Google last week announced the introduction of encrypted searches for SSL Search. This means that no-one other than Google and the web browser will be able to see the search results Google is providing to signed-in users. The initial reaction by many is that this sounds like positive news in a world where the exchange of increasingly personalised and sensitive information over the internet is rapidly rising.

But this decision could have big implications in search marketing as it means that keyword level referrer data from organic search will no longer be received by advertisers/website owners through analytics tools (including Google Analytics). I’ll go onto why in just a minute.

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning the official Google rationale behind this move, and there’s no better way in doing so than citing the official line on Google’s 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

Essentially, this tells us two things:

– User Privacy Is Paramount: in many situations the user will want a secure (https) connection, if they are making a transaction or checking their emails for example– and the same argument applies to protecting what people are typing into Google. As people surfing the net on the move increases; for instance, using unsecured public WiFi, protecting users’ data becomes even more important.

– Only Google Account Users Affected: The change only applies to users who are searching whilst logged-in to their account, which currently is only a ‘single-digit’ percentage of Google’s users, according to Matt Cutts.

Another aspect not conveyed above is that referrer data will still be passed from secure site to secure site. As the vast majority of sites are not secure (http), then this is momentarily of little significance to most publishers.

What does it mean to advertisers and website owners?

The implication of defaulting encrypted search for this single-digit percentage of signed-in Google users is the biggest talking point amongst SEOs and website owners. Essentially, they will be prevented from viewing organic keyword data i.e. the search terms people are using to find websites. This data is vital for advertisers in understanding search behaviour and then acting thereupon in order to make the website more adept at fulfilling its purpose – whether it be transactions, sign-ups, downloads, quotes or applications.

Measuring a keyword’s contribution to achieving the website’s overall goals assigns it a value (often monetary) in the advertiser’s eyes – this information is then frequently used in the base mix for strategic marketing decisions.

Therefore, this decision has understandably been met with some controversy, especially as the same principle is not being applied to paid search ads. The privacy argument Google preaches holds less weight when the type of search result users click on decides if the connection is secure or not. It’s now just as much a hypocritical decision as a controversial one.

Adwords advertisers therefore don’t have to worry about this as they are already “paying to play” with the data. PPC pays Google directly, whereas SEO doesn’t.

Google feels (and rightly so) that advertisers need the referrer data to evaluate and optimise campaigns – this is the stance from the official blog:

Your browser will continue to send the relevant query over the network to enable advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns and to improve the ads and offers they present to you.

Of course, the same applies to organic search campaigns, but the privacy issue precedes that in Google’s own order of importance.

What can we do about it?

The change means that all web analytics packages will still register that the searches came from Google “organic” search. The statement from the Google Analytics blog doesn’t divulge much further, except to reassure advertisers that it will only affect a minority of data, this “single-digit” percentage of anything up to 10% of a website’s search engine traffic.

Webmasters will still be able to access some keyword referral and landing page data via Google Webmaster Central. This service has been around a while. Specifically, one can receive an aggregated list of the top 1,000 search queries and top 1000 landing pages for the past 30 days. Impressions, clicks, CTR and Average position can be viewed also, but what this doesn’t tell you is what the users then did on your site – it just tells you how they arrived. One theory that could come true is that Google will combine this with GA to give their analytics service a massive USP over competitors since Google is likely to be responsible for over 90% of a website’s search traffic.

The start of a trend?

For the short term, there isn’t a need to panic. There will still be a multitude of keyword data available. Plus this only affects a minority of users, although Google+ coming out of beta will be doing its best to change that.

Receiving this news in a positive or negative bearing comes down to a general public privacy vs. advertiser/SEO contest; the latter’s reason for being unhappy is already described.

There are plenty of advocates of this move. It will make the web a safer place from a user perspective. It may well evoke further changes in the industry that will lead to wider referrer blocking. A feasible future move could be Google announcing encrypted search as the default for all users. The privacy advocates would love this. It would mean that many websites would switch to secure servers themselves in order to still receive referrer data, similar to the recent mass adoption of the +1 button by sites thinking this would lead to more Google traffic.

As Google reaches a near monopoly in many countries, they are able to issue gamechangers in one fell swoop. The market hurriedly follows.