Withholding Referral Data
This leads me to the final reason why my confidence in Google not being evil is slipping. iGooglethe public form of Google Enterpriseis 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.
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.