Google’s SSL Change: A Bad Deal for PPC

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Earlier this week, Google announced a sweeping change to the way they pass referrer data to analytics. In a very brief nutshell, users who are logged in to Google will be routed to an https version of the Google search engine, and search queries from these users will not be passed in the referrer string to analytics packages for organic traffic.

This decision has rocked the search community more than anything I can remember in recent years, and the reaction is almost universally negative. Anyone who’s successfully done search for any length of time will tell you that one of the great things about search marketing (and I’m talking PPC and SEO here) is the amount of data you get. And Google just removed a big chunk of that data. (Google claims it’s not a big chunk, but that’s debatable.

The kicker is, this change only affects organic traffic. PPC referrals will still contain the referring query data. And this is what has SEOs really upset and crying “conspiracy:” the implication is that Google is trying to encourage websites to use Adwords, so they can get all their referrer info instead of only part of it.

Why should PPC’ers care about this? After all, we’ll still get our data. So who cares if the SEOs of the world are out of luck?

I care. And here’s why.

PPC and SEO work hand in hand.

I’m a firm believer that no marketing channel should operate in a vacuum – especially search channels. For best results, PPC and SEO should work hand in hand. I often talk about PPC informing SEO, and Google’s change won’t affect that aspect of your integrated marketing strategy.

However, the information flows both ways. SEO can and should inform your PPC efforts, too. Search pros often recommend mining your organic data for new PPC keyphrases. With this change, your organic data is going to be less complete.

Transparency is key.

From day one, search pros have been asking for more transparency from the search engines. We want as much data as possible to inform our decision making process. We want to know what sites are driving traffic to our site, and whether those sites are converting. We want to know what search queries people are using to find us, and whether those queries are converting. We want to know where those searchers are located, what browser they’re using, and anything else we can learn about them.

This is not to say that we want this data down to the individual level, which is the basis for Google’s change. Google is claiming privacy concerns as the driving force behind their decision.

That’s a bunch of BS. Google has never shared individual user data in referrer strings. And even if they did, who cares? Looking at user data on an individual basis is a waste of time – it’s not statistically significant, and isn’t useful. Data is only useful in aggregate. I don’t care if one guy searched on “what is the best ever ppc blog written by some chick in Michigan” to find my site – but I do care if 100 people who were logged in to Google searched on that term to find me.

With this move, Google has decreased transparency, not increased it – thus going backwards in terms of providing useful and informative data.

PPC’ers should be very concerned about this move. I for one am wondering what they’ll take away from us next. How does this change affect you? Share in the comments!

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  1. Great points, Mel. PPC and SEO definitely go hand in hand.
    Although Google has said that PPC is not affected, I am concerned about what happens to our visibility of the typed keyword, in both the 'Search terms' report in Adwords and 'Matched Search Query' in Google Analytics. I've posted a question ( to the folks at Google Analytics TV – Nick M was GaugeCON on Tuesday when the announcement was made and did not know the answer to my question.
    So, if you support my question, I would appreciate a vote.

  2. This doesn't seem to be consistent with how Google treats data. Relative to Adcenter, Google Adwords has been very transparent in showing data that helps to make better decisions.

    Perhaps this was a PR move?

  3. Luke, I agree it's not consistent. I too have wondered if it was a PR move, but what kind of PR were they looking for? Then again, maybe they're just trying to get the government off their backs?

  4. Great POV. I was pretty shocked by this change too. I wrote an article about it on my blog as well Encryptiongate – Google Strikes Again!

  5. If I think of it as a pr move, Google+ comes to mind.

    With So many people concerned with the way facebook handles privacy it seems like a token way to tout G+ as the “safe alternative”.

    “Look how we're protecting you… as long as you're signed in.”

    And once you're signed in you're well on your way to Google+ anyway.

  6. I was *sure* that they'd tell us that we could see the referrer data on GA (and only GA). I won't be surprised if that happens someday. But, it would look a little more evil if they annouced both in tandem.

    This runs against all the keyword mining practices Google has always preached. I can't understand it.

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