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Encrypted Search Terms

A recent stats viewing, with search terms high-lighted.I haven’t seen a lot of people kvetching about this, which surprises me.

If you like to look at JetPack’s stats and happen to giggle over your search terms, you may have noticed encrypted_search_terms showing up. Your search terms are what other people use in order to find you. So for example, someone found my blog by typing “forever alone” (which doesn’t make any sense to me, but okay).

About a year ago, Google made search more secure, by letting you search via https. If you’re logged in to Google anything, you will be searching via https, which means no one knows what you searched for. Jetpack sees it as ‘encrypted search terms’ and Google Analytics sees it as ‘not provided.’ This is all great for the user, and the tin-foil hat me loves it! Except that now all we users see is encrypted search terms, instead of anything of value.

As the number of people who use Google whatevers grows, the value for my search terms is going to plummet. In fact, taking a look at things, my ‘not provided’ numbers have doubled. It used to be that maybe 1% of searches showed up like this. I was around 13% for an average month in January, and now I’m looking at 30%. I am losing the ability to see what search terms are good for my site, and this makes it hard to manage my SEO.

Oh. SEO. I hate you.

I laud Google for doing this and at the same time decry them. Yes, having users protected while they search is awesome, it means my data is safe and it’s less easy for people to mess with me. As a user, I think this is good. As a website guru, I wince a lot. Without the feedback of users’ search terms, it’s very hard to know what does and doesn’t work. And the worst part is the majority of your users don’t even know they’re doing this. They know they’ve signed in to Google email, and they’ve signed in to Google+, and that’s it. They don’t know the ramifications.

I don’t pretend to be an SEO expert, but what I do claim is to have common sense, and to valiantly fight against the will to be stupid. It’s pretty obvious to me that encrypting my results rips out my ability to, for free and with no cost to my users, be able to determine what works and what doesn’t on the fly. Many times, when I tweak a site, I follow the stats and see what pages are hit more often, by whom, and when. Now there are work arounds to loosing that immediate feedback, but when you think about it, almost all involve you having to pester your users.

A/B testing is the least intrusive way about it, but for a lot of people, it’s complicated to do on a small, simple website. The basic idea is to ‘draw’ users to two different versions of the same site, and see which one gets more traffic. Max A/B is a good WordPress plugin for that. That said, your users may notice that the site one of them sees isn’t the same as another, and it means you have to up-keep two versions for a while.

Google Is WatchingGoogle, naturally, isn’t very consistent here. They generate their live traffic information via your cellphones. Whenever an Android user opts into location tracking, Google constantly monitors their location. If a whole mess of users are slowing down on the 405, guess what? Traffic. Now, arguably your data is ‘safe in their hands’, but that’s impossible to prove. If you haven’t yet, read Cory Doctorow’s “With A Little Help”, especially the story “Scroogled.”

Basically what Google’s saying is ‘You can’t use their data, but we can. Trust us.’ Nothing makes me start to trust someone less.