Back in October of 2011, when Google first announced it would start implementing HTTPS/SSL encryption on all searches of logged in Google users, I raised an eyebrow. "This could be very bad for organic search" (and marketers), I thought to myself. The move had SEOs and digital marketers all over the blogosphere crying foul. But then Google SEO-in-chief Matt Cutts appeared on Twitter assuring everyone that it was no big deal and would only impact a small percentage of searches. I was slightly dubious, but ultimately accepting, of this explanation.
Fast forward a year and some change; last week, Inbound Marketing Software Company Hubspot put out a blog relating that about 55% of the organic search it gets per month is now encrypted; worse, Hubspot has seen this percentage steadily rise by about 4% each month. Given that Hubspot has produced a massive amount of high-quality content geared toward organic search queries, its findings should not be taken with a grain of salt. What does it mean? In a nutshell, encrypted search renders the ability to track individual keywords impossible, effectively killing organic SEO.
HOW DOES HTTPS AFFECT ORGANIC SEO?
Quick Definition: HTTPS uses the SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocol to provide secure, encrypted Internet communications for services like web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, and other data transfers.
To clarify, I said Google's HTTPS encryption is killing organic SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION, not organic search itself. This is because HTTPS encryption wipes out the all-important referrer header URL information, instead only passing along the domain name of its origin.
For example, let's say I go onto Google and search "pink plastic watering can," and your company, a purveyor of said cans, is displayed in the organic portion of my search engine results page (SERP). Before encryption, my computer's browser would forward the full URL of the SERP page as the referrer header. Your website's analytics could then parse out the URL to deduce that it came from an organic search that used the words "pink plastic watering can." With encryption, your site would receive only the domain name of the search origin, in this case https://www.google.com.
Encryption does not kill organic search outright, but rather the ability to track the results of organic search queries. For businesses and marketers, this is a big deal.
As Hubspot notes in an excellent blog on the topic, in the beginning, HTTPs encryption only applied to users logged in to Google. Unfortunately, now it has become the default on Google's Chrome and Safari iOS6 browsers, which happen to be the most popular browsers on earth for desktop/laptop and mobile devices, respectively.
Interestingly, neither Bing nor Yahoo has instituted HTTPS/SSL encryption.
So why has Google?
THE COMPANY LINE
Here is what Google says about SSL encryption on its support page on the subject:
Searching over SSL provides you with a more secure and private search experience. As we make SSL available, SSL search will be the default when you're signed in.
Like many things Google says, this sounds perfectly sensible, except that it isn't.
By its very nature, there is not a lot of user-specific privacy data in a keyword search; moreover, keyword search data is only forwarded to the websites that users click on. Even the staunchest of privacy advocates don't tend to complain about the sharing of organic search query data, but rather data shared for targeted advertising.
HTTPS encryption does not protect users from sharing data with its advertisers. If anything, it has the perverse effect of encouraging more targeted advertising. For example, if I am a marketer working for a client and cannot prove ROI by tracking organic keyword performance, I am forced into the welcoming arms of Google's paid advertising. Rest assured SSL encryption does not impact Google Adwords from tracking organic search data.
Maybe this is the very point.
OF PRIVACY AND ADVERTISING
Back on Google's SSL help page, the search giant goes on to promise that if you click on an ad on its Google search engine results page, the browser will send an unencrypted referrer that includes your query to the advertiser's site. Why? ... "to provide a mechanism to the advertiser so that the advertiser can improve the relevancy of the ads that are presented to you."
Ahh, of course. Thanks.
An aspiring benevolent tech monopoly, Google likes to assure people every action is in the users' best interest.
Convincing users of Google's noble intent is often far easier than convincing that of the tech punditry. Back in October of 2011, WebProNews published an article containing reactions from SEOs to Google HTTPS. In the post, Rebecca Lieb, the Digital Advertising and Media Analyst at the Altimeter Group, went as far as to call Google's move "evil."
After noting the hypocrisy of Google's privacy motive, Todd Friesen, the Director of SEO at Performics, added, "Google doesn't do anything on a whim...there's definitely a bigger plan behind it, and it's probably big and scary with teeth and claws."
Rebecca and Todd are sure to be on Google's naughty list.
Rather than getting angry, I've always taken a sort of semi-nervous, whistling-in-the-graveyard approach to Google's various monopolistic ambitions; after all, if the tech giant someday does become the benevolent tech dictator I think it may, the pragmatist in me knows it's better to be seen as a collaborator than a revolutionary (or rebel).
