The Impact of Google Encrypted Search
by Bret Gundersen
posted on 10-19-2011
Let’s start with a summary of what you’ve been reading. In an effort to make “search more secure,” Google is encrypting more search queries through SSL. Searchers signed-in to a Google account are redirected to https://www.google.com (notice the s) and (here’s the rub) search keywords are stripped from the referrer [correction follows] when a natural keyword is clicked. The typed keyword is hidden from you and your site optimization systems (that’s us).
What’s going to change? Natural search keywords and search engines will be under-reported in SiteCatalyst. If you’ve implemented organic search integration in SearchCenter you will see a reduction in organic search term traffic. However, SearchCenter paid keyword data is not affected.
Google engineer Matt Cutts estimates that search encryption will impact less than 10% of organic search queries. To date we have seen that 0.5% to 2% of Google searches are affected, though we expect that number to increase. As a percent of total search traffic, we’ve seen a 0.3% to 1.5% impact.
Rather than hope the 0.5%, 2%, or 10% ratio applies to your site, follow these steps to measure the impact directly:
1. Run the Traffic Sources > Referrers report using the Instance metric
2. Select the current day in the date selector
3. Filter the report to show referrers from major search engines by adding this to the search box: google.com/search OR google.com/url OR search.yahoo.com OR bing.com. Some tips:
- Add non-US domain endings, like google.co.uk, where appropriate
- Don’t forget to capitalize the OR operator
- In SiteCatalyst 14, this search may take a few minutes
4. Note the total in the bottom-right corner of the page (I drop it into Excel, but your memory may be better than mine)
5. Filter the report to encrypted search referrers by searching for google.com/url AND q=& (again, capitalization matters for the AND operator)
6. Divide the second total by the first to estimate the change to total search traffic caused by encrypted search.
Because the google.com domain is used for so much more than search, SiteCatalyst only counts a “search” when there is a visible keyword. This prevents mail.google.com from being counted as a search engine. Unfortunately, this will also prevent Google encrypted searches from being counted as search traffic. As a result, the following SiteCatalyst reports will be impacted:
- Referrer Types: Search Engine traffic will decrease in favor of traffic for “Other Web Sites”
- Search Keywords (All, Paid and Natural): Metrics associated with keywords will decrease in favor of “None.”
- Search Engines (All, Paid and Natural): Metrics associated with Google search engines will decrease in favor of “None.”
We are currently evaluating changes to the processing platform to improve reporting of encrypted search traffic, though there is no way to uncover the original search query.
Impact on Landing Page Optimization
Google search encryption will affect retargeting and landing page adaptation if site content is customized based on the query parameter. However, because search encryption does not apply to all data, there should be an actionable sample of data for both paid and organic search marketers to perform conversion analysis and landing page optimization (especially since Bing and Yahoo do not offer encrypted search options).
For more information, Search Engine Land has a written a detailed post about Google’s recent search encryption changes here: http://searchengineland.com/google-to-begin-encrypting-searches-outbound-clicks-by-default-97435
The esteemed Chris Haleua from the SearchCenter product management team contributed heavily to this post (in other words, if you don’t like it, blame him).
UPDATE (2): Starting Tuesday, 8 Thursday, 10 November 2011, you will see the term “Keyword Unavailable” in the Search Keywords (All and Natural), Marketing Channel Detail and SearchCenter Organic to Paid Keyword reports. Additionally, any loss in Natural Search attribution for Google in the Search Engines report will return to normal levels. This change will not be retroactive. The gradual decrease you’ve noticed in the Search Engines, Marketing Channel, and Referrer Types reports will jump back up by 2-4% 14-20% (according to most customers I’ve spoken with) starting Thursday afternoon, Pacific Time.
UPDATE 3: The changes are live. You will now see “Keyword Unavailable” in keyword reports and Search channel and referrer types will return to normal levels. If you’re using the Channel Manager plugin, you will need to use an updated version.
We are still investigating the status of Unified Sources DB VISTA rules, and hope to have an update on those soon.
Thank you for the comments on this topic, both here and in the Ideas Exchange.