Don’t Freak Out about Google’s New SSL Search

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A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about why you shouldn’t freak out about people opt-ing out of being tracked in Google Analytics.  Yesterday, Google announced that they are using SSL to encrypt search queries and responses for people that are using Google.com and are logged into their Google accounts.  The result of this change is that referrals from Google organic search in Google Analytics and other clickstream measurement tools will not be able to determine the keywords used in the search that brought a user to the studied site.  The reporting of the fact that the visit was referred by Google organic search will be maintained.

Although this has widespread implications for both Search Engine Optimization and site optimization activities, I’d encourage you to not freak out about this change for a lot of same reasons that I outlined last year.

Why I’m Not Freaking Out – And You Shouldn’t Either

I have no idea what to expect with this change – there is no way for me to predict how many of my sites’ visitors are going to be coming from logged-in Google account holders.  I do know the current impact of Google organic search to my portfolio of sites – it is the single biggest driver of organic (as opposed to paid) search traffic, providing, on average, 75% of visits. According to both Comscore and Hitwise, Google had a 66% market share of U.S. searches in September 2011.

This traffic is important to the overall goals of all of our sites.  We spend a lot of time and effort on building and maintaining our sites’ search traffic and this change has serious implications for both the quality and quantity of data that we use to drive these efforts.  Despite this, I’m still not freaking out.

Using the same thought exercise as my previous post, imagine if 50% of Google’s organic traffic had its keywords obfuscated because those visitors were logged into their Google accounts when they performed the search that ultimately brought them to your site:

It (Still) Isn’t about the Individual Visit (or in This Case, Search)Search data, like all other clickstream data, is useful in aggregate.  By looking at the keywords searched and grouping them by theme, we can calculate the value of certain types of keywords vs. others (for example, brand terms vs. product terms).  Losing 50% of this data will affect the number of Long Tail keywords that get reported and potentially affect the reporting of narrow segments of traffic that have few reported keywords, but not radically affect our conclusions on the aggregate “search intent” of our visitors.

Aggregate Data is More about Precision than Accuracy – With this thought exercise, we are again losing a bit of Accuracy without losing Precision.  There is no reason to suspect that individuals search and post-search behavior is going to change because they happen to be logged into their Google account.  The assumption that these individuals as a group do not significantly behave differently than all Google organic visitors is one that is easily tested within Google Analytics by comparing the group with reported keywords with the one whose search terms are obfuscated.  Because of this (testable) assumption, we can draw conclusions that the “search intent” of the missing 50% in aggregate is going to be similar to the fully-reported 50%.

Perhaps most importantly, from a privacy standpoint, this is the right thing to do.  I spend a lot of time connected to Wi-Fi in other offices, coffee shops, hotels, at conferences, and other places where a nefarious system administrator could easily snoop on my search queries and other non-encrypted web usage data.  Google’s new two-factor authentication makes me secure accessing Google products (including Google Analytics!) while connected to potentially sketchy Wi-Fi.  Now I have the same level of comfort while using Google search in potentially unfriendly places.

The data will show the impact of the change in the next few days as it is rolled out to everyone.  Regardless of the scope of the data that has been affected, I hope this post had made a strong argument for not freaking out about it.