Google recently celebrated its 15th birthday. Without question, it’s the most successful teenager in history.
In just a decade and a half, the company has gone from an obscure startup founded by students in a garage to one of the most important companies in operation today. Google’s current stock price is above $1,000, and with a total market capitalization in excess of $340 billion, it’s one of the most valuable companies in the world.
And people love it. More than 1 billion people worldwide conduct nearly 115 billion searches every month. But these searches don’t generate revenues for Google exclusively; millions of companies advertise on Google or are listed on the results pages for users. Those that receive clicks from these Google searches convert a portion of the visitors into customers.
While estimates vary, the sales generated from Google searches by small businesses are in the billions of dollars. This is why so many small businesses pay experts a lot of money to improve their ranking on Google’s results pages as part of the search engine optimization industry. By improving their search results, they can directly affect their bottom line.
Help From Google
Up until now, Google has gone out of its way to provide website owners with mountains of data about how users go from Google sites to their own websites. The company even provides a tool—the Google Analytics service—that interprets this data and helps turn it into actionable information that allows businesses to tweak (or optimize) their websites to improve the overall user experience.
Of course, Google does this for selfish reasons. If users are happier with the search results they get from Google, then they're more likely to increase their use of Google. It's obvious this strategy has worked.
And now the company is changing everything.
A Wrench In The Works
About two years ago, Google started encrypting a small percentage of its users’ search queries. In an encrypted search, the details of the search request are hidden from third parties. This helps protect the privacy of Google users, but as a consequence, websites that receive traffic from Google are also blocked from seeing the details of the search.
For example, a user visiting Google and typing in "small-business advice" might click on a link to your site. Your webmaster would then know that this phrase generates traffic. And if many visitors arrived via the same or similar keywords, that would provide an important signal as to what users want and how they find it. This could lead companies to change their content strategy, keyword strategy and more.
In an encrypted search, however, Google wouldn't report the keywords. Instead the default message “(not provided)” would appear, meaning you would have no idea what terms the user searched for that led them to your site.
Since this encryption only represented a small percentage of searches, most people considered it to be nothing more than a nuisance. However, it now appears that Google is accelerating a total transition to secure or "dark" searches. It appears that nearly 90 percent of all Google searches are now encrypted, and at the current growth rate, that number will be at 100 percent before the end of the year.
Without accurate keyword search data, small businesses will have an extremely difficult time understanding what terms Google’s users are searching for that leads them to their websites. This means creating content around search terms, identifying new trends based on changes in search terms, and using Google as a meaningful sales channel are all about to become very difficult.
As the industry leader of search, Google sets the tone for other companies, and it appears that other major search engines, such as Yahoo, are also transitioning to dark search.
The implications for small-business owners are extensive and immediate. Before you pay another invoice from your online marketing vendor, ask them specifically how they plan to adapt to the new reality of dark search. Without keyword data from Google, they'll have to use other sources and methods to understand how users are arriving at your website. And while KISSmetrics provides some potential alternative sources of information to partially compensate for the loss, you'd better make sure you're getting what you pay for.
Read more articles on SEO.