Agencies keep cool heads as Google’s SEO keyword-referral encryption hits 80% of traffic

By Jessica Davies | News Editor



Digitas article

October 2, 2013 | 6 min read

Agencies have kept cool heads despite Google’s encryption of all natural searches hitting an average 80 per cent of their traffic, with some predicting this to hit 100 per cent by mid-November.

Google started encrypting natural searches in the UK for logged-in account users last March as part of its overall strategy to protect consumer privacy. It did so by integrating encryption protocol Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to natural searches made by people signed in to accounts such as Google+, Gmail and YouTube.

The move obscured the amount of keyword-referral data advertisers have, telling them what natural search terms people have used to arrive on their sites.

The changes rang alarm bells at the time, with some seeing it as a commercially-driven move from Google to encourage more paid-search spend, given that referral data isn’t obscured for PPC.

Although all have been monitoring the changes since the initial rollout, which began in the US in 2011, Google has now extended the rollout to all users, whether signed in or not, which has seen the amount of keyword referral data obscured spike, with many major agencies citing up to 80 per cent losses.

A Google spokesperson said: “We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.”

Agencies are resigned to the changes yet it is still a hot topic with their clients. iProspect’s chief performance officer Mark Fagan told The Drum that with SEO being one of the most important channels for brands it is a major point of interest and concern for clients.

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“It hasn't changed how brands need to approach SEO, but it has changed how they evaluate performance of SEO. In the short term, there is still a lot of data available that can be modelled with a high degree of accuracy but in the long term we are looking at pulling in various other data sources to give our clients the most accurate picture possible.”

TM Lewin’s head of search, Francisco Lema said: “With Google it has always been a ‘Their way or the highway’ kind of relationship, so it’s not really a surprise. The surprise nowadays would be if they do something thinking of someone else but them.

“It obviously affects the quality and representativeness of the data we use to improve our customer experience, and it’s harder to find new opportunities now. However, there are always going to be other search engines, especially if you run an international website like us, and you can always rely on your historic data.”

Agencies and brands, accustomed to Google’s continuous rolling iterations, have turned to other viable tracking methods which can help fill the gap. Havas Media head of SEO David Freeman said the changes have raised challenges in all markets in which Google is the dominant search engine, therefor the US is less affected.

“We had forewarning that Google was switching everything to secure search and so we have been using other methods. Things like Searchmetrics offer market-share data based on rankings, which is useful as it shows how you stack up against the competition.

“If I get 50,000 visits for X keywords and that drives me X revenue - is that that really useful? Can you make actual business decisions off of it? It’s useful but it doesn’t change much. If you have a client like Amazon for example– given the amount of products they have it could give you an indicator to show you what’s selling and what’s not but they have sales data to give you that – can get a lot of trend data out of your business data.

He believes it will be companies like Hitwise that suffer most from the loss of data, given it will rely on the kind of data now being obscured. “It puts a question mark over the value of HItwise data now,” he added.

However, there are wider implications to the changes, which clients are likely to feel more keenly, according to Freeman. The most “critical” area to be affected by the loss of data will hamper holistic SEO and PPC strategies.

“When it comes to the integration level clients care very much as that impacts their budget and spend and bottom line in terms of what they are making. For example they can’t now tell whether they should bid on certain keywords for PPC for a number one position, or if they can already achieve the same in an organic position," he said.

Meanwhile, it is also not possible to split brand and non-brand traffic, making it harder to understand the search trends following major above-the-line campaigns, according to Freeman.

Other agencies agree that there are workarounds, albeit ones that give less accurate results that the keyword referral data itself.

DigitasLbi head of media innovations, Andrew Girdwood said Google’s complete rollout of secure connection (HTTPS) to all SEO in the last weeks has created a “stink” in the industry.

Currently agencies are reporting up to 90 per cent of traffic affected by the loss of keyword-referral data, and this is likely to hit 100 per cent in the near future. “It does feel like 100 per cent ‘not provided’ is a very real thing. The keyword intelligence you get now for free is now very small, which is why people are angry because you can pay for it with PPC.”

He advises using Google’s Webmaster console tools that does still provide keyword-level data for free, albeit on a less accurate, and more censored level not always popular with SEO heads.

Yesterday, Google announced the introduction of Estimated Total Conversions, a new tool for its AdWords which will help advertisers monitor their conversation rates across separate platforms and differing browsers.

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