The Aftermath: Clarifications & Expert Reactions To Google’s Move To Secure Paid Search Queries

google logo - basic 570x270Yesterday, Google announced it is expanding secure search to clicks on paid ads. The change means that the search query a user typed in before clicking on an ad will be dropped from the referrer string in the URL and won’t be passed to analytics or other software other than AdWords.

The move is aimed at bringing parity to the treatment of search query referrer data from search ad clicks and organic clicks, which have had search query referrer data stripped from all Google secure search queries since last year.

This Not A Huge Disruption

As Jeremy Hull, director of bought media at iProspect, said by phone yesterday, the change sounded panic-inducing when they were first told by Google reps about it. In reality, he says, the move won’t have a significant impact on the work that most search marketers do or the platforms many of them rely on.

That sentiment was also echoed yesterday by Matt Ackley, CMO at Marin Software, who told me before the announcement was official that it “would not be that big a deal,” and George Michie RKG co-founder and chief marketing scientist, who wrote, “This is an annoyance, but in the great scheme of things, it’s not a major problem” in his Search Engine Land column.

Data Access In AdWords Is Status Quo

First, to clear up some basic definitions in paid search: the keyword is the term an advertiser bids on; the search query is the term a user types in the search bar. Using them interchangeably can cause confusion. And, telling search marketers they won’t have access to keyword data in analytics is a lot different than saying they won’t have search query data in analytics.

There has also been confusion around whether advertisers would still have access to search query data at all. WordStream CTO Larry Kim summed up why removing the search query from the URL isn’t going to cause massive disruption to paid search in the title of his post: Paid Search Query Data Is Not Dead. AdWords interface and AdWords API users will still have access to search query data. The beloved search term report in AdWords is still available.

Paid search advertisers have had, and will continue to have, access to both keyword data and search query data. The change in access is that search query data will no longer be available in analytics if the click came through Google secure search. If you’re plugged into AdWords, you’ll still get search query data.

Here’s a quick rundown of what we know.

What’s NOT changing:

  • As stated above, advertisers will still have access to search query (the words users search on before clicking on an ad) data in AdWords
  • The API Search Query Performance report and AdWords Scripts Report service will still allow companies to automate keyword management with query data
  • Keyword (the words advertisers bid on) performance data will still be available in analytics and AdWords
  • Advertisers will still be able to bid on all keyword match types and see which search queries triggered those keywords by match type
  • Google Analytics data at the keyword level (what’s actually being bid on) in AdWords will still be available if the accounts are linked

What IS changing:

  • For clicks derived from Google secure search, the “q=search+query” referrer (as shown in this example will be dropped from the referrer string in the URL
  • Thus, the search query referrer data won’t pass to analtyics packages, and will show up as matched search query “(not provided)”. This is a big bummer from an analysis point of view. Lots of marketers use the depth of metrics provided in analytics — and only analytics — to make decisions based on the performance of matched search queries.
  • Reporting in analytics will increasingly reflect the change with a rising percentage of (not provided) clicks from paid search
  • Software that pulls search queries from the referrer — to populate dynamic landing pages, for example — will need to move to using the keyword the advertiser bid on. Others like keyword expansion tools can switch to getting query data out of AdWords.

Bid Management Platforms Remain Largely Unaffected

Again, this is a key point. This move does not spell the end of paid search management platforms, as I wrote yesterday. Google notified many of the large paid search management platforms in advance that this change was coming so they could figure out what the implications might be. Marin’s Ackley has said that platform would not be affected because, like most other paid search platforms, Marin’s analtyics, bidding and optimization functionality relies on keyword data — not search queries. Other platforms including Adobe, WordStream and other AdWords API partners are also not affected.

Kenshoo posted on the subject today, “Our core bidding, optimization, measurement, and forecasting capabilities will continue to function normally because keyword data, not search query data, is used for most of our algorithmic analysis and optimization.”

Some companies had been using the search query referrer in their keyword expansion tools. Again, this is not a huge set back. They can switch to get this data from the AdWords API and Webmaster Tools instead, which is what Kenshoo, for example, says it does already.

Google Tags Become More Important

Chris Halua, product manager for Adobe Media Optimizer, said by phone yesterday that they have been working to apply Google tags for clients in addition to their existing Adobe tags in order to get the search query conversion data in AdWords into their systems. “If you’ve been living without a Google tag, it’s now necessary,” says, Halua. He stressed that now is a good time to consider a tag manager “so next time there’s a change, you’re not having to re-tag everything”.

Outstanding Questions

There are still several unknowns here which Google has not provided comment on. One of which is whether the AdWords Matched Search Queries report will continue to live on in Google Analytics. Valuetrack parameters are still passing query referrer data as of this morning. When will that functionality end? And, I’m sure there are others.

I’ve also heard that Google will be aggregating search query data in ways it doesn’t currently, in part to prevent advertisers from being able to tie a specific search query to a specific conversion in order to identify that customer. Halua at Adobe said Google would not specify how the aggregation would happen — by time block, traffic block, etc. — but that it would happen. Again, we haven’t been able to verify if the aggregation practices will change and if so, how, with Google.

We’ll begin to see the results of this move over the next month or so. For now, most search marketers and service providers will continue to proceed as normal.