HOW WE GOT HERE
To provide greater context to the full import of Google's HTTPS encryption, here's a quick review some key moves made by the search giant over the past few years:
- February 2011- Introduction of the Panda algorithm update, penalizing low-quality sites and favoring sites featuring high-quality, fresh and original content.
- October 2011- Rollout of HTTPS encryption for searches of logged-in Google users.
- January, 2012 - Announcement of Search, Plus Your World, which elevated the relevance of social signals in search queries.
- April, 2012 - Penguin Algorithm update, which further solidified Google's emphasis on quality content.
- May of 2012 - Announcement of new "Knowledge Graph" semantic search function. Touted as "the next generation of search," Google's Knowledge Graph algorithm collects tons of data about people, places and things, and then forms its own context based on the relationships that exist between the data.
Here's my pithy interpretation of this timeline:
- Google's Panda encourages fresh and original content creation in part to feed its AI search engine.
- Google introduces Search, Plus Your World (SPYW) to collect more data to improve its AI search engine.
- The presumed amount of private data derived SPYW ostensibly forces Google to tighten up security and encryption via HTTPS/SSL. This move slowly kills organic search, forcing companies and marketers to use track-able paid alternatives such as AdWords, as its analytics are not affected by HTTPs encryption.
- Google plays both sides, gets everyone to create more content for its AI search engine and profiting from the resulting higher ad spend.
Lest you think I've up and joined the howling anti-Google mob, here is some great data from Covario which helps illuminate why Google may want to encourage paid advertising as an alternative to organic search:
- According to Covario's Global Search Advertising Spend Analysis, advertiser spending on paid search rose 18% in 2012.
- In Q4 2012, Google reaped 86.5% of all global paid search spend and 93% of impressions. Advertisers spent 13% more on search spending with Google than they did a year ago.
THE BROADER PICTURE: SEO FRAGMENTS; SOLOMO RULES
Google has a catlike agility in the tech marketplace. Its tendency to quietly test and then seismically shift, often without serious prior warning, has fueled the company's success with the wider populace while at the same time breeding mistrust among the tech punditry. As evidence of this fact, one needs only to recall Google's switch to Search, Plus Your World, or the rather abrupt discontinuation of its Feedburner RSS feed.
Google knows that the rise of mobile devices and social media are slowly letting the air out of "traditional" search. In an increasingly fragmented needs discovery environment characterized by a greater consumer use of social mobile apps and social search, coupled with a growing business appetite for more sophisticated paid alternatives such as ad retargeting and predictive recommendations, the utility of the browser-based search engines is waning. Per usual, Google saw the writing on the wall long ago; the move to HTTPS encryption, as well as its Panda, Penguin, and SPYW algorithm updates seem to confirm this notion.
Thanks to the widespread consumer adoption of the Internet and social media, coupled with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, consumers are now social, local, mobile (SoLoMo). Google is poised to greatly benefit from this paradigm shift.
A great post from Marketing Profs shares some revealing numbers about the ascendancy of Google's Android mobile operating system:
- 75% of all smartphones worldwide use the Android operating system.
- Roughly ½ billion Android devices have flooded the market. 1.3 million Android devices are activated worldwide each day.
- Tablet ownership among US adults doubled between 2011 and 2012. In that same period, Android's share of the tablet market more than tripled-from 15% to 48%.
- On a worldwide basis, more Facebook users now use Android smartphones: 189.7 million vs. 178.3 million.
According to 2012 data from Pew Research, half of all adults access the Internet through a mobile device. These consumers are warming up to mobile advertising. A 2012 survey from Hipcricket showed that 46% of smartphone owners have viewed a mobile ad; among them, 64% have completed at least one purchase as a result of doing so. Among those who have made a purchase as a result of a mobile ad, 45% have referred a product or service to a friend or colleague.
OF SEISMIC SHIFTS AND TREMORS
Google controls the smartphones; eventually, it will control the lion's share of the tablets. It controls the two largest search engines on the planet (Google and YouTube). Google's search algorithm changes have cajoled businesses and marketers to feed its context-based AI search engine with ever-more fresh and original content. It uses this data to improve its AI context-based search engine, which in turn provides future monetization opportunities in advertising and new technologies such as voice search. Google is poised to capitalize on the seismic shift to mobile and video marketing too, cashing in on massive ad dollars over both media.
In the face of all of this the shift to HTTPS encryption, while seismic for marketers, is but a tremor little felt by the gang at Mountain View.