At the end of September, Google confirmed the roll-out of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encrypted search to all users.
In short, this means that keyword-level data for organic (non-paid) Google traffic will no longer be provided. Consequently, website owners will no longer be able to view the keywords a visitor used in Google to find their website.
This announcement from Google will have a huge impact on the industry, with search marketers around the world rethinking metrics to track SEO performance.
Since October 2011, Google has encrypted all of the queries of logged-in users on the main search engine. The use of SSL in Secure Search led to the rise of organic search keywords showing up as ‘not provided’ in web analytics tools.
Browsers have played a major role in the growth of Secure Search. In July 2012, Firefox began defaulting to SSL, in February 2013, Chrome made the same move and, most recently, Safari did this with the release of iOS6.
Secure search is on the rise
Our research has shown a steady increase in encrypted keyword searches, rising from around 15% of all searches at the end of August 2012 to approximately 50% in August 2013.
The past month saw significant increases, with some sites showing that up to 85%of their data was being affected. The below graph indicates the global growth in the percentage of ‘not provided’ organic keyword data:
What is the current impact of secure search globally?
The graph below shows the impact of Secure Search across Europe, North America and Asia. In general, the organic keyword data is listed as ‘not provided’ in countries where Google’s market share is highest (with the exception of the US).
95% of Google’s organic traffic in the US is through the term ‘not provided’, while in the UK that figure is closer to 77%. The reason behind this is simple; Secure Search was introduced to the US first, and the US has consistently had a higher proportion of search phrases ‘not provided’ than other markets.
Has the impact of secure search been consistent by sector?
In order to understand which sectors have been most affected by Secure Search, we researched four broad sectors: FMCG, travel, business-to-business and finance.
The differences in percentage growth can be accounted for by the different browser usage of consumers within these four sectors. As the chart shows, FMCG appears to have been the hardest hit.
This would appear to be because of the large share of Safari visitors; once i0S6 was updated in July 2013, the numbers leap twelve per cent ahead of the second highest sector.
The other sectors have gradually caught up to travel, as a result of the IE traffic gradually moving towards Secure Search.
At what point will all organic search terms be purely ‘not provided’?
By adding a simple trend line to the graph showing the adoption of Secure Search, it can be seen that 100% of organic Google search terms ‘not provided’ could be reached as early as February 2014.
While this is a crude method, it does help to demonstrate that the industry is not far off reaching this point. In reality, however, we won’t see this because ‘not provided’ currently only affects Google search traffic.
The other main global search engines, such as Yahoo and Bing, are still passing on full referrer information. Moreover, it will be a long time before all active browsers support SSL and have Secure Search enabled by default.
Why has Google pushed all users to secure search now?
Google has stated that the reason for the move is to protect the privacy of its users, and while this explains the overall motive, the shift appears a sudden one.
It could potentially be linked to the backlash Google received following the PRISM scandal earlier this year, as well as the confirmation in August that the NSA did, in fact, pay Google for their assistance.
Whether or not this shift will result in a truly ‘private’ searching experience is yet to be seen. The most cynical commentators have long suggested that there would eventually be a move towards ‘premium’ analytics giving access to keyword data to higher-paying users.
There is still no evidence that this will ever be the case, but PPC advertising data remains unaffected and new forms of ‘cookie free’ tracking are being developed, so it is unlikely Google is acting on purely altruistic motives.
Which keyword level data is actually still available?
Considering Google has always praised website owners for having unique, desirable content, this lack of data will ultimately make it more challenging to optimise existing pages around keywords. This movement away from keyword-level data will naturally shift performance to be measured around content themes rather than individual words.
Of course, organic search-related keyword data will still be available from other search engines like Yahoo, Bing, Yandex and Baidu, which means that SEOs can still analyse this data alongside Google Paid Search data to infer trends in organic keyword-level data from Google.
Google Webmaster Tools (or AdWords reports from connected accounts) look set to be the future of SEO keyword data, although the lack of specific data can be disappointing. The data is not entirely accurate, and also offers far less detail than we’ve become used to from standard analytics packages.
Interestingly, the remaining Google Webmaster Tools Organic Search keyword data is best accessed through the ‘Paid and Organic’ report within AdWords. The fact that Google is effectively rewarding paid advertisers with this data casts a shadow upon their reassurance that this move is not to drive further uptake of AdWords.
As the SEO industry continues to change, search marketers need to be prepared to keep adapting to these shifts. It’s essential for SEOs to move away from analysis at an individual keyword-level towards analysing performance around semantically-related keyword themes.
The landscape is always changing and the trick is to be prepared.