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Google’s Encrypted Search Data: A Cure for Vision Loss?

burani-paul
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It’s January, and all the industry pundits are buzzing with their biggest and boldest predictions of what’s in store for the year. But let’s talk about what we’re not going to see in 2012: the return of user search query data from individuals signed into Google accounts.

Back in the fall, Google made a landmark announcement: in an effort to provide greater security to users of Google products, they would by default encrypt search queries entered by any individual who is signed into their Google account. All of a sudden, things got a little blurrier for digital marketers.

google-search-query-encryptionThe search marketers’ neighborhood of the blogosphere immediately went ablaze, with the SEO community in particular crying foul over the deprivation of a significant amount of critical user data.

Research by Conductor indicated that about 9 percent of search queries were affected by the changes. Google spokespeople said single-digits were to be expected, but then HubSpot put the figure at 11 percent. Some people reported 20 percent or even higher. [For a comprehensive overview, see Jonathan Allen’s summary, “SEOs Strike Out as Google Encrypts Signed-in Search Data.”]

There are numerous implications to this announcement (and the industry repercussions that tend to follow big announcements from Mountain View), but this article isn’t intended to lament or speculate on the changes. Rather, the industry needs to think more about how to embrace the changes and move forward.

Marketers need to think more concretely about search queries as user-generated content (as we argued back in May 2010, “Estimating Word-of-Mouth Activity from Search Query Data”). As search engines and social media environments begin to look more alike, the lines will blur between these data inputs as well.

We know that Google’s strategy has been to always put users first, and this move toward encryption of search query data should be considered a long-term investment in the loyalty of Google’s user base (or, as Allen says, “an attempt by Google to barter web data in order to leverage security as a quality control factor”).

Consumers today are a savvy lot; in a short time they’ve learned how to meet most of their critical needs: hunting down obscure information, filtering content according to preference, engaging in deep exchanges of value. Privacy is not just a buzzword in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley or Capitol Hill; it’s also one more basic human desire that consumers are smart enough to protect (or trade, for the right offer).

While it remains to be seen whether this secure data will make a comeback (perhaps in Google Webmaster Central or in the enterprise edition of Google Analytics), in the short run the brands that are able to wean themselves off this data will be the ones best positioned to forge ahead. The proactive solution is to build a comprehensive profile of the “Secured User”, to gain a better understanding of the faces who will be absent from the crowd:

Share of Total Visits indexed to sample

Based on this sample data set, we can make a confident statement about our Secured Users on this particular website. Compared to their Unsecured counterparts, they are:

  • More familiar with the website (and possibly the brand itself).
  • More likely to reside in North America.
  • More likely to land on a deep URL after a search query (instead of the home page).

This type of comparative insight paves the way for other executions that can help close the gap, for example:

  • Reach more Secured Users in another Google environment, such as Google Plus, and then use social media monitoring tools to collect data on their interactions. It might not be search query data, but word-of-mouth data is still essential for meeting a wide range of objectives. 
  • Ramp up your efforts to attract more visits from Mobile devices – because for now the encryption doesn’t yet apply on phones and tablets. Create dedicated mobile-specific campaigns in AdWords, and offer mobile-optimized content for a good user experience and SEO profile, to help to make this happen. 
  • Adapt your destination URL strategy in AdWords paid search and/or Google Display Network. You might test for different URLs tied to branded terms. Or maybe there is a specific deep URL that skews high with Secured Users; building a retargeting campaign specifically around visits to this one URL is one way to wrestle back some influence with this crowd.
  • Connect your Google Webmaster Central and Google Analytics accounts. It’s not as pretty as what we’d gotten used to, but you can still use Google Analytics to browse top daily search queries and landing pages, with the standard array of performance metrics: impressions, clicks, click-through rate (CTR), and average position.

Through all of these growing pains, remember one important thing: there’s virtually nothing about Google’s change that will impact the demand for your products and services. Users will continue to use search engines as a primary component of their online experience.

Google will continue to be the search engine of choice in the U.S. And it’s unlikely we’ll even see a change in the share of visits sourced from organic search, compared to paid search.

Let’s just take this change for what it is: a gift from Google to its users. User will repay Google with their loyalty, which ensures their long-term status as the stable audience the digital marketers need to keep brands happy, growing… and secure in their future.


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