May 21, 2012, 10:21 AM

Secured searches make online marketing even murkier

More keyword data is obscured in analytical reports.

Trying to figure what persuades an online shopper to buy can seem like looking into a murky river and straining to see the pebbles and sand along the bed. Unfortunately for some retailers and their search marketers, the water is becoming more clouded.

The change involves Google and an ongoing push to enable consumers to partially hide their Internet search efforts. It’s important to say what this is not:  One of those revisions that Google regularly makes to the mathematical formulas that govern search results, and which can cause migraines among e-retailers who fear being lost at sea among the seemingly infinite search possibilities. No Panda here, no “Fresh,” to name two recent updates to the Google search algorithm that many e-retailers know well, and which were designed to reward web sites that offer the newest and most relevant content.

Instead, this change is about providing consumers with, in Google’s own words, “a more secure and private search experience.” Google secure search encrypts inquiries for consumers signed into their Google accounts, meaning that search terms and results are generally hidden from anyone but that consumer and Google. In describing the program last fall, Evelyn Kao, a Google project manager, said it could protect consumers using, say, unsecured Wi-Fi inside cafes. More generally, Kao wrote, the steady move toward more personalized searches—that is, serving up results informed by a consumers’ search history—also makes such protection more important.

The program has since expanded.  For instance, searches conducted via Google Chrome and Firefox now default to secure search. And that’s making life more difficult for those engaged in search engine optimization, says Adam Dorfman, partner at SIM Partners, a digital marketing services provider. That’s because the encrypted searches are also obscured in the analytical reports that marketers and retailers rely upon to see which search keywords and phrase lead online shoppers to buy. “A larger percentage of keyword referrals are coming back as ‘not provided’,” he says. “It makes monitoring keywords much harder.”

For instance, a shoe e-retailer might do some SEO around the keyword phrase “Nike running shoes.” The e-retailer would want to know as much as possible about the performance of the phrase in order to do better SEO, such as whether to use the phrase in an infographic, or make it into a link that would draw the positive attention of Google’s search engine crawlers. “It’s harder to adjust optimization tactics,” Dorfman says. He says that, based on his observations, up to 25% of site traffic to particular web sites could be coming via secured searches; for its part, Google has said that secured search should affect no more than 10% of searches.  

None of this necessarily means a big muddy flood for retailers anxious about their SEO efforts. Dorfman says the larger ones likely will feel the most impact—but that they have the luxury of employing, either in-house or via agencies, sophisticated search marketing experts who will be able to detect patterns through the new murk. “For most mom-and-pops, they will probably be annoyed by this, but it won’t affect major SEO decisions,” he says. Still, with Google certainly hoping that more consumers will sign into Google accounts while on the Internet, secure search is something to keep in mind.

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