9 March 2012

Google Creates SSL-Encrypted Search But Damages Analytics Data


Google has begun to extend its SSL-encrypted search for logged-in users into many territories outside of the United States, including the United Kingdom.

Back at the beginning of October, Google introduced SSL encryption to search for users searching through Google.com while logged into their Google account.

Google describes their reasoning in this blog post, describing how SSL encryption protects privacy, particularly for users of unsecured Internet connections such as WiFi hotspots.

Many users are logged into their Google accounts frequently – this includes users who are logged into Gmail, Google Plus, Analytics, Adwords, Google Docs, and other services.

There is a downside for Analytics users

However, while striving for privacy is admirable, there is a downside for websites that use Google Analytics.

One of the metrics gathered by Analytics is “organic keywords” – that is the phrases people have searched in order to arrive at the website. This data is anonymous, in that it cannot be traced back to individual users. It is, however, of great benefit to websites in helping to shape content strategy and to understand how to make their sites more relevant and useful to the people that use them.

For example, if a number of users have arrived at the site by searching for ‘red widgets’, and the conversion rate for buying red widgets is high, this is a good situation, but if an equally high number of users arrived at the site searching for ‘blue widgets’  and conversion is low, this could suggest a number of things might be wrong, such as pricing, availability, product information given on the site, calls-to-action, whether the users are landing on the right page, and so on.

It is not simply a case of looking at the sales figures, as it is important to know the demand – i.e. the relative levels of searches for each product from people arriving at your site.

The problem is that Google no longer sends the keyword data in the HTTP-Referer header for people using SSL search, which means that a portion of the organic keyword search data is absent.  These searches are instead recorder as “(not provided)” in the keyword data in Analytics.

It is important to note that this does not affect paid search, or Bing and Yahoo (at least not yet).

Google is now extending the SSL-search beyond the USA

Earlier this week, Google announced that it had begun to extend the SSL-encryption to users in some territories outside of the United States.  In reality, some users outside the United States were already using SSL-search anyway, as some user search Google.com directly from other locations than the States.

Consequently, on some Analytics accounts, we are beginning to see the ratio of searches recorded with “(not provided)” as the keyword increase from usually around 2% to somewhere around 15%, already.

It’s more important than ever to consider paid search

The effects of this on process mean that it is now more important than ever to consider paid search as a sandbox for conversion process interrogation using the process described above.  There are other advantages to using paid search for this of course – it is possible to control many more variables directly, such as ad copy and landing page – such things are not directly controllable through organic search, although it is possible to influence what Google might show.

Additionally, with paid search it is possible to ensure that things like search position between two products are more equivalent to give a more even testing ground for this process.  Paid search is also more immediately responsive to changes you make.

But remember organic search is still vital

That said, organic search is still a vital ingredient for success.  Best practice for organic search reaps rewards long into the future of a website, and will continue to create excellent ROI.





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