Google Yanks Some Search Referral Data, Angering Marketers

  |  October 19, 2011   |  Comments

Keyword data for logged in users will no longer be transferred to websites.

In a move with unpleasant ramifications for marketers, Google will no longer share keyword queries used by its logged in users before they jump to a website. As a result, webmasters will no longer be able to find out that a visitor arrived through a search such as "Gucci" or "foot surgery." Instead, they will know only that someone arrived through "organic search."

This change came about as Google made SSL Search (define) the default encryption protocol for users who are logged in. On the upside, marketers can still get keyword referral data for visitors who are not logged in or who enter their sites through paid ads. That's a majority of Google search users.

In explaining the change on its Analytics blog, Google said its decision was motivated by a desire to protect consumer privacy in an age of rising search personalization. It suggested people were particularly vulnerable when searching over public WiFi networks and Internet cafes.

But for webmasters and analytics geeks focused landing page optimization, the decision is a buzz kill.

"If Google wants webmasters and marketers to be able to improve their websites for visitors, then this data would remain as is. This is imperative to providing the best landing page and experience," wrote Stephen Pitts, an SEO director at Rosetta, in a comment on Google's blog post announcing the change.

Kevin Lee, co-founder of Didit and a ClickZ columnist, suggests the change could drive companies to do more paid search advertising. "Marketers who rely on search intent data to customize the usage experience of the web site or for remarketing purposes may find themselves having to rely more on paid search," he said.

While the move has upset some in the analytics community, it could also interfere with more esoteric practices. For instance, website owners are increasingly engaged in selling user search data to third parties for later retargeting through display ads. To achieve this, site owners drop cookies linking visitors to queries that signal commercial intent. They then sell that search query information linked to an anonymous user ID to data brokers, who pass it on to ad buyers, sharing a cut back to the site that recorded the original visit. 

It's the closest marketers can get to doing search retargeting based on Google search data, since Google doesn't offer that service directly. (Read ClickZ's recent coverage of this issue.)

"Publishers who rely on selling retargeting data from organic inbound searches may find their revenue from that source hit dramatically," said Didit's Lee.



Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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