Living with SSL Search
(Originally written May 23, 2012. Updated and edited prior to publishing.)
In October Google 2011 announced that all their users will be using SSL search by default. Google’s SSL search was originally rolled out in the USA market and provoked a lively response from the SEO community. SSL search as Google implemented it removed search query information from the referring URL the analytics package on the destination site would see. Google’s SSL search would not pass information about the users search query if:
- Search through a Google domain where SSL search was live,
- While signed into Google accounts, and
- Click on an organic listing (AdWords keyword referrals are still passed).
However SSL search would pass keyword referral information if:
- The search was through a Google domain where SSL search was not live or,
- The user was not logged in or
- The user clicked on an AdWords ad
Whether or not the destination site was or was not using SSL had no effect on this. If the user went from SSL search via an Adwords ad to an unencrypted site, the keyword data was passed, without any concerns for privacy. If the user clicked on an organic link that would take them to an encrypted site, which would ensure that their referrer information remained protected from third parties, it would not be passed. How Google’s SSL search was implemented promoted a lot of discussion around the Internet, some of which I linked to from a previous blog post, which covers this topic in more detail.
SSL Search for Google.com.au in Australia
On the 6th of March 2012, Google announced that they were going to be “Bringing more secure search around the globe“. Shortly afterwards, some users noticed that their accounts were using SSL search by default on Google.com.au. It was not long before it was possible to confirm this, and it seems that from now on, Australian online marketers will have to account for (Not Provided) when analysing their organic keyword traffic from Google.
How to Find the Missing Keyword Data?
The short answer is that you can’t. The data is gone, and the best out come would simply be a model. Google has indicated that Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) provides keyword data unaffected by SSL search. For now, the value of the search query data within GWT is not perfect, and provides incomplete and potentially unclear data for most sites.
One technique for dealing with this is to assume that (not provided) keywords as sharing the same composition as known keyword traffic. Assigning (not provided) traffic to groups based on the distribution of known traffic to the site based on mutually exclusive keyword themes is certainly one of the more straight forward approaches.
There are a number of issues that will limit it’s effectiveness. It’s accuracy will diminish with the amount of traffic being modeled. The other issue is that those using SSL search are a different group to those who are not. While the actual difference between someone who is signed in to Google and someone who isn’t might not be clear, it is negligent not to acknowledge the issues this may create. Also as the traffic volume for a specific keyword theme gets smaller, the less reliable it is for modeling anything.
Treating Not Provided as a Keyword
Avinash Kaushik also proposed an alternative approach on his own blog soon after SSL search went live in the USA. He put forward the idea that it is possible to use behavioural metrics to identify the provenance of the unknown search traffic. As per usual, his post is worth reading and fairly in-depth. It does not offer much if you wish to conduct any kind of detailed analysis of organic traffic.
Avinash focused on treating (not provided) as a single homogeneous group, which potentially already matches the behavioural profile of an existing, more easily identifiable group. This approach simplifies reporting and in some cases can at least provide some actionable information. However it does not resolve the main issues SSL search creates, that of tracking the effectiveness of targeted optimisation activity.
Filling in the Keyword Gaps
Assuming (not provided) represents a homogeneous group across an entire site does not provide anything meaningful either. It is better to assess (not provided) traffic at page level based on known traffic and keyword themes the content ranks for and monitor on page content updates, changes in backlink profiles and associated changes in visibility and traffic.
Unfortunately SSL search has made it harder to see small, interesting trends emerge in how people find your site and what they do once they get there. There won’t be enough known data in most cases to create a model, and most of the time, it will just disappear into the noise that is (not provided) and your own known keyword traffic.