Google made a pretty big announcement this week that is pissing a lot of people off – a lot of SEOs, that is. Namely, Google announced it will no longer reveal organic keyword referrals (search queries) for searches conducted while users are logged in. According to the Google Webmaster Blog:

What is the impact of this change for webmasters? Today, a web site accessed through organic search results on (non-SSL) can see both that the user came from and their search query. (Technically speaking, the user’s browser passes this information via the HTTP referrer field.) However, for organic search results on SSL search, a web site will only know that the user came from

“For sites which have been added and verified in Webmaster Tools,” the post says, webmasters can still “View the top 1000 daily search queries and top 1000 daily landing pages for the past 30 days.”

Here’s what we see in our keyword referral report for the past few days:

Keyword Referrals

We’ve been saying for a long time that the organic search queries that lead people to your site are one of your best sources of keyword data. Those keyword referrals offer invaluable insight into your site’s SEO – what’s working, what’s driving people to your site, the language they use when they’re looking for products, services, or content like yours. You can slice and dice it to determine which keywords drive traffic and which keywords drive conversions. But now, Google is taking some, if not all, of that data away from us. Low blow, Google!

Privacy, Schmivacy

Immediately, the search-o-sphere exploded with angry and anxious reactions.

In a guest post on SEO Book, Joost Devalk cries hypocrisy – specifically, he accuses Google of “whoring out users with false privacy claims.” Google of course is putting a shiny, happy spin on the move by saying that it’s all “part of our commitment to provide a more secure online experience.” Bullsh*t, says Joost – webmasters can still get that data if they use AdWords and pay for the clicks: “Google cares about your privacy, unless they make money on you, then they don’t.” He goes on to write:

If Google really cared about your privacy, (delayed) retargeting wouldn’t be available for advertisers. They wouldn’t use your query data to serve you AdSense ads on pages, but I doubt they’ll stop doing that, if they did they would have probably said so and made a big fuzz out of it.

If Google really cared, the keyword data that site owners now no longer receive from organic queries would no longer be available for advertisers either. But that would hit their bottom line, because it makes it harder to show ROI from AdWords, so they won’t do that.

The real reason for this move, Joost says, is to prevent competitors in the online advertising space (like Chitika) from using those referrers to refine their ads.

Ian Lurie, in a post on Search News Central, echoes this sentiment. After calling Google “the enemy,” he writes:

Don’t try to say this is a privacy thing. It. is. not. How exactly does this protect privacy, when you tie the text of e-mails to your advertising platform? How does this protect privacy when you’re photographing people’s streets, homes and whatever else you can lay your hands on? …

You’ve done this for one reason, and one reason only: To shut out competing ad networks. By removing this data from the referring query string (oh, you didn’t think we’d notice?!) you’ve made it far harder for third-party ad networks to measure and quantify traffic quality.

Same story from Tony Verre at Search Engine Journal, who says “Google makes the double standard seem easy.” Privacy matters, but not when the dollars are rolling in.

Rhea Drysdale of Outspoken Media doesn’t buy this privacy line either: “Guess what? Google just pissed on the SEO community and tried to call it rain … We’ve known for a long time that Google openly profiles SEOs as criminals, now they withhold information from us under the guise of privacy, but it’s really for the sake of padding their bottom line and protecting Google from competition.”

Numbers Games

It’s being tossed around that this change will only affect a single-digit percentage of searches – according to Jonathan Allen at Search Engine Watch, “The estimated number floating around in online rumors is ‘7% of people searching’” And Matt Cutts mentioned on Twitter that they’re “rolling it out slowly,” and in testing no one “even noticed the change.” However, Patrick Altoft of Blogstorm rightly points out that when it comes to Google, bad news often spreads fast:

Firstly this is only for at the moment and only for logged in users so there is no need to panic just yet. However we saw with the Panda update how Google starts off with and then rolls things out worldwide and increases the number of affected people every few weeks.

Secondly we have seen the growth of Google+ and Gmail is already huge so there is no reason to assume that the number of users this affects will be small. I can see a very large percentage of people being logged in to Google at all times. Why wouldn’t they be?

Thirdly there is no reason at all that Google wouldn’t migrate everybody to SSL in the future whether they are logged in or not.

Frank Reed of Marketing Pilgrim, on the other hand, thinks SEOs are being “myopic”:

It makes sense to me that this percentage of users would be low given the parameters that this new policy is applied. Then why do many feel that this number is too low? Well, that kind of thinking comes from a common malady in the SEO space which is the mistaken line of thinking that what SEO’s do and how they use the Internet even remotely mirrors the average users same patterns. The fact is, while the SEO community from the inside looking out can seem big it’s not in the big picture (looking at sheer numbers). The rest of the world doesn’t know about SEO and being logged into accounts and the impact it has on their search. They won’t even see that a search occurring in this right environment will be encrypted. They won’t have a clue.

That’s not to say that he buys the privacy argument – Frank says it’s clearly a “token gesture.” Still, he advises SEOs whose proverbial panties are in a bunch “to get out of the office more.”

Alan Bleiweiss also thinks SEOs are overreacting to the news – in other words, this is small potatoes compared to the “structural flaws” and big problems that are holding most sites back:

This latest apocalyptic cry is no different than any other previous panic attack due to people being hung up on shiny objects, magic bullets, and myopic SEO.  As painful as it may be to hear me say it, my best recommendation is to pause and consider whether you’ve been missing more important issues in your work than you realized.  And because most site owners don’t have an unlimited budget, it’s just my opinion (controversial as it may be), that people in this industry need to wake up and recognize that if they truly want to maximize their client’s or employers SEO money, they need to stop and learn that they have bigger fish to fry that they weren’t even aware of.

So How Big of a Deal Is This?

Level-headed and realistic as I am (seriously, y’all, my bowling name is Ice Man), I tend to side with the SEOs who are disturbed and dismayed by this news. Even if this affects less than 10% of your data right now, that number could easily go up – as Patrick Altolft said, there’s no reason to assume Google won’t screw us on organic referral data entirely in the future. It’s just one symptom of a larger syndrome in which Google seems to devote less and less of its efforts and goodwill toward organic search, while paid search gets a larger and larger piece of the pie. And that will be a sad day for SEO keyword research.

What do you think? Are you worried?

Internet Marketing Highlights

Hilarious post by Danny Sullivan about John Battelle at Bing saying that “70% of the time, there won’t be any difference in the results, that 15% of the time, Bing will be better and 15% of the time, Google will be better.” Oh boy, Bing is pretty much as good as Google – convincing reason to switch!

James Agate at Skyrocket posted the results of a survey (in the form of an infographic) concerning what SEO software companies are using. Interestingly, 77% said they started using their software on a recommendation from a peer. No one discovered their software through advertising.

Should you change your URLs for SEO? Dr. Pete has some pointers on structure, link, and dynamic URLs.

Google is introducing dynamic search ads: “When a relevant search occurs, we dynamically generate an ad with a headline based on the query, and the text based on your most relevant landing page.” Sounds a little dodgy, wouldn’t you say?

Debra Mastaler suggests using display ads to push link marketing: “Develop ads to drive people to your content/blog; once they are there, capture email addresses and ask for the link at the end of each article.”

A use case for Google+.

In the department of WTF, MC Hammer is launching a search engine.

Have a great weekend!