Two years ago, Google started encrypting searches for people who were logged into their Google accounts, using (not provided) instead of the actual keywords that drove searchers to visit pages. They claimed privacy, wanting to protect searchers from being targeted and eavesdropped on.
Flash-forward to now; Google has officially confirmed the move from only signed-in users showing (not provided), to all users:
“We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.”
Since its implementation two years ago, the numbers have been steadily increasing. But in the past month, the (not provided) figures have jumped. The first graph from the site, http://www.notprovidedcount.com/, tracks the percentage of keywords being withheld across a variety of sixty different websites, from retail, to online dating, to software providers. The second graph shows the number of (not provided) visits to an auto dealer’s site. Right now, September 24th, it looks like a lot of our auto dealers are hanging around the 50-60% mark for (not provided) visits, but we know that will change.
Auto Dealer, July 2012 (228 visits) – September 23 (1,575 visits, incomplete month)
So, why? Why is Google being such a butthole? There are two reasons floating around: the NSA and because they don’t have enough money.
In June, Google was accused of giving the US National Security Agency direct access to its data through the PRISM program. They strongly denied it, and since then, Google has taken it upon themselves to become more transparent. They are claiming this sudden change to SSL encryption is all being done to protect the public, but I’m pretty sure the SEO community calls BS.
The other possibility is that Google is doing this to move Analytics over to AdWords, where we will still be able to see the actual terms – if we pay for them. If we can’t see what terms are bringing sites traffic in for free, the next step for most is to pay for it. We can also still see terms through Google Webmaster Tools, but the data isn’t in full and only goes back 90 days. If that data isn’t archived, it is lost. But AdWords allows us to keep data as long as we like. As Barry Schwartz puts it:
“It’s an odd situation that Google won’t archive search term data within the toolset it expressly built for non-advertisers — Google Webmaster Tools — but does allow this through its ad system. It suggests that terms have been withheld all along in part to create new Google advertisers.”
So, if withholding search terms were really done to protect people, how can Google justify this?
I’m not just a marketer; I’m a web user, too. Marketers don’t use this data to ruin peoples’ lives or to spy on them. We use it to make peoples’ lives easier. We use it to make our websites better, more relevant and more available. We use it to beat spammers. As a web user, it worries me that with this lack of information, spam will crawl its way back to the top, providing crappy results in searches yet again.
I came into this job naively thinking Google was so great; I sit here ten months later thinking Google kind of freaking sucks.
The thing about SEOs though – they’re smart cookies. They have already started moving on to better things.
Stay up-to-date on the (not provided) chatter at Webmaster World.