SEOs Not Buying Google’s Privacy Motive for Encrypting Search

    October 28, 2011

Google caused quite a ruckus in the search marketing community after it announced some changes to search. Last week, the search giant said that it would begin encrypting logged-in searches that users do by default, when they are logged into This further integration of a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) will prevent search marketers from receiving referral data from the websites consumers click on from Google search results.

What do you think of Google’s move to encrypt searches? We’d love to know.

While this change is only supposed to affect a single digit percentage of referral data, many SEOs are not happy with the move and believe that Google has gone too far. Eric Enge, the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting, told us that he was completely “baffled” when he saw the news. Rebecca Lieb, the Digital Advertising and Media Analyst at the Altimeter Group, was also surprised by the move and called it “evil.”

“I hate to say this about Google because they’re a company that I admire and like and respect, but I think this is evil,” she said.

“Google is taking something away that is a very, very valuable tool for anybody practicing SEO,” Lieb added.

Amanda Watlington, the Owner of Searching for Profit, also shared with us that she would not be able to give her clients as much value as she has in the past.

“I have learned more from the referral data that comes into the that lets me benefit the user – I won’t have that data to mine, “ she said. “Personally, it will make it harder for me to (a) understand what the performance of my pages are and (b) to learn from my pages.”

Google has said that it did this in order to make search more secure, but the SEO community doesn’t agree. Enge told us that he didn’t recall any outcry from privacy organizations in regards to search term data and, therefore, is not convinced that security was Google’s real motive. If this were the case, he thinks that Bing and Yahoo would have had to make changes as well.

Others, including Amanda Watlington, think that Google did this for financial purposes. She told us that it was “all about the Benjamins.” Matt Van Wagner of Find Me Faster also said that he could see the search giant thinking this move would make its search engine look more attractive to shareholders since it could potentially push more people to use paid search – its primary revenue model.

Lieb takes a slightly different approach and said that Google could have done this to appease regulators. What’s bad though, as she points out, is that most regulators don’t understand referral data and other aspects of Internet marketing.

“I think Google may (It’s a theory – I can’t prove it) be throwing a bone to somebody on Capitol Hill with this move,” she said.

Is Google making moves to try to improve its reputation with regulators? What do you think?

Todd Friesen, the Director of SEO at Performics, agrees that Google made this move as part of a greater effort. He told us that Google frequently makes small moves and waits to see how everyone reacts before it pushes out its bigger plan.

“Google doesn’t do anything on a whim,” he said. “They’re definitely thinking 5 and 10 years out.”

“There’s definitely a bigger plan behind it, and it’s probably big and scary with teeth and claws,” he added.

A big part of the reason why SEOs aren’t buying into the privacy theory is because the changes do not impact advertisers. This is ironic since consumers don’t typically complain about organic search data, but they are usually concerned about targeted advertising. It seems as though Google is saying that consumer information is important for advertisers to make money, but it turns into a consumer privacy issue when it relates to organic search results.

“The fact that they’re keeping all this referrer data alive for advertisers is strongly, if not irrefutably, indicative that the money is not where the mouth is,” said Lieb.

Friesen also said that it’s a “hypocritical standpoint” on Google’s part. If the motive is really about privacy, he doesn’t think that Google should be passing referrer to advertisers, or anyone for that matter.

Another point that Lieb raised was that paid search could eventually take a hit from this move. If small businesses that are investing in organic search through Google are not able to get the data they need, she doesn’t think that they would want to pursue a paid search campaign with it either.

“It’s certainly something that would make me, as an advertiser, almost inclined to go to Bing or Yahoo just because… just because this isn’t right,” added Lieb.

Google maintains that this change is very small and that it will only impact a small percentage of searches. Matt Cutts also pushed this message on Twitter:

@Sam_Robson I believe it will affect things based on the referrer, but only for a small percentage of searches (signed in on .com). 9 days ago via web · powered by @socialditto

@Rhea And we’ll be rolling out slowly(weeks). We ran some tests before launch, and I don’t think anyone even noticed the change. @blafrance 9 days ago via web · powered by @socialditto

The SEOs, however, are not convinced. There are so many unanswered questions that this move raises that one can’t help but wonder about the future of SEO. Watlington, for instance, told us that she could see Google monetizing the data going forward and that this move is the first step.

“To me, the move to give it to an advertiser is a monetization of the data,” she said. “What additional monetization will be, I’m waiting to see.”

Van Wagner told us that, since he primarily does paid search, he is glad that Google didn’t include advertisers at this point. But, this move could result in more competition in paid search, which is not something is in favor of either.

The biggest concern is the fact that no one knows what is next. Lieb told us that if Google does decide to roll this out further, SEO could really be in danger.

“People have a right to be upset about this because, even if it’s only 10 percent now, or only 15 percent now, it could get more dire,” she said.

Watlington believes that search marketers may have to rethink what they do moving forward. She even said that they might have to “look away from search” and focus more on traditional marketing. At this point, Google is the primary search player and everything it does directly impacts search marketers, which, according to Watlington, does not indicate a promising future for search marketing.

“We have one very large player, a monopolistically-sized player… holding enough of the cards,” she said. “That’s not exactly what I call a real long-term strategy because whatever that player does, it impacts us.”

Friesen, on the other hand, doesn’t really think that this impacts what SEOs do. He thinks that the process of how they track and report on it changes but said that the job of an SEO doesn’t actually change.

“What, unfortunately, it does is drives us back to rank checking as a more important metric,” he explained.

He does admit that the SEO industry could be more heavily impacted if Google makes a further move in this area.

“At this point, it’s less than 5 percent… but if it starts to climb, then we get into a reporting issue,” said Friesen. “We get back to the ‘SEO is black magic voodoo stuff.’”

Incidentally, a petition called Keyword Transparency has been created that hopes to get Google to reverse this action. The “About” section on the site says:

This petition has been created to show Google the level of dissatisfaction over their recent changes to keyword referral information, and will be presented to the search quality and analytics teams at Google.

The argument that this has been done for privacy reasons sadly holds little weight, and the move essentially turns the clock back in terms of data transparency.

The argument that this only affects <10% of users is also concerning as this is likely to increase over time, even up to a point where it affects the majority of users being referred from search.

At this point, there are over 1,000 signatures on the petition.

Is Google’s move to encrypt searches just the first of many? And if so, is the future of SEO in question? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.