As we reported last week, Google is going to start encrypting all search activity except for clicks on ads. This has huge (and very bad) implications for marketers, who will no longer get valuable keyword data from searches.
Google says it is making the change to protect people’s privacy when they conduct web searches. Some speculate Google also may be trying to make it harder for the NSA to spy on people.
But one leading marketing guru says it's something else altogether. Rand Fishkin, a leading SEO expert and founder of Seattle-based consultancy Moz (formerly SEOmoz), says Google is choking off keyword data in order to strong-arm marketers into buying ads through Google’s AdWords program, where keyword data will still be available.
“If the true goal were to protect user privacy, Google would also remove keyword data from paid search referrals through their AdWords product,” Fishkin says. “However, this is not the case, nor is it planned. Hence, we know that Google must have other motivations.”
Worse, beecause Google has 80% of the search market in the United States, and even greater market share in other parts of the world, marketers can't just stop dealing with Google. “This is Google abusing its monopolistic position,” Fishkin says in a video on his blog. (The full video is embedded below, and it’s a must-view for all marketers.)
A Google spokesman says it has been gradually encrypting more search traffic for years, and that these latest changes weren’t prompted by the kerfuffle over NSA spying, nor are they an attempt to force people to buy more ads from Google. The spokesman also points out that Google provides a lot of tools to help marketers.
Nonetheless, marketers like Fishkin are furious about what Google is doing.
How Bad Is This?
Google has already been blocking keyword data on a lot of searches, perhaps as much as 75%. Fishkin reckons that figure will reach 100% by December.
So we’re looking at a total blackout. In a recent blog post, Fishkin calls this “the first existential threat to SEO.”
Fishkin says this is “very troubling and concerning,” not just for online marketers but for everyone who is using the web. “Marketers don’t use this data to do evil things or invade people’s privacy. Marketers use this data to make the web a better place,” he says in his video.
Fishkin, a longtime HubSpot ally who was a featured speaker at our INBOUND 2013 conference in August, says, “I find it sad and frustrating that only the commercial portions of the web will benefit from this data in the future.”
Breaking the Bargain
Fishkin says Google is breaching an agreement that it has had with marketers for years. “The agreement that marketers and website creators have always had with search engines, since their inception, was, ‘Sure, we’ll let you crawl our sites, you provide us the keyword data so we can improve the internet together.’”
Now Google is breaking that agreement. And there’s not much marketers can do to fight back, Fishkin says. “Unfortunately I don’t really see a way out of it. I don’t think marketers can make a strong enough case politically or to consumer groups to get this removed,” he says in his video.
In an interview, Fishkin adds that perhaps advocates in the European Union will do something. “The only potential savior may be the EU, who could determine that this is anti-competitive behavior. I hope they at least consider the issue.”
In theory marketers could fight back by excluding Google from crawling and indexing their sites. But the only way this would work is if tens of millions of sites all did it together. If that happened, it would hurt Google’s business by driving consumers to rival search engines like Microsoft’s Bing.
But good luck getting tens of millions of sites to all work together, especially since “there would always be the temptation in the early days of the movement to allow Google access to your site and profit massively since your competitors aren’t appearing,” Fishkin says.
So: forget about that one. Not gonna happen.
Google expert Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, takes a somewhat more sanguine view of what’s going on. He believes Google really is acting out of concern for privacy, but that because advertisers can still get keyword data, “it also looks like a push on the ad front, and that “even if Google honestly didn’t intend this, that’s been the end result -- and the end result matters.”
As for abusing its monopoly power, Sullivan points out that the Federal Trade Commission has already investigated Google on antitrust concerns and didn’t take action. He’s doesn’t think Google’s new changes will revive that inquiry.
Sullivan also doesn’t think things are as dire for the SEO business as Fishkin does. “This doesn’t kill SEO. It just makes it harder to measure the success of SEO,” he says.
But Sullivan does agree with Fishkin on one thing: This is “a fairly large breach in the unwritten contract that’s long existed between search engines and publishers. Publishers allow search engines to index their content, which is used by the search engines as the core content they can put lucrative ads around. In return, search engines have provided traffic to publishers and data on how those publishers are found. That latter part of the ‘deal’ was unilaterally pulled by Google.”
So: Whatever Google’s intentions might be, the end result is bad for marketers. And marketers have good reason to feel betrayed. Google just changed the rules of a game that both sides agreed upon years ago.
Nevertheless, All Is Not Lost
The good news is that there are still ways to work around Google’s blockade. Fishkin lays out some suggestions in his video, which I’ve embedded below. You can read a full transcript of his video on this blog page.
The techniques Fishkin describes are all pretty complicated and require patching together various sources. “A lot of this data, and a lot of these opportunities, are retrievable -- they’re just a lot harder,” he says.
Worse, these tactics still might not give you the kind of visibility you’ve had in the past.
The bottom line for marketers is that “the complexity of our practice is increasing,” Fishkin says. People who specialize in selling SEO services will now find it more difficult to prove that what they’re doing actually works, which in turn will make it harder for them to get budget for projects, Fishkin says.
There may be a bright side to all this. Google's changes might create an opportunity for marketers who are clever enough to create workarounds. “Those of us who are savvy, sophisticated, able to track this data, are far more useful and employable and important,” Fishkin says.
In some ways this situation represents just one more change in an industry that is always changing. All of us who make a living on the internet know that our world is one where things constantly become more complex, more difficult, more challenging -- and the only way to survive is to constantly adapt.
Here is the speech Fishkin gave at HubSpot's INBOUND 2013 conference in August.