Google Encrypted Search: What It Means For You

If you deal with online search, SEO or Internet marketing, you’ve probably already heard this news. Let’s break down what it means for hotel and travel marketers.

To recap:

Google turned on (1) SSL (or encryption) for searches (2) by default for (3) logged in users. Let’s unpack that statement.

  1. SSL means the search phrase a user types is encrypted when it’s sent from his or her computer to Google. This feature has been available optionally since 2010.
  2. By default” is the key phrase here: it means people’s searches will be encrypted or protected automatically, whether the people opt into it or not.
  3. But it’s only by default for people with Google accounts, who are logged into those accounts. Search remains unencrypted and unchanged for everyone else.

    Screenshot of user logged into Google

    Google User Logged In (click to enlarge)

That sounds great. Why is everyone making so much noise?

At first glance, encrypting people’s searches is a good idea. Google argues it protects people’s privacy, and it does, especially if someone is performing Google searches on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks. But Google implemented this change is a particular way that has a dramatic consequence for websites that rely on keyword and traffic data from Google.

From Google’s own mouth (specifically, Google Search Product Manager Evelyn Kao: “When you search from https://www.google.com, websites you visit from our organic search listings will still know that you came from Google, but won’t receive information about each individual query.”

What does it mean?

For SEO and marketing professionals

Google has been making SEO harder and harder, especially over the past year and since the Mayday algorithm update. Their changes have definitely hit inbound traffic levels, enough that we’ve had to explain the situation to clients wondering what the heck Google is up to.

This is more of the same.

On the positive side, we can still find the top search terms used for the past 30 days through Google Webmaster Tools. We just won’t have the granular level of detail on which we used to rely. Also, analytics data from paid search marketing through Google AdWords will be unaffected.

Actually, that fact – the continued availability of Google data to AdWords users – yields an important realization: Google is still collecting the data, for itself and its advertisers. It’s just no longer sharing the same level of data with anyone who doesn’t pay for AdWords.

So it must be good for consumers…?

Google has officially positioned this change as a pro-user move in that it protects user privacy. Kao writes, “We recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver.” She emphasizes encrypting search traffic is particularly important on unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots.

She’s not wrong. But she’s not entirely right either. Especially when they’re only applying the privacy principle in one area and not in another.

In that case, maybe Google will fix it?

The thing is, Google had to be aware their privacy argument wasn’t being applied equally in practice.

To explain this, we’re going to quote a bit from Search Engine Land, which has written a highly recommended read on this subject. (Just be aware it’s a bit on the technical side, and it’s not aimed at an audience in the travel sector.)

[Normally] encryption — providing a secure web site — doesn’t block referrers if someone goes from one secure web site to another. Consider it like this:
• Unsecure » passes referrer to » Unsecure
• Secure » passes referrer to » Secure
• Secure /// does NOT pass referrer to /// Unsecure

However, Google has broken this system in order to withhold data from non-advertisers, because even if the referring site (in this case, Google search) is encrypted and the destination site (your site) were encrypted, Google still wouldn’t deliver the referrer data.

As Search Engine Land continues:

To solve this, Google changed from the standard way that referrers are supposed to be passed to its own unique system, which works like this:

• Secure /// does NOT pass referrer to /// Unsecure unless…
• Secure » passes referrer if ADVERTISER to » Unsecure

Make of that what you will. We’re not going to editorialize beyond this. We’re just spelling out the reality of the situation. The bottom line: Obviously this is a complex, multifaceted decision by Google that is going to have a number of effects on different groups of people, some positive and some negative.

More importantly, what does it mean for Evision clients and, potentially, the travel and hospitality industry?

This change will not affect pay per click advertising or reporting, and we will still be able to provide complete and accurate organic keyword ranking reports. We are waiting to see if we notice any changes to our clients’ organic keyword traffic report (that is, the number of visits your website received from organic SEO keywords).

Nobody is sure how much the data will be affected, as we do not know what percent of users logged into their Google (or Gmail) accounts browse the website and perform searches on Google.

For Evision and its clients:

On the plus side: while this data is important and useful to us, it is not make-it-or-break-it information. We take a rigorous and comprehensive approach to SEO, of which keywords are only a single layer. Content optimization, site architecture and especially link-building are just as important, if not more so. And the information that we’re losing is itself only one piece of data we use for our keyword strategy. We still have the ability to improve organic search rankings.

Remember, organic traffic is still one of the highest converting sources of traffic across industries. Online success still requires hotels to retain position on search results, as well as capture new real estate in the search engines, because your competitors will continue to do so no matter what.

For the travel industry at large:

The effects of this change could be somewhat muted also because of how the travel industry itself operates online. Third-party sites – OTAs, forums, review sites, social media – provide many additional channels to individual hotel websites. For travel, Google searches are an important part of the research and buying process, yes, but it’s only one window out of many into the online travelsphere. For some other industries, ranking on Google is it; there isn’t anything else.

Plus, very few hotels don’t run AdWords campaign. At least, very few of our clients don’t. And we still get all of that juicy data.

Case-By-Case

Ultimately, it will just take some time for all the consequences of this change to become clear. Most likely, we’ll adapt and move on. That’s the way these things go, really. But no matter what, we will carefully collect data and evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis for our clients. If it makes sense to make changes to our previously recommended tactics, we won’t hesitate to do so – your online success is our success, after all. But we can tell you right now, this doesn’t change the fact that SEO is still the foundation for online success.

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