Google Secure Search and SEO - What is going on?

Posted by Owen Powis on 8 Nov, 2011
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Google has removed the keyword data from the referrer URL for Secure search. So what exactly is this and what does it mean for you?

Google has announced that it will be encrypting keyword data within the referrer URL from secure search, the upshot of which is you will no longer be able to see all the keywords which drove traffic to your site. Many SEOs have been complaining about the loss of this crucial data. So what is Google Secure Search and why is it so important?

Google have a secure search service hosted on their https search page. This uses SSL encryption to stop electronic snooping on users search habits via unsecured wifi. This encrypted search now does not pass the search term in the referrer URL from anyone searching on Google when signed in.

This is important because your web analytics software (such as Google Analytics) uses the referrer URL to know what the search term was that someone used in Google to find your page. In SEO this metric is widely used and represents the start of the journey for the user on your site. With this information, you can see which search terms drive the most traffic and conversions. It is key to your SEO planning: you’ll want to target keywords that bring conversions.

So what’s the fuss about?

A growing amount of the organic search data in your analytics will be placed into a category called “(not provided)”. This is the secure data which has no keyword data in the referral string.

The move to secure search has not affected paid search data. Google is still passing referring keywords for PPC ads, so you can see which search terms drove your paid traffic.

Some search marketers feel that Google is being disingenuous about its reasons for making this change. They cite the exclusion of paid terms as evidence. If secure search were to be an effective privacy measure it would need to include paid search results as well as organic searches.

The number of site visits that are included in the ‘not provided’ category has been increasing quickly since secure search was launched. And this trend is likely to continue. Google is expanding its services and requires users to sign in. This means that it’s increasingly likely that the user will be signed in when they perform a search. For example, Google+ is part of this network and Google is trying to get as many of us using it as possible. This is going to mean more people signed in and less data in your analytics.

This is what the traffic to the Wordtracker site looks like in that “(not provided)” column:

wordtracker analytics data

In the past week more than 3% of visits were in the ‘not provided’ category (I’ve removed the exact numbers), but the trend is increasing - and alarming.

So what can you do?

Unfortunately Google holds the cards on this one. It’s not just Google Analytics that suffers from this problem. In time, other providers may produce custom solutions, but these are likely to be expensive and may require you to change your analytics software.

That said, there are some steps you can take.

You can still get your top 1,000 search terms from Webmaster Tools, but it misses out much of the data below that top 1,000 cut off. (I would guess from this that Google has the ability to assign the keyword to a secure search but they are choosing not to.)

There is a petition in protest over at Keyword Transparency which aims to collect signatures and lobby Google to change its process.

If your company has a Google rep, you can voice your concerns directly. Find out what the alternatives are and what actions the rep recommends. Please let us know below.

We’d also love to hear about your experience with secure search, if you’re seeing that ‘not provided’ data figure grow in your analytics, and we'd love to know which sites have been worst affected.

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