Google LogoThe last 24 hours have seen online marketers around the world venting their spleen at Google’s latest announcement: With immediate effect, all searches performed by users logged in to Google will be conducted via a secure (SSL) connection. This has the effect that organic keyword data is not passed to the website receiving the traffic from a logged-in Google search, which means you won’t see what keywords users who were logged in to Google searched for when they clicked through to your website. The official announcement is here.

This, apparently, is in the name of privacy. Which is odd, because it doesn’t affect AdWords clicks – if you’re an advertiser, you will still see keyword-level data regardless of whether the clicks come from logged-in or logged-out users. So Google doesn’t really care about your privacy. If it did, it wouldn’t be allowing advertisers to target ads to you based on what web pages you have visited through it’s AdWords Remarketing system.

What does this mean for us as website owners and marketers? Well, Google says it affects only 10% of searches – for now. As more people get Android devices (which force you to have a Google account), sign up for services like GMail and Google+, or any of Google’s other services (e.g. YouTube), so more people will be logged in to Google. Not only this, but there is a precedent of Google rolling out features to logged-in users first and all users a little later.

The upshot of Google keeping keyword data to themselves (they didn’t say they won’t be recording search data full stop, did they?) is that in your web statistics/analytics software, you will still see visits from Google (organic) searches, but logged-in users won’t report keywords. Instead, in Google Analytics at least, you will simply see “(not provided)” in your keyword reports. Not terribly useful. If you’re an AdWords advertiser, you will still get keyword data in your Search Term reports and the keyword triggers will still be in Analytics. Did someone say “forcing you to buy keyword data”? 😉

Google suggests that you should ensure your Webmaster Tools account is linked to your Analytics account, which opens up the Search Engine Optimization section of reports in Traffic Sources (in the latest version of Analytics of course – you are using that, right?) Sadly, Webmaster Tools is woefully inaccurate at reporting keyword data – just a quick scan through some of our accounts shows a variance of 9%-87%(!) between the “real” keyword traffic report and what Webmaster Tools reports. So Google have stripped us of one of the most useful bits of information in Analytics.

Add to this the fact that Webmaster Tools data can’t be segmented and has no tabs for Goals or E-commerce reporting, and suddenly your SEO campaigns become hugely more difficult to monitor from an ROI point of view. Thanks Google, you just made everyone’s life harder. Again.

Why is Google really doing this? Privacy is clearly a bluff, either a deliberate ploy to throw governments and regulators off the scent by showing them that “we’re serious about privacy” without having to alter their use of cookies for targeted advertising, or a handy side-effect of the real reason. I think Joost hit the nail on the head with his article on SEOBook.com: it’s an anti-competitive move against competitors in the display advertising arena.

How so you might ask? Well, you may not be familiar with the term “search retargeting” – this is a technology that targets adverts to visitors based on what they searched for. In essence, a user searches for something, clicks through to a publisher’s website that is part of a retargeting network and is shown an advert based on the keywords they searched for. They may then be cookied, so that other sites in the network can display similarly targeted ads, even if the visit isn’t directly from a search engine. If Google doesn’t pass the keyword data, this can’t work. Handy for Google, as these networks serve big advertisers ($50k a month minimum to advertise with Chitika!) in direct competition with Google’s own Display Network and DoubleClick platform. Hmm.

So there we have it – monitoring keyword-driven organic traffic from the biggest-by-far source just became less accurate and quite probably in the near future, a thing of the past. The best thing you can do to mitigate this loss is link your Webmaster Tools account with your Analytics account and start calculating the variance between the two sets of data, so that when the time comes and the standard organic keyword report ceases to be meaningful, you can at least make some sense of the significantly worse data from Webmaster Tools.