Google SSL Anyone involved with SEO will have no doubt seen the announcement that Google is “enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users“. There has been a strong reaction to the news and I can see why.

What does the change actually mean?

In a nutshell, it means that Google will start encrypting searches and (more importantly) outbound clicks by default. You can read more at a new help page.

At the moment, this is only affecting logged in users on Google.com, which Matt Cutts has claimed represents a ‘single digit’ percentage of overall search volume. Personally, I don’t believe that for a second and suspect that the true figure is much, much higher. There is no mention yet of a global rollout, so who knows when it will cross the pond and we will see the effect in the UK.

So what?

The significance of this move is that keyword data will no longer be available in web analytics packages, including Google’s very own Google Analytics, who offered a fairly limp wristed response on their blog (I like the ‘Where’s the -1 button?’ response!).

Whilst you will still be able to see that a user came via organic search, you will have no idea which search term was used to find your site. This is very significant in the world of SEO and conversion optimisation where it is vital to know which individual keywords are peforming the best.

You will still be able to see keyword data in Google Webmaster Central, but this is limited to 1,000 queries over the past 30 days (although you can drill down to view data for one day) and I have never felt that the data is completely trustworthy, so the removal of keyword data in analytics will lead to a gaping hole in the data that you can (and should) use to improve your website’s performance.

Google’s hypocrisy?

Google’s defence of the change boils down to the claim that it is in the best interests of its users:

“As search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver. As a result, we’re enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users.”

Far be it for us to suggest that protecting personal data shouldn’t be an important consideration, but is the keyword you use to find a site particularly sensitive information and, more importantly, why is it OK to pass this data through if you click on a paid search ad but not an organic listing?

This is perhaps the real cause of the fury that has spread – if Google feels so strongly about security, how can it justify not applying the same rules to paid search, which is not going to be subject to the change? I find it pretty difficult to think of any plausible reason for this.

What does it mean for SEO agencies?

I often feel that Google is doing its best to kill off the SEO industry. In some cases, I (oddly) agree with the objective and changes such as this should help to eliminate spammy sites that use variables in the urls to create highly optimised pages based on the keyword used as a search (a great example of the ‘thin’ content pages that Panda has its sights on) but the better SEO agencies / consultants / experts support Google’s ambition of improving websites and will work hard to create websites that satisfy users.

Without knowing which keywords perform best, how can you be confident that you really are satisfying the users? If Google wishes its users to have a positive search journey and find the most relevant results for their searches, why are they hiding such important information?

I also fear that the dreaded ranking reports will suddenly become more important. If you have ever spoken to me, you will know that I am not a great fan of ranking reports and will always favour analytics to measure the impact of any SEO work. If you can’t tell how much traffic is coming through on keywords that you are targeting, I suspect that people will revert back to using ranking reports as a barometer for success. This is not good evolution.

Why has Google really done this?

The cynical amongst us (me – a cynic?!) may suspect that it is a ploy to encourage further use of paid search. As the data is not excluded from paid search activity, it will be tempting to use PPC as the primary method to assess the value of individual keywords.

Personally, I just don’t buy the security argument as I don’t see that the data is especially sensitive and, if it was such a big issue, how can they justify not applying the same moral high ground to the Adwords platform?

I will be waiting to see what happens as and when the changes are rolled out globally but I don’t think that Google has earned any friends on this one. We support the ambition to improve user experience across the web, but I feel that this move makes this more difficult.

What do you think?