Corporate SEO: Where Did My Search Data Go?

Rob Kerry
Reading time: 3 minutes
19th October 2011

These articles aim to simplify the task of explaining Google shifts in a corporate environment

Google announced a UI change yesterday, apparently designed to aid the privacy of users whilst logged into Google. When visiting or searching on Google.com, users will be redirected to a HTTPS version of the search engine. This helps to prevent other people on a shared network from seeing what you are searching for, as the search results are encrypted by the same SSL technology used in online banking and e-commerce websites.

This is a smart move in terms of web security, but another change was paper-clipped onto the back of this update that has significant repercussions for Web Analytics providers and the granular tracking of SEO traffic.

What Has Changed?

When an organic search result is clicked on whilst the user is logged-in, Google will now remove any keyword data from their referral URL before delivering the searcher to a website. All web analytics packages rely on something called a HTTP Referrer Header to track SEO keyword referrals, which Google has now removed to “protect privacy”.

If a user searches for [cheap flights] whilst logged out of their Google Account and clicks on SkyScanner.net, the following data gets sent to Sky Scanner and their analytics provider:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=2&sqi=2&ved=0CHQQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.skyscanner.net%2F&rct=j&q=cheap%20flights&ei=A9OeTqayG8eZhQe-z6hX&usg=AFQjCNFAAcwPZAbm5wHz8hBUI68dVzlf3w

The long URL above contains the [cheap flights] keyword between q= and &, whereas logged-in users no longer send this data:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&sqi=2&ved=0CIABEBYwAQ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.skyscanner.net%2F&ei=TcyeTr2cN9DO-Qas7JSDDQ&usg=AFQjCNFAAcwPZAbm5wHz8hBUI68dVzlf3w

In essence, Sky Scanner will know that the referral was from Google.com, but won’t know which search term a user entered to find them.

Who Does This Affect?

When commenting on the change, a senior Google Engineer was quoted as saying…even at full roll-out, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers…“. Independent data paints a very different picture. In March 2010, another Google engineer stated that 20% of all searches were personalised – a large portion of which being logged in users. The exact number is hard to quantify without full disclosure from Google, but other studies also show the figure to be in double digits.

As Google’s various products increase in market share, such as Gmail (3rd largest email provider), Google+ (18 million users in the first 3 weeks) and Google Checkout (2nd largest payment aggregator), the percentage of logged-in searches will rise dramatically as they all use the same Browser Cookie and User Authentication.

How Does This Affect Us?

Google Analytics users will start to notice an increasing number of search referrals being shown as “(not provided)“. This symbolises anonymous traffic from logged-in users. Other web analytics packages may use different terminology, but they will also be prevented from showing keyword-level data for logged-in searches.

Oddly, Google doesn’t see Paid Search as a privacy concern, so PPC clicks will still send keyword data from logged-in users as normal.

When Does This Change Kick-In?

Google made the update live on Google.com yesterday, affecting all logged-in searches in the US and some international users (e.g. the Safari browser uses Google.com rather than a localised version of Google). Google is also expected to roll-out the changes to all international versions of Google (Google.co.uk etc).

Solutions

Ayima is currently testing a solution to this tracking issue, with clients being notified once it has been thoroughly tested.

Written By Rob Kerry
Asset 1 Asset 1 Asset 3