Google to Limit Keyword Search Referral Data to Marketers

by Brian Whalley

Date

October 19, 2011 at 1:15 PM

google wall sign Yesterday afternoon, Google announced it will default to encrypting search results for logged-in users on Google.com, beginning very soon. Ostensibly for privacy and security reasons, Google also notes that this means referrer strings will no longer be passed to destination sites from logged-in users' search results.

I know what you're thinking. This sounds like a ton of technical jargon, but in plain terms, it has one critical ramification for search marketers, business owners, and marketing professionals: You will no longer be able to identify which keywords a person logged into Google.com searched for before they arrived at your website. This means that website and marketing analytics packages like HubSpot, Omniture, and even Google's own analytics platform will no longer be able to report on the keywords that were searched by those logged-in users. There are a few potential reasons why Google has implemented this, and important things for marketers to know.

How it Affects AdWords and PPC

Google has said it will still be passing referral strings and information on AdWords ads served through the search engine. This means that any of your paid search or PPC reporting will be unchanged, and this is another crucial factor to be aware of. Google still cares very deeply about its customers being successful with advertising online, and will not restrict the information people can receive about their AdWords accounts and how their campaigns are performing. 

Why, Google ... Why?

Google's actions here likely come as a result of its recent congressional hearings about how the search engine handles user privacy, security, and advertiser relationships. Google's end to referrer strings demonstrates how it is providing more tools and functionality to protect user data instead of sharing it broadly. Unfortunately, Google isn't being particularly strong in this regard considering it is still providing full data to AdWords advertisers, and the number of Google users who are actually impacted by this change is very small.

There is also a strong competitive benefit for Google to do this, as noted by Joost de Vaalk on the SEOBook blog last night , in that Google can also protect more of its user data and search result data from other advertising networks that seek data, such as Chitika and Chango. These networks want to use more of Google's data to help them sell their own ads and retargeting advertisements, which will be much harder to do following this change. 

The Silver Lining

This comes as a bit of a shock, as Google has made several strides in an attempt to present more information to webmasters and search marketers about their performance in organic search through Google Webmaster Tools, Google Analytics, and new SEO reports. By suddenly cutting off this stream of information about website performance from marketing professionals, Google is taking a surprising angle, removing some data they had recently worked to make more accessible.

The silver lining is that Matt Cutts, the director of web spam at Google, also noted that Google estimates this change will impact less than 10% of searches being conducted on a daily basis . A lot of data will still be available, but cutting some off and making it harder to access it is never a positive thing for professionals who are working to improve the quality and depth of content available to Google users.

What Marketers Should Know

As a marketer, you should pay attention to your marketing analytics package and how it will handle this change. Unfortunately, the inability to track keywords for visits isn't a fault of its own. Google isn't providing the data to anyone anymore (not even its own Google Analytics!).

You should ask your analytics provider (or see if they've documented) how it will handle visits that come from organic search but lack keyword information. For example, HubSpot customers using HubSpot's Sources report will see the visits as coming from "Google.com," just without specific keyword information. Different systems might handle this differently, so find out what you need to know so that your reporting and metrics can be as accurate as possible. For example, this is how this untagged traffic will now appear in HubSpot: 

You should also be aware of this source of traffic as a source of visits and leads to your website. Once you've identified how to track this in your analytics system, keep an eye on the conversion rate and how the traffic behaves after it lands on your site. This is still organic search traffic , so it's fair to lump it into your organic search performance when you produce reports about the effectiveness of your SEO and search performance.

Marketers should also remember the silver lining: Google's new change will only affect data gathered from users who are logged into their Google accounts, which accounts for only an estimated 10% of daily searches.

If you are interested in more information on this issue, there has also been some excellent in-depth coverage at Search Engine Land and other major SEO blogs. Joost de Vaalk also wrote an excellent post on likely motives for this change and facts surrounding it on the SEOBook blog last night .

How do you feel about Google's latest announcement?

Image Credit: Robert Scoble

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By Brian Whalley

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