Google recently announced another shift toward more secure searches. Starting immediately, Google will remove query data (the “q=” variable in AdWords destination URLs) from the referrer on ad clicks originating from signed in users (SSL searches) on Google. Because this data will no longer be passed outside of AdWords, marketers will soon see “Not Provided” on third-party Pay-Per-Click (PPC) analytics reports, including Google Analytics.

As they did with securing natural search in 2013, Google will begin this latest rollout with users who are logged into Google services. We anticipate an expansion to include all paid search traffic within the next year. We also expect other major search players, like Yahoo and Bing, to likely follow suit in the near future.

Consumer privacy concerns drive encryption trend

This latest development does not come as a surprise to us. Industry commentary has been critical about the disparity natural search encryption created between the query data available on natural search vs. paid search.

While brands relying on natural search data were suddenly missing a critical piece of data, paying advertisers could still access query data from individual searches in real time. At SXSW 2014, Amit Singhal, head of Google’s core rankings team, stated that Google was exploring solutions to address the inconsistency.

In their announcement, Google cites consumer privacy as the driver behind these latest changes, saying, “We understand that some partners may need to make changes to their systems and operations, but we think that this is the right path forward for the security of our users searching on”

Though always a priority, consumer privacy has been particularly top-of-mind for Google executives recently. In a March Q&A hosted by Charlie Rose at the Vancouver TED conference, Google CEO Larry Page spoke frankly about the much publicised NSA data collection.

He expressed both concern and regret saying, “I’m just very worried that with Internet privacy, we’re doing the same thing we’re doing with medical records — throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We’re not thinking about the tremendous good that can come from sharing the right information in the right ways.”

Though most consumers will be largely unaware of these changes and what they mean, data privacy is an ever-growing concern and Google needs to remain proactive.  Google continues to walk a careful line between tapping into data to provide value to users and giving advertisers and third parties access to this data in order to more effectively monetise search traffic.

Advertisers will be minimally affected by query encryption

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.

Before the official Google announcement, the greatest initial speculation was centered on the potential loss of search term reports (also known as search query reports, or SQRs) from within Google AdWords. Advertisers routinely use this report to review search queries that triggered ads on Phrase, Broad, and Broad Match Modifier keyword match types.

By analysing this data, advertisers and agencies improve campaigns through the optimisation of keyword and negative keyword lists. However, because it provides only aggregate (not personally identifiable) information and is located within the AdWords ecosystem, this report will still be available after the rollout.

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, such as to an advertiser’s website analytics tool.  Keyword-level tracking features will not change and other related features (such as ValueTrack parameters and the AdWords Paid & Organic report) will be unaffected.

IProspect’s initial analysis explains the four types of third-party advertising technologies that may potentially be affected by this additional layer of encryption:

  1. Third-Party Management Platforms: A few, very specific features on management platforms like Kenshoo and Marin rely on paid search query data and will stop working. However, the vast majority of functionality will be unaffected and search query data will continue to be available in aggregate via the AdWords API.
  2. Third-Party Tracking and Analytics: We have yet to see if the encryption will affect certain search tracking solutions such as The Search Monitor and AdGooroo, site analytics programs like Adobe SiteCatalyst, and large data aggregators such as comScore and Hitwise. Though some portions of their methodology make use of query data, we expect they will likely have alternative approaches available.
  3. Landing Page Optimisation and Testing Platforms: Third-party and in-house optimisation technologies that use query data to dynamically customise landing pages will be at the highest risk. Depending on their functionality, they might be merely handicapped or completely broken. Advertisers using these solutions should contact their technology provider as soon as possible to determine the potential impact.
  4. Display Vendors Who Use Search Retargeting: A lack of query data will also impact search retargeting solutions that use paid search query data to personalise display ads to a specific user.

Action Items for Advertisers

Based on our assessment of the specific third-party technologies that will potentially be affected, there are a few specific actions advertisers should take as a matter of due diligence:

  • Touch base with your agencies to catalog any instances of query data (as opposed to paid search keyword data) use 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 at any in-house or third-party landing page optimisation or testing functionality

iProspect does not foresee any complications for our clients since our methods and tools do not rely heavily on externally passed individual, click-level query data either within our proprietary solutions or those of our sister agencies such as Isobar.

Looking ahead – the big picture

Industry experts and pundits alike have speculated about a variety of possible directions Google could go in from here, including changes to how search query reports are run (even through Google’s advertiser interface), 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, just a few weeks before they announced this additional layer of encryption to protect consumer privacy, Google also announced an upcoming webinar during which they will reveal new AdWords features that use secondary signals to provide advertisers with contextual details about individual users. While some might consider contextual details such as device, OS, and location less of a privacy 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 instead of a privacy concern.