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October 24, 2011

Rigging the Game: Google Hides Search-Queries from Analytics

October 24, 2011

Tuesday, October 18th, Google announced on their official blog that they would be, “enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users,” by,  “[encrypting] your search-queries.” What this means, in layman’s terms, is that if you are logged-in to your Gmail account and you end up on SmallBox’s Website by typing “Indianapolis Web Design” into Google’s search bar, we will no longer be able to tell exactly how you got there by looking at keyword traffic in analytics.  We will know that you came from Google, but we won’t know that your search-query was “Indianapolis Web Design.”

Google is marketing this shift as a move that will ‘Make Search More Secure’ for users.  On the ‘truthiness scale’ this claim is somewhere between insidiously clever marketing and outright mendacity. No one that I have talked to in the past few days buys this narrative, for a very simple reason: concealing search-query specific traffic sources from webmasters will not make search more secure for users.  Traffic sources are already anonymized, and their IP’s are not available to web-masters.  If you end up on SmallBox’s website right now by typing in “Indianapolis Web Design” that is all we know about you as an individual.  Aside from your behavior on our website, after you’ve found us, and your search query from Google, we have zero information about you that is specific or traceable.

So what is Google’s real motivation for making this shift? By withholding even a small percentage of data from webmasters in this way, Google is effectively marring the data-set and disrupting the equation of every SEO company operating in the industry.  While the percentage of users whose search-queries will be hidden is, according to Matt Cutts, less than ten percent, that still blurs things.  The way that we prove ROI will necessarily become less keyword-bound, and as a result our reporting on the efficacy of our organic SEO efforts will be slightly less precise.  In a market where everyone is already feeling skittish, this is likely to divert a huge amount of cash flow from organic search over to paid search.

In other words: the consensus among people that I’ve talked to is that Google is doing this in order to scare up more PPC revenue. They’ve been told by congress to stop acting like a monopoly and to stop pushing their own products in search.  So in order to still have a record-breaking Q4, they’re juicing-up old reliable—PPC, where the majority of their revenue has come from since the beginning.

But just because nervous money might flee into PPC, doesn’t mean the breakdown of traffic-flow is going anywhere. Obviously.  Estimates about the percentage of traffic that flows into paid search-results—while reassuringly predictable in terms of the way that it provides reliable and measurable ROI—will still only get you a small slice of the traffic available through organic search.

Since SmallBox does holistic marketing—providing diversified internet marketing strategies custom-fitted to the client—this shift is likely to have little to no effect on us.  (Aside from possibly bringing us more PPC business.)  It is annoying, sure, and it’s likely to create an extra layer of busy work for us when it comes to reporting.  But it won’t have any effect on our business model.  Neither will this shift effect the attractiveness of the offerings of the other company that I work for, Slingshot SEO—though for different reasons.  Since Slingshot operates at or near the Enterprise Level—where small shifts in keyword-ranking can mean a profit or loss of many thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars—the difference between the optimal potentials of PPC vs. SEO are stark enough, and dramatic enough, that a small ripple in the way that reporting is done won’t scare anyone off.  Last quarter they reported that the provable ROI for X keyword was $Y dollars.  Next quarter they will say provable ROI for X keyword is between $Y and $Z dollars—and Y & Z will represent a tightly defined range.

With that said, I would not want to be a six-month-old  start-up relying heavily on revenue from SEO for ‘new-to-the-game’ clients right now.

I think it’s kind of sad that Google has stooped to this level. Among colleagues, I have always been one to give Google the benefit of the doubt but not in this case.  They’ve given us so many great services free of charge: Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Art, Google N-Gram, Google Correlate…the list goes on and on.  Google Analytics is not the least valuable of these free services.  Along with their vastly superior algorithm, their original rise to prominence was largely due to this generosity: the blank minimalism of their landing-page, combined with the fact that the service they were offering was completely free for users.  I can’t help but feel like this recent move is a move in the wrong direction for them.

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