Google to Encrypt ALL Keyword Searches: Say Goodbye to Keyword Data

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Pamela Vaughan
Pamela Vaughan



Warning: This isn't one of those happy news updates that opens up new doors for your marketing -- like Facebook announcing embedded posts. Nope -- this is one that's going to actually close some doors for you. And like Peter Griffin says, it's really going to grind your gears. Yesterday, Search Engine Land reported that Google has made a change aimed at encrypting all search activity -- except for clicks on ads. 

When approached by Search Engine Land, Google reportedly confirmed the switch, saying the following:

"We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in."

This means marketers won't even be able to get keyword data for searches conducted by users who aren't even signed in. (Cue marketers everywhere raising their fists in fits of rage.) 

Why, Google ... Why?!

So Google says, the reason for the switch is to provide “extra protection” for searchers. Search Engine Land, however, suspects that Google may also be attempting to block NSA spying activity -- since Google was accused of giving the National Security Agency access to its search data back in June (which it has strongly denied). We also can't help but think that, because Google is encrypting search activity for everything but ad clicks, this is a move to get more people using Google AdWords.

What All This Means 

Okay ... so what does all this mean to you, the marketer? First, here's a quick recap of how we got here ...

You may recall that back in October 2011, Google (citing the reason of privacy), announced it would start encrypting search results for logged-in Google users (including any Google-owned product like YouTube, Google+, Gmail, etc.). This meant that marketers were no longer able to identify which keywords a person who was logged into searched for before they arrived at your website -- even if they were using a web or marketing analytics platform like HubSpot. And without these keyword insights, marketers would have a much tougher time knowing which keywords to target to achieve greater visibility in search. No bueno.

While Google initially said this would impact less than 10% of all searches conducted, we quickly noticed that percentage rise. In November 2011, we analyzed the keywords of HubSpot's customers to find that more than 11% of organic search traffic was being affected, and by January of this year, we'd found that for the HubSpot website specifically, about 55% of the organic search we got each month was encrypted (and we’d seen that percentage steadily rising by about 4 percentage points each month). Things appeared to be getting more serious. 


And other webmasters have been reporting a similar lack of insight. Not Provided Count, which tracks 60 sites to chart the rise of the keyword "(not provided)," has been reporting on the effects of encrypted keywords over time. In the chart below, you'll notice a spike starting around the week of September 4. Today, the chart indicates that nearly 74% of search terms are being encrypted.


Just like we predicted earlier this year, with Google encrypting all keyword data, this means marketers will not just lose some of their Google keyword insights -- they'll lose all of them. While there are still a lot of unanswered questions that Google has yet to address (for instance, when will we lose all this data?), there's still a lot of cause for concern for marketers. How will we know how searchers are finding our websites? How will this affect our content strategies?

So What's a Marketer to Do?

Truthfully, it's hard to say. In terms of preventing Google from making this change, there's likely nothing you can do. We asked a few SEO experts to weigh in on the situation:

Aaron Aders, Co-Founder, digitalrelevance:

"While secure searches may seem frustrating to many SEO marketers, this is actually a great move for our industry. Great SEO today is great content with powerful digital endorsements from relevant and authoritative websites, which results in business results that transcend the keyword conversation.
"SEO marketers need to be focused on raising organic traffic as a whole, achieving business objectives like online sales and lead generation, growing branded communities, and earning brand mentions. This move by Google will force SEO marketers to focus on business results rather than keywords -- which is where the focus should be anyway."

Larry Kim, Founder & CTO, WordStream:

"Since SEO-optimized content is generally themed content around a specific topic, you can still track the SEO performance of all of your URL’s. I’d argue that tracking organic content at a page level, rather than an individual keyword level, makes a lot more sense given the recent increases in keyword ranking volatility.
"It’s worth noting that the keyword "(not provided)" issue only impacts organic searches. If your company engages in PPC marketing, you can still access a treasure trove of valuable search query data by linking your company’s AdWords account with your Google Analytics account and use that data for future keyword research projects."

Andy Pitre, HubSpot Analytics Product Manager:

"As marketers ourselves, we aren’t too happy about these recent developments. We love having access to as much data as possible, and we love using that data to help create better experiences for our visitors, prospects, and customers. Google’s decision to withhold keyword data undoubtedly makes our jobs as marketers a little bit harder.
"But as marketers, we are also accustomed to living in a world where we frequently only have access to incomplete information. A big part of our jobs is to interpret that incomplete data and make the best decisions we can. Search is now one of those places where we only have access to a small part of the story. Our decision-making process in this area will have to adapt to these new circumstances, but it won’t stop us from reaching the customers who are searching for our products and services."

What You Can Do

That being said, you shouldn't feel completely left in the dark about how search affects your marketing strategy. Here are some ways you can still measure and use search data:
  • It is still possible to tell how much traffic your website is getting from organic search. Although you might not know the exact keywords, you can still correlate the work you do to optimize your site and create content to increases or decreases in organic search.

  • Other search engines like Bing and Yahoo continue to pass along keyword data. According to comScore, at present, has about 67% of search market share, Bing has 18%, and Yahoo has 11%. Although this will not provide the full picture, analytics tools like HubSpot can continue to show keywords for the 33% of searches that come from search engines like Bing, Yahoo, AOL,, etc. This data will give marketers at least some indication of which keywords are the most useful.

  • If you use Google AdWords for pay-per-click marketing, connect your company’s AdWords account to your Google Analytics account and use that data for keyword research, as Larry Kim of Wordstream suggests.
  • Rank will continue to play a role in helping measure the results of search engine optimization and content creation.

Information for HubSpot Customers

First of all, it's important to note that Google’s decision to encrypt keywords for all searches not only affects the data found in HubSpot; it affects all web analytics tools, including Google Analytics. In other words, it will no longer be possible for any analytics system to known what keyword visitors searched for before visiting a website from Google is now only sharing search terms with its advertisers.

For HubSpot customers, this will impact your analytics in two ways:

  1. In the Sources Report: When you drill into “Organic Search,” all visits, contacts, and customers from Google will now be bucketed into “Unknown keywords.” For most companies, the lion’s share of organic traffic will likely fall into this category.
  2. In the Keywords Report: The “Visits” and “Contacts” columns will no longer reflect traffic from Google Searches, although they will still show traffic from other search engines like Bing. Other metrics like difficulty, rank, and monthly search volume are not affected.

Remember, HubSpot will continue to show keywords for the 33% of searches that come from search engines like Bing and Yahoo.

What do you think of Google's changes? How else can you use search data (sans keywords) to improve your marketing?

Image Credit: imgur

Topics: Technical SEO

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