Monday, October 24, 2011
Google encrypting searches: security, privacy and control
Google recently announced plans to make search more secure.
This effort includes encrypting search queries, which is especially important when using an unsecured Internet connection or accessing the Internet through intermediate devices which have the ability to log requests. Encrypting the search interface will automatically block referrer information for unencrypted sites, and would provide an incentive for companies to join the industry effort to use SSL/TLS encryption more widely.
But Google takes this a step further, hiding query information from encrypted searches. The click-through tracking link for unencrypted search includes the search term parameter “q”, which gets passed to the visited website:
The link for encrypted search, however, leaves the parameter “q” empty. Interestingly click-throughs for encrypted searches are tracked on an unencrypted connection, thus revealing the visited site address to an eavesdropper:
With this change, the visited website receives no information about the search term. What enhances privacy for searchers holds website owners off important information for optimizing their websites to best serve visitors.
Browsers already provide mechanisms for controlling referrer information, for example the network.http.sendRefererHeader preference setting or the customizable RefControl extension for Firefox. Google’s privacy enhancement takes control away from the users by not passing referring information, period.
Google’s move has the potential to change the search engine marketing (SEM) landscape. Search terms in paid ads will remain trackable unchanged. For organic search, the only way for website owners to get access to, albeit delayed, aggregated and limited to the top 1,000, search terms is through Google webmaster console, a very fine tool but not a replacement for an integrated web analytics solution.
The impact of this change goes beyond web analytics and search engine optimization (SEO): Sites often use the search terms that led visitors to the site for dynamic customization, offering related information and links. With encrypted search, visitors will no longer have access to these enhancements either.