How Should Search Marketers Respond to Google Encrypted Search?

Performics Research Finds that a Very Small Percentage of Search Queries are Affected

Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Natural Search Specialist & Todd Friesen, Director, SEO

On October 18, 2011, Google announced that it would be encrypting all search queries made by users who were logged-in on Google.  All logged-in Google users are now redirected to https://www.google.com/, and search queries are encrypted with secure socket layer technology.  According to Google, this move enhances data security and privacy for users.  This change means that—for a small segment of searches—Google will no longer provide keyword query data in the website referral string.

This Article (1) identifies the effects of encrypted search queries, (2) discusses how this changes the existing search market and (3) provides strategies on tracking this change.  Performics has found that the current number of encrypted searches is not likely to have a significant impact on content publishers or SEO in general, though we encourage search marketers to track the new results and keep an eye on the revised keyword data.

How Does Encrypted Search Affect Your Traffic?

Google is blocking keyword query data from showing up in the referral string that gets logged when a searcher goes from Google to a destination website.  This keyword data enables search marketers to determine things like conversion rate and revenue contribution on a keyword-by-keyword basis.  With this change, Google has taken away some of that data.  Now—when a user is logged-in on Google and comes from a secure search results page—this keyword data is stripped out of the referral string and replaced with the words “Not Provided.”

Following its announcement, Google started stripping search queries from the referrer strings of users who search while they’re logged-in to their Google accounts.  Consequently, query data is not appearing in searches originating from this source.  Referrer strings from all other search queries (e.g. from users who aren’t logged in) will contain the same information as before. 

It’s important to note that Google AdWords data will not be similarly affected.  Referrer strings sent when visitors click on paid search ads still contain the full text of the search query.

How Many Search Queries Will This Impact?

Performics research indicates that only a very small number of queries will be affected, and overall this move shouldn’t significantly change your existing SEO or paid strategies.

Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Web Spam team, has indicated this encryption will only have a very small impact on analytics, with less than 10% of referrer strings likely to be affected.  Our own data, as well as data from many other professional search consultants, has so far confirmed Cutts’s assertion.

In the table below, we’ve assembled query data for six sites as of October 19, 2011, the day after encrypted search began.  Here, the column labeled “Not Provided” shows the percentage of queries blocked from view by the encryption.  When these numbers are compared to the total traffic for each site, and the percentage of this traffic resulting from organic search queries, the percentage of searches affected by the encryption is quite small:

 

Encrypted search results

Google reported that the shift to encryption for logged-in users will be rolled out gradually, and so the numbers shown above may slightly increase over the next few weeks.

How Should Search Marketers Respond to this Change?

This lack of referral data doesn’t, and shouldn’t, change how SEO is done. The fundamentals of SEO and SEM haven’t changed.  

As always, good SEO consists of strong link building, composing engaging content and ensuring solid site architecture to allow efficient indexation.  The lack of referral data is a reporting issue, and not a large one at this point in time.  As the program continues to roll out, we’ll keep an eye on the number of impacted queries and monitor whether affected queries unexpectedly grow.  We recommend that search marketers institute changes to their tracking process that incorporate this new data and make informed decisions on how to react if the affected queries are genuinely affecting your bottom line.

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