Why Is Google Blocking Organic Search Keyword Data?

The prophesied day has finally come: Google has made their final move to prevent access to organic keyword data.  This is a move that anybody paying attention to Google’s privacy and security changes over the last three years could see coming, and is a move heralded by privacy advocates and decried by many search marketers.

The big question is why.  Why is Google blocking organic search keyword data?  The short answer: nobody knows for sure.  So why not speculate?  There are four possible explanations that I can think of.  Most likely it is a combination of factors, or even things I have not considered.

Reasons why Google may be blocking organic search keyword data:

  1. User privacy
  2. NSA / PRISM
  3. Profit
  4. User Experience

Does Google Really Care About User Privacy?

In May 2010 Google first gave users the option of going to a secure version of Google to execute their search.  To do this, you would go to the https version of google.com, instead of http.  This secure search was optional, and at the time not many searchers made use of it.  At the time, Matt Cutts, a distinguished Google engineer and head of the Google webspam team, said that the move made him “incredibly happy”.

Matt has been a vocal advocate for privacy, citing past security recommendations from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).  Matt also cited Cory Doctorow’s bookLittle Brother” as inspiration for pushing for encrypting search traffic.  Cutts has also spoken highly of Bruce Schneier and his writing on the security mindset, essentially training people to think of privacy and security issues when encountering everyday items like smart pill boxes or security monitors.

When I was at the SMX Advanced conference in June earlier this year – which was right after Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA and their alleged data gathering activities that involved big companies like Google – Matt spoke passionately about privacy and user security, again citing Doctrow’s book and his concerns about unnecessary and unacceptable intrusions into privacy.  It is clear that privacy is something Matt cares passionately about, and it is logical to assume that he would use his influence with his employer to effect change.

However, it is important to realize that while organic search keywords are protected from prying eyes, advertisers who pay Google for AdWords still get access to keyword data.  Essentially, if you pay Google for advertising you get keyword data.  If you don’t pay, no data.  This at best reflects a disconnect between the organic search and paid search divisions within Google, and at worst shows blatant hypocrisy.

Was it Because of the Public Outcry Over Google’s Cooperation with the NSA?

Another idea that’s been tossed around is that Google made this move to stem criticism about past cooperation with the National Security Agency (NSA).  Google, along with other big companies that collect online user information, was called out by Snowden for providing data to the NSA. These revelations angered the public, and there was speculation that users concerned about privacy would move to search engines like Duck Duck Go that promise encrypted searches for all.  Of course this really hasn’t come to fruition.  Duck Duck Go did see a huge pop in search traffic after Snowden’s revelations, but the change was still a flyspeck compared to Google’s domination of the search market.

This idea is flawed in my opinion, for two reasons.  First, companies like Google are required to cooperate with government agencies like the NSA.  If they don’t, they will be sued.  When the NSA asks for data, they do so using legal channels.  Enabling secure search for organic keyword searches does nothing to prevent the NSA from accessing data.  It may prevent them from sniffing traffic, but nobody knows if they actually do this, especially if they can get the data they want through legal channels.  Think about it.  Whatever Google was doing to cooperate as required by law with the NSA they probably didn’t change – unless they are preparing for a legal battle (wouldn't that be a nice PR move?)

Second, remember that Google is ONLY blocking organic search keywords.  Pay Google for AdWords, and you get keyword data.  As somebody joked at the aforementioned SMX Advanced conference, maybe the NSA just had to open an AdWords account to get keyword data.

So it is all about the Benjamins?

Let’s face it, we’re a nation of capitalists.  Google does not exist for the common good (despite their informal catchphrase “don’t be evil.”)  They’re a publicly traded company, and they need to be profitable. 

These days, gathering and analyzing user data is profitable.  Why give away rich information like keywords for free?  It makes sense from a business perspective for Google to keep keyword data for paid users.  They have invested heavily in their search engine and have developed sophisticated tools like Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, which they make available for free... for now.

Giving people these tools for free may be part of their marketing strategy.  By using them, we’ve given Google a better understanding about what search data we care about.  Over the years Google has been able to collect usage data and user feedback from millions of users.  In a way, making these tools free has allowed Google to crowd source their design.

Taking away organic search keywords may be the first in a series of steps Google may make to shut down access to their search data.  They may choose to make a subset of the data and limited features of their tools available for free, while deeper data and tool features are reserved for subscribers. 

This is all speculation of course, based on the fact that there does not seem to be a solid non-business reason for blocking only organic search keyword information.  At the end of the day, Google is a business and has no obligation to provide free data or tools to the masses.

Google Wants a Great User Experience

The last of the possible explanations is that Google wants to provide a great user experience, and they think they’ll achieve this by blocking organic search keywords.  By blocking keywords, SEOs and marketers will have to look elsewhere for data, and it will be harder for them to write content based solely around keyword terms.

This sounds good in theory, but businesses hell-bent on winning the search wars will find some other way to play the ranking game.  I hope it gets harder to churn out content based solely on keywords; goodness knows I am tired of doing a search online and seeing thin content from untrustworthy sources come up on page one.  Along the same lines, I wholeheartedly support Google’s push for authorship, which forces real people to put their name on their content so as a reader I can decide if they have the chops to write about a particular topic.

I’d like to see more accountability online for content that gets posted, so we can avoid being mired in the flotsam and jetsam of poor-quality keyword stuffed articles whose only purpose is to attract searchers' eyeballs and my money.  So while I don’t think that user experience is the only reason keywords are now blocked for organic search and I don’t think that on its own this will significantly improve content quality, I wouldn’t be surprised if it played a small part in Google’s decision.

Big Brother May Not Be the Guy You Think

If you are troubled by the NSA or concerned about privacy, take some time to think about all the data that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and others have about you.  Your preferences, viewing habits, friends and acquaintances, job history, contact information, age, search preferences, political and social opinions, income – the list goes on and on.  We as users of these services give away this information for free every single day.  No FISA court warrant needed.

This data is used to make decisions for you.  To show you searches personalized for what the search engines know about you.  To filter your mail for you (another Google “feature”).  To send targeted advertising to you.  To sell to advertisers who can use that data to market to you.  Your data – the data you hand over for free – is supporting a multi-billion dollar advertising industry.  You and I, we allow this to happen.  We get bent out of shape over the government collecting data or wave our hands about secure search, but we freely give our most personal details to advertisers to do with this information whatever they want.

I can’t help but feel deeply cynical when either privacy advocates or Google claim that secure organic search is a positive step.  It’s just a tiny drop in a very large bucket – a bucket so large the average person can’t make sense of it.  Not only that, but Google’s paternalistic notion that the rest of us can’t be trusted with keyword data while it is ok for Google to store and analyze this data is irritating.  But, it is pointless to get too bent out of shape about this.  We’ve all fed our data to Google for years.  For free.  With no caveats or disclaimers.  Now it’s up to them what they do with it, not us.

Let this be a lesson to us all.

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