It’s safe to say that Google search is the primary driver of web traffic. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is an industry in itself and millions are spent on making sure your content has the right words to get a Google hit. Google even provides Analytics so websites can monitor which search terms are driving most traffic. So what happens when Google moves to make sure most search terms are hidden from web publishers? This could very well be the case.

A report in Search Engine Land sheds more light on Google’s move to shift all searches to secure standard. Google’s claimed motive behind this move is to protect user’s privacy and keep away the prying eyes of NSA analysts and private sleuths. This is an easily sellable notion in the light of PRISM and other surveillance programmes being exposed. But it’s never that simple and Google, like any company, wants to shore up its revenue. Before we explain how, let’s look at how secure search has evolved.

Google secure search or more ad money?

Google secure search or more ad money?

In 2011, Google launched secure search for users logged-in to Google when searching. This ensured that your search terms were hidden from the eyes of the web publisher and consequently also those authorities snooping on web traffic. While this is not 100 percent secure, it still went a long way towards some online privacy. So when a logged-in user lands on a website after a Google search, the website will see ‘not provided’ on the analytics end to indicate a secure search. Over the past year, the ‘not provided’ count has been steadily on the rise due to the proliferation of Google’s services and increase in the number of users.

From earlier this year, all searches through Google’s own Chrome browser were made secure by default. So if you are using Mozilla Firefox or IE and are not logged-in your search terms will be made plain to all publishers. But now, Google is moving to make this feature available to all users, regardless of whether they are logged in using a Google ID or whether they are using a specific browser.

“We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year,” a Google spokesperson told Search Engine Watch. “We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.” What this means is typically all Google search will result in a ‘not provided’ entry in a website’s analytics. This could potentially nullify SEO tricks that websites use to grab more visitors, and puts them in a disadvantageous position.

Why is Google doing this? According to the company, it’s to ensure that search terms are kept away from the likes of NSA and other snoops. But as another report points out, search terms will still be visible when they are suggested through Google Instant autocomplete or are provided to publishers through the Google Webmaster Central service. Ominously, Google lets its advertisers see all search terms openly through its AdWords analytics system.

Google is leaving its Chrome users hanging with unsecured saved password access (Image credit: Image processors)

All Chrome searches are secure by default (Image: Getty Images)

Our own analytics data showed a gradual climb in the number of ‘not provided’ entries, but it’s not just restricted to us of course. This report shows the climb in the number of 'not provided' entries in the top sites of the world in December 2012 as compared to the same month in 2011. It would be safe to assume that with all Google searches going secure, this number will climb up. But what about Bing and Yahoo? Well, who’s to say they don’t follow Google’s move and also shift to secure search. In any case, Google’s search competitors are so far behind in terms of market share that they don’t register much impact in terms of traffic.

What Google is essentially doing is making publishers take the Webmaster Central route and allow them to see keywords on their analytics. This in itself is still limited, publishers will only see the data going back to 90 days (set to increase to one year soon), and only for the top 2,000 queries for any particular day that are sending most traffic. This changes altogether though, if you pay and sign up for AdWords and link up your Webmaster Central account to the Google AdWords account. Then you can see all the search terms that have been used to land up on your site and thus optimise your ad placements.

Essentially Google is strong-arming web publishers to sign up for AdWords. The alternative is to use the limited Webmaster Central service or to spend considerable capital in figuring out what their audience wants and how to get them to their site. And you thought this was only about protecting the user’s privacy.