mediums for gathering data.
Let me reiterate the fact that only organic searches made through Google are no longer passing keyword data. This means advertisers can still pull similar data by linking their Adwords and Google Analytics accounts together. This obviously isn’t quite as valuable as the organic search data previously generated from non-encrypted searches, but it’s still a helpful tool in determining target keywords.
Searches made through Bing and Yahoo remain unencrypted, passing keyword data through the referrer. A recent study by Chitka found Google to receive 64% of U.S. search traffic, while Yahoo receives 14%, Bing 20%, and Ask 2%. The combination of Yahoo and Bing accounts for over a third of all U.S. searches, so there’s still plenty of keyword data to pass down.
Yahoo and Bing are still major players in the U.S. search engine marketplace. And unlike Google, searches made through them pass keyword data in the referrer.
The Bottom Line
Organic searches made through Google account for the majority of most U.S.-based web traffic. Hiding keyword data through encryption is bound to leave some webmasters and online business owners angry, but it’s just one more change that we must adapt to. Growing and evolving is a necessary step in the evolution of the internet. Utilize the tools that are available to your advantage. With AdWords, Bing and Yahoo passing search data, there’s a treasure trove of keywords still at your fingertips.