What Happened?

On October 18th, Google announced that over the next few weeks they’ll be introducing encrypted search (via SSL) for those users who perform a search query while signed in to Google.

As a result, this will limit the data seen in analytics programs. We will no longer be able to see the specific keyword search that brought that user to a site. In Google Analytics, that traffic will appear as (not provided). In Omniture/SiteCatalyst, from what I understand, you won’t even see (not provided); your Referrer Types report will show an increase in traffic from Other Web Sites and your Search Keywords and Search Engines reports will show an increase in traffic from None.

Google claims this change will only affect a single-digit percentage of search volume. I looked at 10 Websites I have access to analytics data for, and since October 18th the mean affected traffic has been .05% of total traffic, and 1.1% of Natural Search traffic. So, at least thus far, from what I’ve seen, Google’s claim checks out.

There is a bit of a double standard in place, as Google Ads aren’t subjected to the same level of encryption.

Overall, there’s been an uproar in the SEO community; see Danny Sullivan’s post, or Rhea Drysdale’s post, or Ian Lurie’s post.

Why have they done this?

I don’t believe that Google’s master plan is to eliminate this data completely. Why would they risk alienating (nay, threatening the careers of) the entire SEO community, a passionate group of people that RELY on search engines for their livelihood? If not suicide, that would at least be PR self-loathing. Google expects the SEO community to be outspoken, and is most likely using this as a barometer to measure the climate, in preparation for their next move.

Should SEO folks be freaking out? Yeah. We gotta speak up and let Google know how seriously this ties the hands of SEO.

What might happen?

Ok, so let’s assume Google is legitimately serious about user privacy, and requires a Website to run over SSL before passing any referrer data. Fine. An inconvenience, yes, but I get it.

Or, they make that data available only through Webmaster tools, which seems fair, because at that point you’ve gone through a measure of authentication.

How do you explain the gross hypocrisy of not encrypting paid searches? This could be their out, a calculated flaw that allows them to inject some rhetoric, in the event that they decide to revert away from signed-in SSL. “The technical limitations that Web-wide SSL browsing posed proved to be insurmountable bla bla…”

Is this just a ploy to push Google Analytics Premium?

Eh. That doesn’t make sense to me. They’d essentially be declaring GA impotent. The value of the free data they receive from Google Analytics is more valuable than what they’d make from GA Premium. Not to mention that they’d be creating another political firestorm.

Am I being naive in assuming Google will stick to their do-no-evil philosophy? I sure hope not.