Google’s SSL Page: Why We Need To Be Less Private


Last week Google announced they are offering searchers the option to use SSL when they search. SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, and is a method of web encryption. When using Google’s new SSL page, your search terms, web history and other personal information will be encrypted, thereby improving your privacy.

With SSL, you can search and browse in full confidence, knowing that your personal information and browsing habits will never find its way to unscrupulous third-parties. When you click on a Google link, and visit an external site, because your browsing is encrypted, the site you visit will not be able to see that you came from Google – nor will they be able to see what you searched for. Advertisers therefore can’t use your personal information to provide you with ads for things you don’t need or want.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And the more secure we can make the web, the better, right?

Not exactly.

It is only once we consider the implications for the web businesses that we realise the sheer importance of such analytical data. It is only when this data is threatened to be taken away, that we realise that SSL encryption might not be in the public’s best interests.

Let’s see why.

The Importance of Analytics

Analytics is not all bad. Okay – it does let businesses collect information about your browsing habits, your search words, your referring URLs, your city and your number of return visits, which you could argue is more information than you would like to hand over.

But we need to realise that such anonymous information is central to the efficient allocation of online resources. It is only because we freely hand over such information to website owners, that websites are as user-friendly – and online prices are as low – as they are today. None of this would have been possible if web businesses were blindfolded.

Analytics provides a market – an invisible hand which allows resources to flow to the areas which deliver the best return. It prevents wastage, and helps to efficiently connect buyers to sellers.

To illustrate how the data you hand over is the lifeblood of such a healthy online economy, let’s imagine a world where SSL is standard across the whole internet. Every page is encrypted, and none of your data is handed over.

Scenario 1 – No Keyword Data (SSL)

Suppose in this SSL world, a retailer of men’s and women’s gifts wants to know how his online marketing campaigns are working. He logs in to Google Analytics, and all he sees is a visit counter (2,500 visits), and perhaps some information on total sales (20) and total revenue ($10,000). He can’t see where these 20 sales came from; nor can he see which keywords generated those sales.

But he does know that 20 sales are coming from somewhere, so at least some of his online marketing efforts are working. And since he’s only spent $1,000 on his entire online marketing strategy, and is therefore making a healthy $9,000 gross profit, he keeps everything rolling along and heads out to lunch with his head held high.

1-google-SSL-page

Similarly, another gift retailer adopts a similar online marketing strategy. She generates exactly the same amount of visitors (2,500), sales (20) and revenue ($10,000), for exactly the same spend. Again, her gross profit is $9,000.

2-google-secure-socket-layer-example

All good and well, you might think. But what could have been if keyword data was handed over to retailer 1 and retailer 2?

Scenario 2 – Keyword Data

While working his way through a delicious Penne al Forno, retailer 1 hears talk that it is now possible to see keywords in analytics. In his excitement, he cuts his lunch short and hurries back to his computer to log into analytics. Immediately, he can see that half of his visits came from “gifts for men”, and half came from “gifts for women”. No surprises there – after all, retailer 1 sells gifts for both men and women.

But look at the conversion rates for each keyword! For whatever reason, the keyword “gifts for men” is delivering the majority of his sales, revenue and profit. “Gifts for women” is somehow failing miserably.

3-analytics-keywords

It doesn’t take long before retailer 2 also hears word of the great news. In her similar excitement, she also logs into analytics to find that the keyword “gifts for women” is bringing in the majority of her sales.

4-google-adwords-optimisation-example

Scenario 3 – After Optimisation

Retailer 1 then decides to take money out of his poor-performing “gifts for women” keyword, and invest it in the successful “gifts for men” keyword. Within a week, he has increased his his overall sales from 20 to 32, and his gross profit from $9,000 to $14,000, all for the same $1,000 spend.

5-increased-adwords-ROI

Retailer 2 also decides to do some similar optimisation. She takes money out of the wasteful “gifts for men” keywords, and ploughs it into “gifts for women”. Her sales increase from 20 to 26, and her gross profit increases from $9,000 to $12,000. Again, all for the same $1,000 spend.

6-improved-adwords-ROI

Efficient Allocation of Resources

Retailers 1 and 2 don’t know it, but what they’ve done is extremely clever. Their individual actions (and the individual actions of thousands of other retailers) have helped allocate marketing spend to the most efficient channels. Both have seen a significant reduction in wastage, and large increases in profit.

Assuming the gift industry is competitive (which is largely true due to the sheer number of ecommerce retailers), these increased profits will gradually filter through to customers in the form of lower prices.

This ‘invisible hand’, or free market of online marketing, is only made possible with analytical data. Without years of such analytical efficiency, helping to connect buyers and sellers as quickly and cheaply as possible, there is no way online prices would be as low as they are today. There is no way I would have been able to buy a pack of six iPhone screen protectors with free delivery from Hong Kong for only $0.99.

Is Privacy Overrated?

Of course, everyone has the right to protect their privacy. Measures such as SSL will prevent third-parties from seeing your search terms, analysing your browsing behaviour and perusing your social media habits without your consent. And Google’s new SSL page is undoubtedly a response to our increasing desire to keep our online activities private.

But so long as measures are taken to ensure the information you hand over is anonymous and not personally identifiable, should we really demand this increased privacy? If letting advertisers build a database of anonymous stats is all it takes to improve the online experiences and ultimately lead to lower prices for consumers, is handing over anonymous data really such a bad thing? Perhaps we have forgotten what analytics and measurement has done for us, and need to realise that data collection and optimisation is actually in the best interests for everyone.

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Alan Mitchell is an experienced Google AdWords consultant, with a proven track record of improving return on investment from PPC marketing. For more information on how a strategic approach to PPC can benefit your business, get in touch today for a free consultation.

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  1. #1 by Mark Carter on May 28th, 2010

    Hi Alan
    Absolutely 100% spot on! A great read and the simplicity of your explanation is top notch. I am still at this moment trying to get to grips with why or what the benefit is of encrypted search. Like yourself I work in a marketing environment, this is to me is a step back. Imagine a world without split testing, bounce rates, conversion rates and click through rates. Scary…

  2. #2 by Alan Mitchell on May 29th, 2010

    Hi Mark,

    You’re right – a world without analytics is like going back 10 years.

    What we need is a change in culture and a reduction in our demands for more privacy. We need to realise that giving away information is a necessity for a heathly online economy. Ideally, if people want to search privately (or ad free), they should pay for it.

    Cheers,
    Alan

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