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 How Privacy Affects Business

How Privacy Affects Business

March 20, 2015

I was surprised to learn recently that it is no longer possible to find out what keywords searchers type into Google in order to find their way to your website.

This is valuable information for website owners and the reason why businesses use an SEO Contract to get help to improve their rankings on Google. It helps identify useful material to blog about. It was standard practice to go to your Google Analytics account and use this information to assess business performance.

Now, instead of the keyword information previously provided, you will get a note saying not provided”.

Reason for the change

This change was made as a result of the introduction of personalised search. The reason is that Google gathers information about you in order to personalise your search results when you are logged into a Google service such as Gmail or are using your Google account when using the search engine. Google’s thinking was that users who are logged in would not like to have their search terms tracked and passed on to the destination website and so now they are listed as “not provided” in Analytics.

As noted in Search Engine Land, since the change by Google, the number of “search terms [returning] as ‘not provided’ has increased…” and now applies to secure searches as well when people are not signed into their Google accounts. This increase, tracked by terms being withheld in a test 60 websites, was steady until September 2013. In September, there was an increase in the Not Provided Count of approximately 25 percent, demonstrating that this significant increase is tied directly to Google extending its secure searching to an even wider range of users including those who are not even signed-in to a Google account.

Google explained what the new process would entail on their official blog, stating that “When you search from, websites you visit from our organic search listings will still know that you came from Google, but won’t receive information about each individual query.”

This change in the name of privacy would be all well and good if there wasn’t one glaring issue. That is, that Google continues to provide the keyword data for AdWords users.

AdWords users still get information

So if you are a website owner who uses AdWords (that is you advertise with Google and pay Google every time someone clicks on your advert after searching for a particular keyword) then you will still have full access to keyword data in Analytics.

So it seems that Google is really interested in protecting privacy when it’s a non-lucrative area for them.

There is some speculation that this change was a conscious decision to boost AdWords sales as purchasers are still able to access this highly valuable information when they have an AdWords account through the Google Webmaster Tools section.

What makes this decision all the more questionable is the fact that despite this being a significant change, Google barely announced it anywhere beyond its Google Analytics blog, which is not widely read.

This downgrading of capabilities has caused a particular stir amongst Analytics users (or at least those who actually know about the change). Given that organic search result traffic makes up the majority of traffic for most users, despite Google saying that only a “small minority” of the data would not be provided, it in fact amounts to a substantial amount. For example, “…BrightEdge released a study [finding] the percentage of ‘(not provided)’ data was over 50 percent for some industries.”

Conclusion and Recent Application

Hindsight is 20/20. Now, nearly four years after Google first introduced these monumental changes, it becomes clear that Google may have been anticipating changes to privacy legislation and taken the first steps toward compliance.

Large companies are statutorily required to undertake Data Protection methods. In January 2015, Google took a massive step toward compliance with the Data Protection Act (UK) by agreeing to better educate users regarding their privacy policy, describe its data processing activities and disclose information about entities that collect anonymous identifiers about your searches. Visit Privacy Policy and Data Protection for more information.

While the changes made in 2011 by Google may be rationalised in this way, it is important to remember that those early changes do not protect individuals’ privacy from those who subscribed to Google’s commercial services.

What do you think about Google’s approach? Do share your experiences and leave your comments on this blog.