In late October 2011, Google announced a major change in how its search data would be rendered—namely, that search terms would be stripped out of the referrer data sent to publishers. In other words, online publishers (that is, anyone with a website) would no longer see the terms users entered to find their site.
Google’s reasoning behind the change is purportedly to protect users’ privacy, though many in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry suspect it’s more about the money. Google will in all likelihood start providing publishers with the stripped-out search data once again, only with a price tag attached.
How Does It Work?
Historically, whenever a user clicked on a link on a search engine results page (SERP), the search engine (i.e., Google) would pass along referrer data that told the publisher where the user came from and what term he or she used to get there. Under the new measures, all searches enacted from the Google homepage will be SSL-enabled. SSL stands for secure sockets layer, a protocol designed to protect private data during transfer over the Internet. In this case, the “private data” being “protected” are the keywords or phrases the user searched. These search terms get stripped out of the referrer data and are unavailable to third-party analytics systems, including Google Analytics, and therefore, unavailable to the publisher.
What Does It Mean?
The bottom line is that Web publishers, site administrators, and/or SEO companies will no longer know what terms are bringing users to their site. Of course, Google asserts that the impact will be small—not all searches will be affected. In fact, Google estimates that fewer than 10% of searches will result in search-term-stripped referrer data. Here at Superior Web Systems, we didn’t receive data for 30 of 3,652 searches in October. That’s 0.82% of searches. We’ll review this data again at the end of November.
Of course, it’s not just the number of search terms withheld, but the prominence of those terms. If you can no longer see the term that brought the majority of users to your site, that’s a bigger problem than if you don’t know what term brought a single visitor.
Why Aren’t All Searches Affected?
At the moment, SSL encryption only applies to searches made by users who are signed in to a Google account when they search from the Google homepage.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The probable outcome of this change is that Web publishers will now have to purchase search-term data from Google and/or place a Google ad in order to track conversion rates for specific keywords. In other words, Google adds a revenue stream and increases another.
As for the publishers, well, they can continue to use what referrer data they get to optimize their sites as best they can, but they’ll likely have to consider paying Google for access to complete search data if they want truly targeted SEO and content.