When Google announced the new (not provided) stance for organic search queries back in fall 2013, I thought the Internet might break under the weight of thousands of SEO blogs rending their garments. A similar scene has played out in the PPC world after last week’s announcement that Google’s newest “security enhancements” would extend secure search to all paid search ads. Apparently, PPCs aren’t any more cool and collected than SEOs, who at least had the excuse of actually experiencing a huge industry shift. For every one blog post clarifying the most recent changes, there are 20 posts spreading rumors of (not provided) in place of search queries in AdWords. Don’t buy into the melodrama—paid search as we know it is not ending. Chill out, Internet. I’ll wait.
Let’s discuss the facts first, then we can talk about our feelings.
As it happens, the facts—as provided by Google and not as parsed by the masses—are few. Basically, Google is making search data even more secure by removing query data from the referring URL on ad clicks. This means that the exact words a user searches that leads them to view and then click an ad will no longer be available through that referring URL. Note: query NOT keyword. This doesn’t mean that the keyword matching a search query won’t be available. It would be pretty hard to bid on keywords without having any information on the keywords in your account. Google promises: “Advertisers will continue to have access to useful data to optimize and improve their campaigns and landing pages.” The search query report in AdWords will still be available in all its glory, which means that the majority of PPC folks will carry on their merry keyword optimizing way without noticing a difference at all.
What this will change is the availability of query data for anything that isn’t AdWords. Any source (i.e., anything not part of the AdWords network) that uses the referring URL to track queries won’t be able to do so. Some third party sites will be affected, which is a problem only if you have been using third parties outside of the Google AdWords network, such as web server log files, to get that data. However, anyone that uses the AdWords API to pull their ad data will be fine—big industry players like Kenshoo and Wordstream have been quick to assure users that their services will remain the same.
Though the article posted last week doesn’t directly address whether Google Analytics will be affected, the assumption is that AdWords query data will no longer be accessible through Analytics, since GA uses parameters from the referring URL to gather data. While that may affect some in terms of reporting and general convenience, there are still plenty of ways to access search query data from paid ads. Google Webmaster Tools will still have query data for both organic and paid search and, most importantly, AdWords itself will remain unchanged. There is also the ability to use ValueTrack Parameters in ad URLs to provide keyword data to whatever data feed you wish, but this is still keyword data, not query data.
If nothing else, hearing the (premature and inaccurate) claim that keyword data is going to be unavailable for paid search will elicit a “huh? how? wut?” type of reaction as you struggle to comprehend AdWords without keywords. Personally, Garfield Minus Garfield comes to mind. Either Google is having an existential crisis about their ad buying process or they’re doing what they have claimed to be doing all along: listening to their users and providing the best possible experience. (That, or one of the many conspiracy theories is true, but the Internet is full of people who can tell you about that; I’ll leave it to the pros.)
That may be the more optimistic way of looking at it. Because Google isn’t really removing search query data for paid search—advertisers will still have access to all of that data in AdWords—they’re not really impacting their revenue stream at all. Another possible explanation, as pointed out at PPC Hero, is that by removing access to search queries except through AdWords, Google is actually taking a swing at third-party display networks—their competition—by forcing them to buy directly from Google in order to gain access to that information. It’s clever and honestly surprising they haven’t performed this maneuver sooner. To be fair to Google, being proactive about searcher privacy and wanting to increase profit are not necessarily mutually exclusive in this case. Google’s recent actions are still moving in the general direction of more privacy for users, regardless of their motivation for doing so. Whether that privacy is merely an illusion or not is another matter entirely.
Is Google taking away AdWords keyword data? Not at all. Is the PPC industry changing beyond recognition? No, only slightly, and I think we will all be okay. As with anything, read the fine print before falling prey to Internet hysteria. Is this the start of a new era? Many are concerned that this is only one of many moves in Google’s initiative on the search privacy front and that the next step is to remove paid search keyword data entirely, as with organic. Besides the fact that AdWords accounts would be pretty hard to optimize without access to that data, I doubt Google will double down on privacy when it comes to their main revenue stream, at least in any way that could jeopardize their profit. Digital privacy is an ongoing saga as various entities fight to corral the unruly toddler that is the Internet. This is certainly not the last we’ve heard of this issue, whether in the context of digital advertising or Internet ethics in general.