Ben Wood
May 5, 2014

Google query encryption: Don’t panic

The recent change is part of Google's ongoing effort to keep both consumers and advertisers happy.

Google query encryption: Don’t panic

Recently Google announced another shift towards more secure searches. Google has removed query data from the referrer on ad clicks originating from signed in users on Google. As this data will no longer be passed outside of Adwords, marketers will soon see “Not Provided” on third-party pay-per-click analytics reports, including Google Analytics.

Consumer privacy has been particularly top-of-mind for Google executives recently, and it's these privacy concerns that drive this latest encryption trend. We also expect other major search players, like Yahoo and Bing to likely follow suit in the near future.

While news of additional search data encryption initially created some anxiety for search marketers, we believe that the overall effects of this change will be minimal. And if brands and advertisers work with their agencies to take the right steps, there is really no need to panic.

Prior to the Google announcement, the greatest initial speculation was centred on the potential loss of search-term reposts or SQRs from within Google Adwords. This report can be used to review search queries that triggered ads on Phrase, Broad and Broad Match Modifier keyword match types, and since this report provides only aggregate (not personally identifiable) information and is located within the Adwords ecosystem, this report will still be available after the rollout. Hence, advertisers will still be able to use this report to analyse data and improve campaigns through the optimisation of keyword and negative-keyword lists.

The only piece of data advertisers will not be able to access is individual or click-level query data that is passed outside of Google to a third party. Keyword-level tracking features will not change and other related features will be unaffected.

There are forms of third-party advertising that could be possibly affected, such as third-party management platforms and third-party tracking and analytics; however we expect they will likely have alternative approaches available. The ones that could be at the highest risk would be display vendors who use query data to personalise display ads, as well as technologies that use query data to customise their landing pages which could be merely broken or completely handicapped.

Here are a few steps advertisers should take as a matter of due diligence following the announcement:

  • Touch base with your agencies to catalogue any instances of query data (as opposed to paid search keyword data) used in your campaigns, reporting, or tracking.
  • Contact your technology partners and request specific information about how paid search query encryption might affect their solutions.
  • Take an especially close look to any in-house or third-party landing page optimisation or test functionality.

But what will happen now?

Industry experts and pundits alike have speculated about a variety of possible directions Google could go from here, including changes to how search query reports are run, additional requirements around EU-style cookie alerts, and the potential for Google to consider passing keyword and/or query data to third parties if those parties are themselves on a secure and encrypted connection.

Google must find a way to keep both consumers and advertisers happy. This is a challenge that sometimes requires Google to serve conflicting needs. For instance, a few weeks before this additional encryption announcement to protect consumer privacy, Google also announced it will reveal new AdWords features that would provide advertisers with contextual details about individual users. While some might consider contextual details such as device, OS, and location less of a private concern than query data, the fact remains that Google’s privacy enhancements are selective.

While sophisticated performance marketing tactics provide more effective ways for brands and consumers to connect, they will only work if consumers are willing to share their data. Both advertisers and the platforms they work with share the responsibility of ensuring that data innovations provide value to consumers as well as advertisers, creating a win-win situation of a privacy concern.

Ben Wood is global president of iProspect


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