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Has Google shot themselves in the foot?

Google’s recent tightening of privacy by ‘hiding’ traffic data from websites is driving marketers crazy. Could this act eventually be detrimental to Google?

You may or may not know that in November last year, Google starting “hiding” organic keyword traffic data in the name of user privacy, for users that are signed into a Google account.

What that means is that if you’re signed in, and you search for something, then click on the link, the term you used is no longer passed through to the website you visit.

For the website, that means they have no idea what you searched for.

And the market revolted – marketers around the world were stunned by Google’s ability to, at their own whim, turn off a piece of data that is critical to so many things.  And you’d think they would be smarter than that – you’d think they’d consult with people before doing something that impactful.  But no, they’re Google.  They don’t do that.

Google says it’s only going to impact about 10% of our search traffic.

But many sites across the internet are reporting 20-50% impact.  Elephants and Analytics is actually averaging around 48% of search traffic showing as unknown.

In Google Analytics it’ll show up as “Not Provided”, in SiteCatalyst it’s “Keyword Unavailable”.  And let me just clarify, this affects every web analytics platform.  It’s not the platform, it’s that the Google Search Engine now strips out the keyword before they pass the user to your site.

In actual fact, it seems that the percentage of impact is largely influenced by the location of your audience.  For Elephants, the audience is largely US based – so when I segment by US/Non-US, it’s around 48% vs. 5%.  Almost half of the my US audience is apparently signed into Google somewhere.  For other clients, the impact is negligible, sometimes as low as 1%.

What a crock

Now, I have no problem with Google tightening up privacy.  But in my opinion this isn’t a privacy play – this is revenue play.  And I think it’ll shoot them in the foot.

I don’t really consider a keyword to be a privacy issue – and in reality, neither does Google. It’s not an issue if you’ve paid for your advertising through AdWords – they’ll happily pass paid keyword info over to you in the normal way.

I’ve read that with Google Analytics Premium, you’ll have access to the keywords again – but for GA Premium you’ll need to fork out $150,000 per annum (when it’s released in Australia) – which puts it 10x the cost of other paid for platforms.

So this generates two additional revenue streams for them – Google Analytics Premium and pushing more customers into AdWords.  Hence the “revenue play” not a “privacy” issue.  Really, do they think that we’re that dumb?

Keyword blindness

Losing visibility on keywords is a disaster.  As marketers, we rely on those search terms to understand how to further optimise the content.  We rely on those terms to help us understand user behaviour.

So, this problem is only going to get bigger as more and more people sign in (and remain signed in) to Google accounts.

But consider this – and here’s where I think they’ve shot themselves in the foot.

The more people that use this, the more our keywords get hidden.  The more they get hidden, the less information we have about how well our pages are performing and what to further optimise for.  The less capability we have in that, the harder it is for Google to show relevant results in search.

The less relevant the search results, the more frustrated the user.  The more frustrated they are, the more they abandon the service.

Ergo, Google…hole in the foot.

The content and advice contained in this post may be out of date. Last updated on January 16, 2012.

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