This past week Google made an announcement that it was changing some of the ways it handled its vast search queries and referral data information. In essence, searchers that are logged into Google.com will have their searches encrypted; Google cites this as one of the ways they are committed to protecting user privacy. However, there are consequences to this shift: it will prevent marketers from receiving referral data from the websites consumers find and peruse via Google search results. Many people are calling into question the reasoning behind this change.
Google insists this will only affect a small fraction of all referral data (seeing as an overwhelming majority of Google users are not logged into Google.com when they conduct searches), but the SEO community is already being very vocal in their objections. The main reason for dissent is that this new change does not affect advertisers. It is a bit hypocritical of Google – to say on one hand these changes are being made to protect consumer privacy yet on the other hand to keep the information free and flowing for paying advertisers. If privacy is the issue, so says the argument, then why is Google passing referrers to advertisers? Is that not a violation of privacy that Google is supposedly against? The general consensus also seems to be that this information should be available to all (as it has been in the past), or the information should not be passed to anyone.
Many people are pointing out this this recent change seems to be a way for Google to monetize its data – in effect, if you want to have the unadulterated data, you need to pay to play. Could this be the seeds of a MAJOR change in Google that will manifest in five, ten, or fifteen years? It’s hard to say, but speculation that Google is shifting people to using paid search is being discussed with increasing frequency.
How does this effect SEO? Well, no one is 100% sure yet. Google might decide that this plan isn’t really working for whatever their scheme is and roll it back; on the other hand they may push it even further so that it affects an even larger amount of referral data. Some people are arguing that if this change really only effects a miniscule portion of all searches, not too much will change for the average SEO marketer; others say it puts extra emphasis on ranking, and other still say it forces SEO marketers to employ more traditional marketing techniques that rely less on search. Time will tell and we’ll keep you in the loop.
If you want to read an excellent article that details all of this from top to bottom in great detail, check out Danny Sullivan’s piece on Search Engine Land.com. If you rely on Google searches and are curious about how referral data changes will impact you, this is a worthwhile read.