On October 18th, Google made the announcement that they would begin encrypting search queries for users that were signed-in or chose to use the https url to initiate searches. Their reasoning for this change was to enhance the default search experience and protect the personalized search results they deliver.
What is encrypting?
In this instance, encryption refers to utilizing a secure sockets layer, or SSL connection. An SSL connection allows the information you enter on a web page and submit to be encrypted, or protected, from unauthorized, prying eyes. Most browsers recognize SSL connections, or secure forms, by displaying an https url instead of the standard http version. For example, Google’s standard url – http://www.google.com is the unencrypted url and the newer https://www.google.com is the encrypted page.
Why Should I Care?
If you are signed-in to Google and submit a search query, certain attributes of your query will no longer be passed to the sites you visit. Let’s say you want to order a pizza, so you go to Google, sign in, and then type a search for “pizza delivery in Spokane, WA.” When you visit the pizzeria website, information such as the city you are in, the search query you typed in, which browser you were using, etc. were passed on to the pizzeria’s analytics tracking program. This was a great benefit to business and website owners as they could run reports on where their traffic was coming from, and attributes of their customers. If they put up a new billboard in Spokane and traffic to the website increased in that city because people were searching for their company name, they could attribute some of that success to the billboard and calculate a return on advertising investment.
With Google now encrypting the search query on signed-in user queries, this information will no longer be available to businesses and webmasters. Google estimated in their news release that this would impact 10% or less of reporting viewable by businesses and webmasters. I assume this 10% number is based on the total percentage of searches performed by signed-in users. What if certain businesses have a client base that are much more likely (than the national average) to be signed-in Google users? What happens to their ability to analyze website traffic data? Answer: They’re out of luck.
Privacy for Sale?
The real kicker in this announcement is that after all the concern for privacy being the reason behind the move to encrypted search, if the user clicks on an ad or paid result (the right column of search results pages and also the top couple of listings on some results page) the information that Google is encrypting on organic clicks is actually not encrypted on paid clicks. That’s right. If the business pays for the click, the information is passed. If they don’t, no data. So it’s not really about your privacy, it’s a business decision on Google’s part to monetize the “private” information. After all, privacy is when your information stays your own. Even with Google’s encrypted search, they still retain all of the private information, they just don’t pass it along to webmasters unless you pay for it.
Here are some quotes from industry leaders on the subject that seem to sum it all up. Peter Young, with Holistic Search Marketing, says, “To be honest the fact that it’s perfectly acceptable for PPC [paid] data to be tracked in the same circumstance that Google says it cannot pass organic data through for “privacy purposes” would suggest again this privacy is the least of their concerns. ‘You can have the data – as long as you pay us’ would appear to be the rhetoric here.” Joost deValk, from SEO Book explains, “This is what I call hypocrisy at work. Google cares about your privacy, unless they make money on you, then they don’t. The fact is that due to this change, AdWords gets favored over organic results. Once again, Google gets to claim that it cares about your privacy and pulls a major public ‘stunt’. The issue is, they don’t care about your privacy enough to not give that data to their advertisers.”
The bottom line: If Google had just said it was a business decision designed to increase profits, most people would have understood that. They’d still grumble, but at least it would make sense. This false pretense of protecting privacy goes out the window Google if you’re going to give it away if you get paid.