OPINION: The day data went away

David Coats
By David Coats | 26 September 2013
Reprise Media's David Coats.

September 24th 2013 marked a sad day in the world of digital marketing, a day which many people in the search marketing industry hoped would never happen. Throughout September, but particularly on 24th, Google moved to cut a fundamental metric which has made search marketing such a powerful medium – the ability for you to measure your customer’s organic search query.

Firstly some background: Almost since the dawn of the internet, marketers had access, through their web reporting, to the keywords a customer typed into a search engine before clicking through to their website. However, since 2011, this data has been under threat from something called “secure search”.

In 2011, Google placed all users who searched whilst signed into their Google account into a secure layer. This made sense. Anyone logged into a store’s shopping basket, for example, should be behind a secure layer, and the data Google has in your account is just as personal. SSL, as the secure layer is known, ensures unscrupulous third parties can’t access your personal data.

Google’s curious referral of paid search keywords puts a price on privacy

One consequence of the secure layer is that, when a user clicks on your website, the query they typed into Google to find you is no longer sent through to your website analytics. However, this only applies to the organic (or free) part of Google. If a user clicks on a paid search advert, the keyword is still sent to your web reporting. This is curious. As Danny Sullivan, the editor-in-chief of the prominent search industry website Search Engine Land said "Google put a price on privacy". If you pay Google for your advertising, you have access to your customer’s ‘private’ query data. However, if you don’t pay, this data remains private.

Fortunately for marketers, the numbers initially signed into a Google account when searching were small – less than 10%. However in late 2012, Google extended secure search, firstly to all searches using Mozilla Firefox, and then to all searches from Google’s Chrome browser. This dramatically increased the volume of secure search visitors from circa 10% to 40%. This week, Google took this a step further again, meaning, regardless of browser, operating system or account status, all Google searches will be under a secure layer.

100% keyword not provided?

The result is that, for many clients, on 24th September the percentage of organic search visits with their keyword hidden, or not provided – passed 75% - up around 40% from just the day before. One client hit 89.7% of their organic search keywords hidden. This is sure to reach 100% within the next few months as browsers and operating systems are updated to include the new secure layer. The question we all need to ask is what will be the next key metric to go?

So why is this important? Digital marketers make all kinds of decisions based on their keyword data. Keywords tell a marketer the potential demand for a product or service. Keywords enable marketers to easily assign a return on their investment into content marketing, social media or website development. Telling branded keywords from category or research keywords gives you valuable information about your brand awareness such as the effectiveness of your above the line media.

The future of digital remains highly measureable

So what are we going to do about it? There are still plenty of ways to measure the value of organic search. We just need to re-align the way we think about our data. For a start, your analytics package still reports the pages visited from organic search. It’s therefore possible to set up custom variables within analytics packages which monitor organic search traffic to an individual page or a topic area, to potentially infer the keywords most important to that content.

If you run a paid search campaign, you can use the keyword data to which you still have access to help inform your content strategy. You can also use Google’s free Webmaster Tools package which, once you have verified you are the website owner, will give you trended keyword data. You also still receive keyword data from other search engines like Bing and Yahoo which, while significantly smaller in market share, can be used to spot keyword trends.

Ingenuity will ensure we continue to understand our customers

In summary, as Google continues to be the dominant force in search, it can dictate terms on which you receive your data. Privacy issues will continue to dictate the course of a maturing internet, meaning this could be just the beginning of a loss of visitor data. What will set great marketers apart from the crowd is the ability and ingenuity to improve the interpretation of available data to better understand our customers.

David Coats
Organic Search & Analytics Director
Reprise Media Australia

comments powered by Disqus