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From the author of Withholding Referral Data

Withholding Referral Data

This leads me to the final reason why my confidence in Google not being evil is slipping. iGoogle—the public form of Google Enterprise—is changing the nature of organic search reporting in companies across the web.

In October 2011, Google announced that it would stop giving sites referral information for users who are signed into the iGoogle application. iGoogle is the https version of Google, which gives users access to Google+, Gmail, and Google Docs, among other things. At the time, Matt Cutts said this would result in a drop in organic search referral numbers to sites by a “few percentage points,” according to Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land. If so, it’s a rounding error that SEOs could easily explain away in charts showing a decrease in search referrals.

Being able to show executives increased referrals from my efforts to optimize ibm.com pages for organic and paid search is the main thing that keeps me employed by IBM. The extent to which search referrals go up is directly related to my performance reviews at the end of every year. So naturally, everything that negatively impacts referral data is bad news for me. And it turns out, Cutts’ statement way underestimated how many of our users are signed into iGoogle. In IBM, we have seen upwards of 20 percent decreases in search referrals since they stopped sending us the full picture (adjusted for seasonal traffic constants). As SEOMoz has shown, a month after the shutdown, 20 percent was a more accurate average number.

Of course, the more Google+ and Gmail users Google signs up, the worse it gets for our search referral data. Ironically, Google’s stated reason for doing this is to protect the privacy of those signed into iGoogle. The reasoning is, users are more likely to do something private if they’re logged into iGoogle. But that doesn’t make much sense, especially in light of Google’s recent privacy policy changes. Considering that Google now captures your every move in iGoogle, if you really want to do something private, you would log out of iGoogle, do your private thing, and clear your cache and your history afterwards. Otherwise, Google will know what you did and use the information in your next signed-in search.

As Ian Luri writes, the real reason does not involve concern for the user. The real reason, he says, is about Google getting more ad revenue. Competing ad networks and SEOs alike use referral data to tune their campaigns. The less we know about the effectiveness of our campaigns, the harder it is for us to tune them, and the larger Google’s share of ad revenue. As I mentioned in my last article, the better our analytics, the easier it is for us to cut click waste and improve yield. But Google thrives on click waste. When we reduce click waste and lower our cost per click, they lose revenue and profits.

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