Google Giveth, and Google Taketh Away

Yesterday Google announced on its Analytics blog that it would make a change to its search and analytics. To be exact, all users who are signed-in to their Google account will automatically make use of the SSL encrypted version of the google.com search engine.

This also means that any search query performed by these signed-in users will not be passing any keyword information to web analytics. This effectively means that the keyword information you get out of your Google Analytics reports (or any other web analytics system) will no longer be accurate.

For many search engine optimisers, this is a troublesome development. While initially this change will have a fairly minimal impact – it only occurs on Google.com for signed-in users – it is far from inconceivable that Google will roll this out across all country-level search engines. In which case the keyword data we rely on to make informed decisions about our internet marketing strategies will become all but unusable.

Google claims it is making this step in the name of privacy. But this seems a highly dubious claim at best. For one, Google has proven many times in the past that it genuinely doesn’t care about users’ privacy. To name but one example, in Google+ you are forced to use your real name, which makes anonymous usage of this social network all but impossible. And anonymity is a core feature of online privacy.

Additionally, Google’s privacy claims are exposed as rather hollow when you realise that if you advertise on Google AdWords, you still get the full keyword data – regardless if a user is on the encrypted SSL version of Google or not. So basically this means that the data is only private if you’re not willing to pay for it. The moment you start giving money to Google on their AdWords platform, all the data is there for you to see.

Additionally, in light of the recent introduction of a paid Premium version of Google Analytics, it is not inconceivable that this hidden keyword data will become part of that.

Search Engine Land has posted a good analysis of this latest move by Google, and many other search engine optimisers have been chiming in on Twitter and various blogs. Overall the tone is very negative and critical of Google, with many interpreting this move as an attack on SEO, and a means for Google to grow its AdWords PPC business.

From my point of view, it feels as a bit of a betrayal. By giving away Google Analytics for free for many years, Google has created and nurtured a data-driven approach to digital marketing in general and SEO specifically. By reviewing the keywords that send traffic to your website you can see which keywords perform the best for you, and where you need to focus your ongoing SEO and digital marketing efforts.

Now with this new development, it seems that Google decided that digital marketers have too much data available to them. Google says, in various responses to the criticism it has received over this move, that webmasters can rely on the data provided by tools like Google Webmaster Tools. But this is, of course, a farcical answer, as the data provided in Webmaster Tools is highly inaccurate at best, is not connected to any user activity on your website (such as conversions), and only goes back 30 days – which makes it all but unusable for any long term digital marketing strategy.

Even the most committed fan of Google must now conclude that profit maximisation seems to be the only driving force behind Google’s ongoing product development. This seems obvious – after all, Google is a publicly traded company and so has a legal obligation to make as much money for its shareholders as it possibly can – but for many long term fans of Google this can be a massively disappointing realisation.

Google has long been the darling of the geek community. This love affair now seems to be coming to an end, with Google behaving more and more like a greed-motivated monopolist. And the casualties along the way will be those online businesses that rely on accurate data for their online marketing strategies.

What the exact implications will be for how we report on website performance, and how this will impact the strategies we devise and implement for our clients, is as of yet unclear. This change has not yet been rolled out on Google.co.uk, and there is no solid data on the amount of users who will be using the encrypted SSL search function.

We at The Tomorrow Lab will be keeping a close eye on further developments and, as always, will change and adapt our strategies to ensure maximum ROI for all our clients.