Google Encrypted Search & How to Recover

Google Encrypted Search

Some marketers were caught by surprise in 2011 when Google rolled out secure and encrypted search results for users signed in to a Google account. By encrypting search queries and other Google traffic, intermediaries with network access can't intercept meaningful information while in transit between users and Google. In addition to preventing third party eavesdropping, encrypted results prevents a minor percentage of keyword level data that was previously reported by analytics from being captured. That said, Google personalizes search results differently for users when signed in to a Google account than when they are not. Because Google personalizes search results differently when users are signed in to a Google account, keyword data for signed in users should never have been reported by analytics as organic.

Contrary to statements from Google however, some marketers are reporting double-digit declines in terms of loss of keyword data. If true, this could be a major problem for individuals and agencies with business models based on performance. Because I like to verify other people's claims for myself and even help out when I can, I have been digging deep into sites reporting more than a 10% loss of keyword data since Google launched encrypted search. Over the past several months I have looked at various sites, ranging from leading SEO and analytics industry expert sites with millions of pages indexed in Google search results to a mom and pop site with 50 pages indexed. So far, I have found many sites with numerous pages lacking analytics tracking code and/or site issues which prevent tracking.

Findings like these are no real surprise, according to Google Analytics, on average 37% of traffic is "direct" traffic. "Direct" is actually a bit of a misnomer, in many cases it is where you will find traffic from other sources patiently waiting to be discovered. Some analytics companies provide tools that crawl sites to check pages for analytics tracking code. These tools are not effective for ensuring that pages indexed by search engines contain analytics tracking code. Unlike analytics tools to crawl a site, search engines crawl hundreds of billions of pages and often find links to sites outside of the current site architecture. Sites with pages indexed that have no analytics tracking code are not measuring organic search performance. Currently there is no tool to check URLs indexed in Google search results for analytics tracking code.

Marketers who are trying to make up for losses in keyword conversion data due to Google encrypted search should focus on decreasing direct traffic to 25% or less. They should also focus on ensuring that all pages indexed in search results are tracked by and reported by analytics. To ensure that pages are tracked properly, webmasters should cross reference URLs tracked by analytics with URLs reported in Google Webmaster Tools. People can say what they want but Google Webmaster Tools provides all of the searches for 96% of websites. Each site is different but mathematically for a lot of sites, it is possible to decrease the percentage of keyword data lost due to Google encrypted search results by increasing the overall number of pages tracked. Either way, this is a short term technique to make up for keyword data that is currently being lost. Those impacted by this loss of keyword data should adjust and prepare for more future losses in the future.

With the "year of mobile" finally behind us, you can expect 2012 to be the "year of encryption". Google voice search is part of the rationale behind Google defaulting signed in users to encrypted search. Unlike desktop computers and Chromebooks however, mobile users can be signed in to services like GMail via GMail's mobile application for example, without being signed in to Google search on their mobile browser. While not enabled by default, the mobile version of encrypted search is already available by accessing https://encrypted.google.com on a mobile device. Users with security concerns can already set Google encrypted search as their default mobile browser homepage via browser > settings > homepage. Newer Google Motorola Android devices like the Android Bionic by Motorola, actually allow users to encrypt the entire device including all contents. Defaulting signed in users to encrypted search across the board, during the busy holiday shopping season could be highly problematic for a number of reasons. Don't expect to see encryption for signed in users fully rolled out to all devices in 2011 but expect it in 2012.