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Will Google’s Encrypted Search Focus SEO on The Right Metrics?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The SEO community has been reeling for the past few days at the news that Google will start encrypting searches and blocking referrer data for searchers signed into Google accounts. The net outcome is that analytics tools (Google Analytics included) won’t be able to see referring organic keyword data for these signed in users.

The general sentiment is that this move is good for users and bad for marketers (particularly search marketers.) I have a sense that this could be an opportunity for those of us who engage in SEO to examine just what it is we’re really trying to accomplish on behalf of our clients. The reasons for the move are obviously privacy-related. The implications of personalized search (which I explore in more detail here) raise more concerns about what user-specific data is available to marketers and others online.

Google has been praised by privacy advocates like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation for the move, but what will the implications be for SEO and marketing? The general arc of the online marketing experience has been decidedly in the direction of more and better information available about online user behavior. It is not surprising that taking some useful data away would be a shock to the system.

This one hits SEOs right where they live. But maybe that’s part of the problem; maybe it’s time for search optimizers to refocus a bit. Google created modern SEO through its focus on linking and algorithms so complex that they twist any marketer’s cerebral cortex in to a Gordian knot. Enter the search engine optimizer with the well-worn tool kit of on- and off-page strategies against a target list of keywords. The output of an SEO campaign has too often been a ranking report, some vanity screen shots and some traffic numbers on specific keywords. This misses the point of what SEO should really be, which is an integral part of a larger search and online marketing strategy that measures efficacy at a program level, focusing on real business driving objectives like program yield and ROI.

It is fitting that the move toward personalized search is putting this kind of pressure on the way people have traditionally thought about and reported on SEO. Personalized search (where different searchers get different results based on factors like personal search history) has also made the ranking report something of an obsolete exercise. Google is spinning this encrypted search change as something that will affect only a small percentage of organic traffic. They’ve trotted Matt Cutts out there to say that it will be in the single digits (a metric about which many have expressed skepticism), but regardless of the initial numbers, it’s safe to say that the tide is turning when in comes to getting this kind of granular data.

Google’s goal is certainly to get more people to conduct searches while signed into Google to access platforms like Gmail and Google Plus, and the privacy concerns that have driven this change do not seem to be going away any time soon. If that tide carries away the siloed SEO programs that keep clients focused on the wrong metrics and ushers in more integrated programs that provide meaningful business intelligence and outcomes, then it could end up being a net positive for marketers and users. But I’ll let Google try to convince the SEO agencies of that.

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