Google to Encrypt All Organic Searches: Implications & How to Account for the Change

Posted by Lory Mishra, Associate Account Manager, SEO

In October 2011, Google began encrypting searches for all queries conducted while users were signed in.  Citing privacy concerns, Google has since stopped passing along keyword data for logged-in organic searches.  In analytics, organic search marketers now see traffic attributed to the infamous keyword “(not provided).”  While Google’s Head of Web spam, Matt Cutts, predicted that the percentage of searches in this category would be in the single digits, studies noted figures as high as 56%, depending on the industry.  At Performics, we’ve noted similarly high percentages across multiple industries and disparate brands.

On September 23rd, Google confirmed to Search Engine Land something that many search marketers had been suspecting: Google will now begin implementing processes to encrypt searches conducted even when a user is not logged in.  Though keyword information will still be passed from paid search ads (paid search is not affected), organic search marketers should expect a big drop in the remaining keyword-level data (though Google has not yet revealed how quickly this will roll out).

IMPLICATIONS for SEARCH

In recent months, so much keyword information has already been attributed to the “(not provided)” bucket; it’s something organic search marketers have become accustomed to.  Following Google’s initial announcement to encrypt searches for logged-in users, Firefox and Safari followed suit for all Google searches—regardless of whether users were logged in—in 2012. Chrome moved to the same model in January 2013. Google’s recent move to encrypt all searches is the final step in this evolution.

While 100% encrypted search will impact how we attribute performance to particular organic search initiatives, we can still track keyword rank, traffic to landing pages, overall traffic growth and various other performance metrics.  However, organic search marketers must still be prepared with contingency plans:

1. Get Familiar with Webmaster Tools Data

For the time being, Google will continue to provide traffic estimates at the keyword-level under “Search Queries” in Webmaster Tools.  As of today, this data enables us to view and download activity for a 90-day period (though there is speculation that this will be extended to a full year).  Be sure to download keyword and landing page data every 90 days.  Creating a repository of this data will enable you to slice and dice the information as needed.  Additionally, Webmaster Tools reports average rank and click-through rates for traffic-driving keywords—included in the data download—allowing you to plot and analyze changes in these metrics over time.

2. Leverage Paid Search Data

Google will continue to pass keyword data from paid search ads.  While user behavior varies between those who click on ads and those who click on organic listings, paid keyword data still provides valuable insights for organic campaigns.  Take this update as an opportunity to better integrate data from paid search into SEO. What paid search traffic and conversion trends are you seeing that could be extrapolated to organic search?  New AdWords functionality has made this even easier.  The new Paid and Organic Report enables search marketers to see both channels side-by-side.  Sync your AdWords and Webmaster Tools accounts to take advantage of this data.

3. Don’t Forget About Bing/Yahoo!

Google dominates the search engine market, but let’s not forget about Bing/Yahoo! (Google has about 67% of search market share, Bing has 18%, and Yahoo! has 11%).  Bing and Yahoo! don’t encrypt search query data.  Leverage this data for insights into branded to non-branded keyword ratio, as well as changes in searcher behavior.

4. Keep Calm and Optimize

There are multiple ways to track the impact of organic campaigns.  Continue to leverage reliable methods of attribution and reporting.  Track keyword rank, traffic, conversions, backlinks, domain strength, competitive insights (and all other metrics that have continued to prove valuable).

Losing access to the lens of keyword-level traffic and conversion data certainly makes organic search more challenging.  However, organic search is defined by change (constant algorithmic updates, the ever-evolving face of the search page, etc.).  The mark of good SEO is embracing change and turning it into better rankings, more traffic and more conversions.

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