ALTOM: Google makes its analytics tracker less useful

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Well, Google’s done it again—taken away something many businessfolk have come to rely on. Google calls it a way to enhance online privacy. Those of us who track results on our websites call it a massive pain in the behind. In truth, it’s both.

If you have a website, you might well be using some kind of tracking application to see how well your site is performing. These usually go by the name “digital analytics” or “Web analytics.”

The world’s most popular Web analytics tracker is Google’s own package, known as “Google Analytics,” but there are many others: Coremetrics, Omniture, NetInsight and WebTrends, just to name a few of the biggies. All of them do much the same job, which is to aggregate data from site operations, such as the number of page views, what products are viewed, and so forth.

They also track marketing channels, so you can tell not only who came to your site from clicking through on a search engine results page, but also what search term the visitor used to find you. So a prospect might find your firm by searching for “stove bolt Indianapolis,” then clicking on your company’s name because its link was high on the first page of results.

Behind the technological curtain, the click that sends the searcher to your hardware supply store also sends the search term “stove bolt Indianapolis.” This is valuable, because when you look at all the search terms visitors use to find you, you can gauge how valuable each one is, and how to use it to keep enhancing your site’s visibility. It’s a free way to get into the mind of your visitors.

Your analytics tracker provides this data, which is typically known as “natural search” or “organic search.” It’s traffic you didn’t have to pay for, courtesy of the search engine that found you and listed your link.

When we talk about search engines, we’re almost always talking about Google, which has around 70 percent of the entire search-engine market. So when Google announces a big change, everybody in the industry pays attention.

And it announced a big change in 2011. Google said it was going to encrypt organic search terms for users who were logged into Google itself. Encryption makes the term look like gibberish, so it’s not usable by the analytics tracker. Few users were ever logged into Google, though, so the new policy didn’t make much difference for analytics users trying to maximize value from the search term keywords they harvested regularly.

Then recently, Google expanded the policy to include every organic search. That is, every click-through from a Google organic search link is now encrypted so humans can’t read it. What might once have been “stove bolt Indianapolis” could now be “0293jpj3p9u322j,” which in most trackers simply makes it list the result as “term not provided” or “keywords unavailable.”

Since Google is the main search engine used in the Western world today, this meant that instead of getting a nice, useful list of those keywords, the tracker now mostly showed the equivalent of, “Sorry, can’t help ya.”

Google didn’t do this for its paid search terms, of course, which are those keywords advertisers pay for to elevate their search results from deep in the results pages to the very tip-top. You can still get those in your tracker. Those paid ads have made Google the giant it is today. Google didn’t dare tamper with its cash cow.

As you might imagine, Google’s decision to encrypt all organic search keywords has frustrated and infuriated most of the digital marketing industry. But Google defends its decision by claiming the encryption protects its users, which might partly be true.

But it’s also possible that Google has other motives, starting with the intense scrutiny it recently received about possibly cooperating with the NSA and other government agencies to track individuals’ usages of the search engine. Encryption makes it far harder to track any user’s frequent keywords, making government requests less likely.

The second possible motive is even more cynical: Google is keenly aware that its paid search ads are the foundation for all that is Google, financing almost everything in Googleland, while organic searches yield little revenue.

Some observers believe encrypting organic search terms was done to encourage marketers to buy more paid search keywords instead of relying on organic search. Trackers can get unencrypted paid search keywords, remember, just not the organic ones. If you want to track, in other words, you have to pay.

Other search engines haven’t followed suit, so you can still track terms from Yahoo, Bing and other smaller engines. You can also still get access to search terms that visitors use on your own site, so Google’s decision might not be as suffocating as it seems.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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