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Google’s Secure Search Squeezes SEO Planning and Reporting

by Jill Kocher

Google’s secure SSL search protects users’ search results and the keywords they searched on. Unfortunately, it also poses a growing threat to data-driven search engine optimization. Firefox recently joined Google Chrome — and, for logged-in users — in defaulting to secure search. This has the side effect of increasing the number of “Not Available” or “Not Provided” search keywords in web analytics reports.

In the past, SSL search was too slow and cumbersome to use as a default. Web analytics programs could easily pick out most of the keywords that referred traffic to the site from Today, with SSL search the default on for logged in users as well as the default on Chrome and Firefox browsers, a growing number of referral strings are coming into web analytics with no keyword information associated. Consequently, if a site optimizes a page for a certain keyword phrase, its ability to measure how many organic searches were referred from Google via that keyword phrase is diminished.

Why Secure Search?

Why is Google accommodating secure search? According to a Google blog post, it’s to address privacy concerns by users.

The blog post says, in part:

As search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver. As a result, we’re enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users. Over the next few weeks, many of you will find yourselves redirected to (note the extra “s”) when you’re signed in to your Google Account. This change encrypts your search queries and Google’s results page. This is especially important when you’re using an unsecured Internet connection, such as a WiFi hotspot in an Internet cafe.

The Size of the SEO Data Loss

In 2011, Google reported that it handled 143.5 billion searches a month. Google represents 66.4 percent of the search engine market share, according to comScore’s February 2012 report. The Chrome and Firefox browsers together represent 39.8 percent of the browser market share, according to Net Market Share’s February 2012 reporting. Consequently, 26.4 percent — 66.4 x 39.8 — of all searches last month were conducted on Google in Chrome or Firefox. If this trend holds, 26.4 percent of all searches going forward will be stripped of their keyword data. And this doesn’t include the searches conducted by users logged in to Google properties and searching Google from any web browser.

In Oct. 2011, Google’s Matt Cutts stated that fewer than 10 percent of searches would be affected by SSL search, as reported by Search Engine Land. However, 26.4 percent — plus whatever percentage of searches from logged-in Google users not using Chrome and Firefox — is much higher. Data-driven decision making for SEO is at serious risk.

Keyword Research at Risk Too

If the keyword strings are stripped from the referral strings in SSL search, is the data in the Google Keyword Tool also affected? We’ve frequently recommended that ecommerce merchants use this tool, most recently at “Optimizing a Page for Search Engines, Part 1: Keyword Research.” Despite the risk SSL search poses to this tool, we still can’t recommend a better free keyword tool.

Seasoned SEO professionals always suggest taking this Keyword Tool data with a grain of salt. But if 26.4 percent of the keyword data turns up missing from the keyword tool, what’s the use of using it at all? Keyword research is the foundation of SEO planning, the one window available into the exact words real searchers use when they search for the products merchants sell. If 26.4 percent of that data is gone, an SEO manager’s ability to plan content creation and optimization is diminished. Some long-tail phrases that drive very small amounts of traffic but in total drive a lot of traffic may disappear all together.

The impact to Google Keyword Tool and any other keyword tools that use Google’s data is speculation at this point. It’s possible that the keyword information could make its way into the tool while still being striped off for analytics purposes. But that would violate the spirit of SSL search. If it’s not entirely secure then it can’t be called secure. So I have to believe that this will affect all of Google’s products, including Google Analytics, Google Keyword Tool, AdWords, and others, as well as non-Google web analytics and keyword tools that use Google’s keyword data.

What to Do Now

Firstly, watch the percentage of “Not Available” or “Not Provided” keywords in the search marketing keyword referral reports. Trend it back to at least July 2011, because Google released its latest iteration of SSL search in October 2011 — the Google blog post describing it is here. If the percentage of “Not Available” or “Not Provided” keywords in the search marketing keyword referral reports is not growing for your site, you may be among the lucky few whose audience either skews away from Google products or uses Internet Explorer, Safari or Opera.

If the percentage of “Not Available” keywords does grow for your site, turn to the “Search Queries” report in Google Webmaster Tools. I recently addressed this report, in “Top 5 Reasons to Use Google Webmaster Tools.” The Search Queries report shows the organic impressions, click-through and average rankings for keywords that drove traffic to the site. This report, to be sure, is keyword-based. But does the fact that Google refers webmasters there as a reliable data source indicate that it may not be affected by SSL search? I have doubts, but the ranking data at least should be unaffected in my opinion.

Normally I’m not a fan of using organic rankings as a metric of SEO success because they vary by person due to personalization. Some ranking tools are based on a user’s personal browser and are subject to the same personalization biases, and rankings themselves can change hour to hour. However, if Google Webmaster Tools gives me a true average ranking position for the top 1,000 keywords that drove traffic to a site, and if I at the same time I can’t trust the completeness of my web analytics data, a combination of average ranking and web analytics data seems like the best way forward in reporting SEO performance.

Summing Up

This secure search story is far from over. As more browsers and engines jump on the SSL search bandwagon, the current sources of data SEO professionals rely on may become dangerously depleted. That doesn’t mean SEO is dead. SEO changes as often as the engines and the Internet marketing industry change. It will find ways to work around the issues and get the data to plan and optimize sites for maximum organic search visibility.

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