Where Have All the Keywords Gone?

There’s something fishy going on in the industry of search engine optimization (SEO) over the last several months, and it’s called encrypted search.

Also called secure sockets layer (SSL) search or “Google’s ‘not provided'” (in honor of the data that returns in Google Analytics), among other things, encrypted search is changing the landscape of search in many ways, including the methodologies surrounding SEO.

Google claims the switch – which only takes place when a person is logged in to Google through a secure connection – is to better protect users’ privacy. And that may be true. But Google is still receiving the same information: what we’re searching for, where we’re searching for it, and where the search brings us. What is made available to some third parties, though, has changed dramatically.

And that’s the biggest way SEO, as an industry, is affected. How can an SEO firm or person – or anyone outside of Google – effectively optimize a company’s web presence by only analyzing a portion of the overall data? And how much additional privacy is truly being sustained as Google continues to extract data – as limited as the data may be – from its users?

Google, the most popular search engine and most visited website in the world, estimated that even when its encrypted-search-by-default changeover for signed-in users is in full effect, it will only be a single-digit percentage of overall users; and, while that may somehow become true (although most estimates outside of Google are higher), the data we currently have available indicates something slightly different.

The recent announcement that Google Chrome is now the top web browser throughout the world only supports the idea that the number of people using encrypted search is and/or will be greater than a single-digit percentage.

Chrome’s encrypted search offers less data than other browsers; not only is the search term encrypted, but so is the referral source. In addition to the obvious effects of limited or no data, small-site analytics packages also have trouble attributing whether traffic is a referral or an organic search.

Currently, Google’s “not provided” is consistently one of the top returned “keywords” in analytics packages, usually only being beaten out by branded keywords. And it’s getting worse.

Mozilla Firefox began using encrypted search by default at the end of March. And since then, there has been even more of a spike in “not provided” search data.

Since encrypted search became more prevalent seven months ago, the readable data being extracted is becoming noticeably scarcer. And the amount of unreadable data continues to increase. What started out as a small percentage of keywords returned via analytics packages (as predicted by Google) can now, in many cases, be much closer to 40 percent.

This type of data is crucial to effective SEO. And the recent changes undoubtedly put standard SEO practices into a state of confusion.

There are some close-but-not-quite solutions to the problem of encrypted search, too. One way is through the use of Webmaster Tools. While Google’s webmaster assistant program does not offer finite analytics figures, it does offer some insight as to what keywords are being used to reach your site.

SEOs can and should also rely on synergies between organic search and paid search by leveraging performance data from each channel. I’ve written in-depth on co-optimized search synergy strategies here and here.

Or one could use legacy data pulled from Google Analytics to compare past keyword reports with current ones, but that, too, is going to pose plenty of problems with trends and changes over time.

Check out what percentage of traffic for encrypted searches you are seeing now for your site and consider what kinds of things you can do to offset the changing availability of data.

Crispin Sheridan

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