The Switch to Secure Search

Over the past month, Google made a quiet switch in their operations. No big announcement, nothing showy, just a quick switch – and yet it’s something of a big deal. As of this month, all Google searches will be fully encrypted. The only searches not included in this secure search blanket will be clicks on ads.

This is not, in fact, a 100% change in policy. 2 years ago, in October 2011, all searches performed by people logged into Google were encrypted, and earlier this year, all searches from the Chrome omnibox were included in the encryption policy.

What does this mean? When webmasters go to analyze what a person was searching before clicking on their link, they will only receive a “not provided” message for any and all searches accessed through Google. Of course, there have been unavailable searches before, but the sheer percentage of that traffic is climbing drastically. That, in turn, means that webmasters will no longer be able to analyze hot search keywords from Google users, decreasing their ability to determine focus keywords for their site.

secure search Google
Graph of “not provided” searches, or encrypted searches, by date.

 

Why All the Encryption?

Speculations as to why Google made such a drastic switch focus on a few key points. The first one is the recent NSA scandal with PRISM. While Google strongly denied any association with PRISM, they did lose users and, more importantly to Google, reputation. And if there’s one thing Google hates, it’s losing face. So this may be a response to tell the world that Google does care about user security. After all, secure searches are what gave sites like DuckDuckGo a significant traffic boost this year.

In fact, Google has been trying to be as transparent as possible with their processes and the number of information requests they receive. Also, when asked about their switch to secure searches, their reasoning was that they wanted to provide a safer experience to Google users. Their update said “We want to provide SSL protection to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can — we added non-signed-in Chrome omnibox searches earlier this year, and more recently other users who aren’t signed in. We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users….”

Of course, due to the fact that ad click-throughs are notably excepted from this secure search policy, there is a good deal of conjecture that the driving force behind the switch is to push more people to using AdWords. On the Google Webmasters Tools, there is an area for webmasters to see the top 2,000 keywords per day for the past few months. Normally, these terms are lost pretty quickly, but publishers with Google AdWords can store terms as long as they please, giving ad users a definite advantage in that field. However, Google did say in the afore-quoted update that “The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.”

 

Reactions from Marketers

The reactions to this news were quick and adamant. HubSpot’s article, titled Say Goodbye to Keyword Data, talks about how it really “grinds their gears,” and goes on to complain about the loss of keyword data while “raising their fists in fits of rage.” Meanwhile, WebSiteMagazine.com calls it “The Day that SEO Died (Sort Of).” They talked about how Google’s encryption of search data “has effectively and virtually handcuffed the entire digital marketing community,” taking away the ability to find out what SEO efforts are proving effective. On the other hand, they say, there are other ways to access data and SEO platform providers are simply going to have to adapt.

SEO experts weighing in on HubSpot’s article had a few varied viewpoints. Aaron Aders, Co-founder of digitalrelevance, said that “this is actually a great move for our industry,” saying that it forces SEO companies to prioritize results over keywords. Larry Kim, founder and CTO of WordStream, had a similar viewpoint, reminding that you can track content at a page level instead of keyword level, and that this only affects organic searches – there are still other ways to collect search data. Andy Pitre, Analytics Product Manager for HubSpot, says that of course they’re not happy, since it limits data, but as marketers they’re used to adapting to situations where they don’t always have all the information they’d like.

What does ZooSEO have to say about this change? Well, we’ll get back to you with our opinions and our goals tomorrow.