In the last week of October, Google announced and rolled out a major change to the way its search engine interacts with the rest of the web. Google now uses an SSL-encrypted experience for anyone who uses the homepage while logged in as a Google user. As a result of this change and how the web works, Google no longer passes search referral data to the destination website when a logged-in user clicks on a search result.

This can sound really technical, but what it means is that, as a website owner, you lose visibility into which keywords a person logged into searched for before they arrived at your website. Even if you use Google-owned website analytics like Google Analytics, you no longer have access to specific keyword information about how those searchers discovered your website.

Keywords Over Chart

Google's Anticipated Effect vs. Reality

According to Google, this change was supposed to represent a single-digit percentage of traffic to most website owners. (Google estimated that the change would impact less than 10% of searches conducted on a daily basis.) Google's rationale was that most people using Google just don’t use the homepage, and if they do, they may not be logged in to Google’s services at the time of their search.

However, watching our analytics for HubSpot, we noticed that the amount of traffic to that came in without keyword information was immediately about 13% of our overall search engine traffic -- quite a bit more than Google’s prediction in the single digits. As a result, we wanted to examine what this looked like for our 5,600+ customers to determine if we were just one unlucky outlier, and what the average business owner or marketer on the web is experiencing.

To address the specifics of our analysis, the following data is based on 5,644 HubSpot customers who use HubSpot’s analytics package on their website. The data sample includes all visits from November 1st through November 9th for these sites. All statistics were calculated with a 95% confidence interval.

Google's Change Actually Affects 11.36% of HubSpot Customers' Organic Search Traffic

Across all sites, 11.36% of organic search traffic has arrived without a keyword set during this time period for the average HubSpot customer. However, some of our users have seen a dramatically greater loss of intelligence than that. At least 423 HubSpot customers have experienced more than 20% of their organic search traffic getting stuck in this #SSLpocolypse black hole, and 15 others have lost more than 50% of their traffic's keyword data. For those 438 websites, this change has had a dramatic impact on how they plan their websites' future content, and how they understand the leads that convert on their website. In order to better understand how different types of businesses were affected by this change, we broke down this data across some of the available metrics we had on these websites.

Are Different Types of Websites Affected Differently?

For one segment, we cut the data set down to only include websites that received more than 500 organic search visits in that week -- meaning they were a better optimized site that contained a greater number of pages. However, the data in this set was very similar. The average customer in this set had lost 10.69% of the tracking on their organic search traffic, with a very small standard deviation of 4.91% and just a 0.09% magnitude of error. If you’re not very familiar with statistics, this means that just 16% (or about 200) of the websites in this data set had lost more than 15.6% of their search engine intelligence. While no individual customers in this set had lost more than 50% of their search referrers, 54 of these 1,255 companies still lost more than 20% of their search intelligence. It is clear that this change has had a dramatic impact on the search marketing and SEO efforts of many businesses around the world.

We also segmented this across companies that were actively blogging vs. companies that do not blog actively. Because companies that are blogging regularly are more likely to be chasing a healthy long-tail keyword strategy, we thought we might see a difference here and that companies blogging more would be losing more of their traffic intelligence. Surprisingly, there was no significant difference here. The average website with a regularly updated blog lost 10.41% of the intelligence on their search engine traffic, with a small standard deviation of 6.34% and just a 0.22% magnitude of error. We also looked at cutting this data across other segments, such as number of employees, B2B vs. B2C, and industry, but we did not uncover any significant patterns or differences. It appears that for once, a change by Google may not have impacted different types of businesses in a dramatic fashion.

What have you noticed about the search referral data for your website? Have you seen different levels of success or intelligence since the Google SSL change? Consider joining the discussion and sharing your specific results on Twitter using the hashtag #SSLpocolypse.


By Brian Whalley

Originally published Nov 11, 2011 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


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