While the search industry has been all abuzz with the bad news of Google SSL search, most average people might not even understand what happened. They may wonder “why is (not provided) my most popular keyword in Google Analytics?” (Other analytics solutions might not even show up this data at all). Also: how can you fix it?
First off, I want to explain in simple terms what happened. I tried to explain it to my wife recently and she didn’t understand at once. So this is the version she could fathom easily: Google hides the keywords people use to find your site from now on, or at least a significant part of them. All these hidden keywords are tagged as ‘(not provided)’ in Google Analytics.
On SEOptimise currently (the first week of November) 14,7% of Google search visitors had no keyword sent with its referrer.
The referrer is the page address where they came from. On my own blog, SEO 2.0, the number was even higher, with 16,27% of Google visitors. Also, (not provided) is the most popular “keyword” on both blogs.
Whose referral data gets hidden? All users logged in to Google services get redirected to SSL search now by default.
So all these people hide the keywords they use from the sites they visit. Google and thus the CIA, MI5 or any other secret service can still access these data for at least 18 months.
SSL search isn’t bad – it might be secure for some purposes. As a privacy advocate I can understand that someone would want to use SSL search. I don’t see why Google would force everyone logged in to one of the multiple Google services to use it though. Also, the only way to “opt out” of this forced security measure is to log out of all Google tools, including:
When you log in again, Google automatically forces you to use SSL search again on its https//google.com site. Advertisers who use Google ads will see the hidden data as well, by the way. So if you use SSL search to cover your tracks, at least from the website owners of the sites you click in Google, you have to refrain from clicking Google ads. So what can we actually do about this (not provided) issue?
To ask your web hoster whether they offer SSL for your hosting package or otherwise upgrade to one where SSL would seem an option.
Can’t you use SSL on your site to see Google keywords used by logged in searchers to find you? No, you can’t! Google does not use the same traditional SSL solution it used for SSL search before. Now, according to our colleague Mark Edmondson of Guava it doesn’t work anymore as Google uses a proprietary “hack” to remove the keywords from the referrer. Otherwise you wouldn’t get even the (not provided) notice. Instead there would be no referrer at all. Thank you for pointing this out Mark! Also many thanks to our reader Matt Curry for bringing it to our attention first.
Also, on the other hand, many sites may not notice from then on that you have sent them valuable traffic as long as they don’t use SSL for their sites. You may wonder how that affects you. In the SEO industry at least, people monitor their analytics for incoming traffic and thus find out who links to them. Based on that, relationships between webmasters and bloggers sometimes get forged to the mutual benefit of the two parties. This “SEO technique” will not work most of the time in future unless most webmasters embrace SSL.
Google’s business model is to sell ads on search results and third party pages. More than 95% of their revenue stems from these ads. So they compete against webmasters and SEOs to get the attention of web users.
Advertisers buying Google ads will have access to the referral data. So in a way Google is blackmailing webmasters either to buy ads or lose a truly important and meaningful metric. They have presented the change as a move to protect privacy, but we all know that Google doesn’t care about privacy in many other cases. Just think Google Street View.
I won’t let Google force me to buy ads. I don’t need them as I do SEO myself. It’s like having a car and still using a taxi regularly. We can only hope that lawmakers throughout the world will make Google stop anti-competitive measures like this one. It may take a few years before the authorities can sort out this issue, and until then we have to deal with it ourselves.
Going SSL yourself is the best option as of now. It doesn’t work with the new Google SSL search.
Google removes the keywords using a script so that even SSL sites can’t see them.
So soon 1/5 or 1/4 of your Google search visitors may not provide you with the full referral data. You won’t know for sure which keywords have the biggest impact on your site. The number one keyword will be “not provided” as more and more people start using Google services where they actually stayed logged in throughout the day.
Unless of course you’re in an industry where most people are not Internet-savvy and thus do not use Google services much. There are many people, if not the majority, who do not even know what RSS is and thus do not use Google Reader, for example. Only webmasters use Google Analytics or Webmaster Tools and Google+ has still a market share below 1% of social networking. So in many cases the impact might be far smaller than in the technology-driven search marketing space.
Ironically, the people who really care about privacy, such as Linux users for example, are also rather prone to browse the web anonymously than using Google services
and tell Google their real names each time when they search for some questionable sites. So in niches where real power users are the majority, the search referral issues might be a minor one. Everybody else has to consider buying ads at Google as encrypting their site won’t help to get proper referrer data again. Sad but true, Google can exert its monopoly here and there is no free way out as long as you care about analytics. It seems there is no way to fix it.
More resources on SSL search, (not provided) and analytics: