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PRISM and Changes To Google Search

Written by Taylor Hawes

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

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Google has always valued the privacy of its users, and privacy has long been a platform on which it has operated. In 2011, the search giant began protecting logged-in searches with SSL encryption, so as to keep unauthorized third parties from seeing what search terms were being used. If a search term was deemed too private, it would show up as “not provided” in Google Analytics.

Last month, Google began encrypting all searches, both logged-in and not logged-in. This change was performed without any announcement, though the update was later confirmed by the company. They told the Washington Post last month:

“We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.”

 

Why Now?

Though it’s not entirely clear why Google started ramping up these efforts just last month, it’s apparent that the overall campaign is in response to the NSA and PRISM. After it was revealed that the national security administration had been secretly collecting data on U.S citizens (as well as other countries) via their PRISM program, accusations were leveled against Google that they’d been participating with the NSA in collecting said data. Seeking to maintain its pro-privacy reputation, Google has since strongly denied any involvement with PRISM. In response they also began a campaign of transparency when it comes to the number of disclosure requests it receives from the government. They also planned to increasingly encrypt data being transmitted between their data centers. Though the program was initially approved in June, they began quickly implementing in December. According to Not Provided Count, a website provided by internet marketing agency ClickConsult, the number of “not provided” search terms across the 60 websites they monitor has increased more than 80% since last March. The number began to spike in the last week of August.

not-provided-count

 

Does This Hurt Search Marketing?

A large number of search marketers depend on Google Analytics to collect data on what their audiences are searching for and when. A big part of that is the referrer string, which is a sort of identifier that your web browser records of the last web page you visited before arriving at your current web page. The previous page is known as the referrer page, and your web browser sends a record of it to Google as soon as you arrive on your destination page. When a user uses Google search as a referrer page, the string URL also includes the keywords they searched. Now that Google is encrypting its searches, getting referrer page data won’t be so straightforward for all searches. Search marketers will see more of the “not provided” message when a user uses Google as a referrer page.

It’s worth noting that not all search terms will be encrypted, only ones that Google deems “too private” to be shared. It’s not clear at this point as to what extent this will affect search marketing (what countries will be affected, what “too private” means, etc.).  Hopefully Google will offer more clarification in the days and weeks to come.

Although some search data will be restricted because of the new privacy measures, “private” search data isn’t withheld completely. Data encryption only keeps the data traveling between data centers from being transmitted for everyone to “hear.” Webmasters and search marketers can see these terms by accessing Google Webmaster Tools, though they can only see the top 2,000 per day for the past 90 days. Webmaster Tools users must archive the information to access it again in the future, or else it’s lost. However, the company made a change in August that will allow users to access the data easily, but only if they’re also Google Adwords customers.

Advertisers can also still access data sent when a user clicks on an ad, regardless of the search terms they used to arrive at the ad.

Although Google has essentially taken these encryption measures to make it more difficult for the NSA to spy on their data, it won’t make search results completely immune to spying. Google must also still comply with any order of cooperation that the government may give. However, experts say that the increased use of encryption makes mass surveillance more difficult for third parties. Google is a company that prides itself on being a responsible keeper of private information, and rightfully so. Privacy is a major concern among internet users today. This may or may not be a setback for search marketing on the whole since only Adwords customers can access full search information for now. On the other hand, the changes won’t affect all search data. Again, hopefully Google will offer more clarification in the weeks to come.

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