Almost two years ago, Google began withholding search “referrer” data from publishers, in the name of protecting user privacy. However, it left a loophole open for passing this data to its advertisers. Some viewed that as an attempt by Google to boost its ad sales. This impression was reinforced by the latest change Google made last month, which maintains the loophole and provides a new incentive for publishers to make use of its ad system.
What’s Search Term Referrer Data?
Referrer data allows publishers to understand the exact terms used by people who search at Google and then click through to their web sites. It tells them the words they’ve been found for. To understand more about how this works technically, see this article from our Search Engine Land sister-site:
Withholding Data & Antitrust Issues
Aside from providing insight to publishers on how they are found, referrer data can also be used in order to “retarget” visitors with ads. By restricting the data, except for its own advertisers, Google also made it harder for third-party networks that compete with it to provide ad retargeting services. To understand more about that, see this opinion piece at Search Engine Land from when the data first began being withheld:
The Privacy Loopholes
While there are good privacy reasons for Google to encrypt searches that happen at its search engine, encryption only blocks potential “eavesdropping” of someone (a hacker, the NSA) trying to listen in on the conversation between Google and the searcher. It doesn’t prevent the actual search terms themselves from leaking out in two important ways:
- Directly to advertisers through referrer data
- Indirectly to publishers through Google Webmaster Tools
In both ways, the supposedly sensitive search terms get out. The latter method — Google’s own toolset for webmasters — has been a welcomed alternative for publishers who can no longer get the data directly through referrers. With half or more terms now “Not Provided,” Google Webmaster Tools allows publishers to still understand how they are being found, if they’re willing to do a little more work. The articles below from Search Engine Land explain more:
- Google Webmaster Tools Expands Query Data to 90 Days
- Will [Not Provided] Ever Reach 100% In Web Analytics?
A New Incentive For Advertisers Or Potential Advertisers
The problem with Google Webmaster Tools is that the data only goes back for 90 days. Unless you’re constantly archiving it, via a third-party tool or some method you’ve created, you have greatly restricted visibility into the types of terms driving traffic to your site over time.
That changed last month. Google provided a new tool allowing for easy archiving of this data. However, it wasn’t provided within Google Webmaster Tools. Instead, it was made available within Google AdWords, Google’s advertising interface. More about that can be found below:
The move may cause publishers not currently advertising with Google, and wanting data about how they are found via “free” listings, to create AdWords accounts and potentially convert into advertisers.
Google’s been careful over the years to draw a clear line between its advertising and “organic” or “editorial” search operations. Causing publishers to turn to an ad tool to understand more about how editorial listings are driving them traffic feels wrong, feels like a continuation of the earlier mistake that made me question whether Google was putting a price on privacy, when the withholding began with an exception for advertisers.
On the bright side, after raising these issues with Google in a story on Search Engine Land earlier this week — Google’s Plan To Withhold Search Data & Create New Advertisers – the company said it would extend search term data provided through Google Webmaster Tools for up to one year, at some point in the future.
That’s good, but what’s really needed is parity. If AdWords can store this data as long as a publisher wants, then Google Webmaster Tools should do the same. Anything short of that just leaves Google open to accusations that this has, indeed, all been about driving ad sales.