Digital marketers are reporting a trend—their search traffic seems to be disappearing.
Through various browser, operating system, mobile app and privacy changes, a growing number of search results no longer contain keyword information (called encrypted search or SSL search) or are completely missing from referral information (called dark search). Without this critical information marketers are left with one option—use more paid search. Adobe Digital Index investigated 250 billion visits to 1500+ websites to understand the extent of the issue and uncovered three important trends:
- Google’s Chrome browser (which uses Google Search by default) is expected to surpass Internet Explorer in market share by late 2014
- 51% of Google search traffic isnow “dark” or encrypted—up ~300% since last year.
- Marketers are now paying more for Google search traffic with an increase in CPCs
Chrome’s browser share grows with mobile adoption
Google’s push for cross-platform compatibility between PC, tablet, and smartphone with the introduction of the Chrome App and the growth of Android has accelerated its share of browsing growth. If this trend continues Chrome will become the top browser bylate 2014. Of the four major US browsers, Safari is the only other serving mobile browsing. IE and Firefox, inexplicably, haven’t released iPhone mobile apps and as such are losing overall market share.
“Encrypted” + “dark” search traffic up 4X since last year
Keyword optimization, an early pillar of search marketing, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. In October of 2011 Google announced it would begin encrypting search traffic for users logged into a Google account and now more than half of click-throughs from Google are encrypted or dark.
Let’s start with a little background. Normally when someone clicks through from one website to another their browser tells the website where it came from. Many websites use this “referrer” information to customize content and help visitors find what they are looking for quickly. For purposes of this analysis wegrouped click-throughs into three buckets; traditional, encrypted, and dark, depending on thekind of “referrer” information that is passed along:
- Traditional search: both the referring search engine and the keyword are passed along
- All search click-throughsfrom http://www.google.com
- Paid search click-throughs from https://www.google.com
- Encrypted search: only the referring search engine is passed along, no keyword data.
- Organic search click-throughsfrom https://www.google.com
- Organic search click-throughsfrom https://www.google.com
- Dark search: neither the search engine or keyword is passed along
- All search click-throughsfrom https://encrypted.google.com/
Encrypted search has grown faster than expected.
Keyword “not-provided,” aka encrypted search, has far surpassed the “single-digit” share.As of April, 33% of Google search click-throughs are encrypted to hide keyword data for the average website—2.5 times more than last year. The chart below demonstrates the impact on average and the impact to different quartiles. It also shows that the impact of encrypted search has impacted all sites evenly.
Internet users are generally unaware of when their search results are encrypted. Except for paid search, where keyword data is passed-on regardless of the user’s privacy preferences, encryption has slowly become the default for more and more searches including when a user is signed into their Google account, searching from the Firefox (v14+) search bar, and searching while using “incognito” mode. The loss of this referral information disables keyword-based optimization for natural/organic search traffic, de-personalizing the website experience and diminishing business results.
Where has all the search traffic gone?
Encrypted search isn’t the only challenge search marketers are facing. Since June 2012 another more serious issue has come up, which we refer to as “dark” search. While encrypted search results hide the keyword, dark search results hide both the keyword and the fact that the click-through came from a search engine at all. Because dark search is incorrectly categorized as “direct” traffic we’re able to estimate the extent of this issue by observing the traffic trends from these two sources. Since June 2012 the share of traffic from search, which was trending up, has decreased by six percentage pointsand or approximately 19% of all Google search traffic.
Many have attributed the rise in dark search to the decision to make encryption the default for searches from Safari on iOS 6. However, iOS 6 wasn’t released until three months after the search share started trending down. The increase in dark search seems instead to coincide with the release of the Chrome App on iOS devices, which became the number one download from the App Store soon after its release.
Marketers turn to paid search instead
The effect of encrypted and dark search is most obvious for retailers. Since last year natural/organic search traffic has become less valuable relative to paid search traffic. For the average retailer a paid search click through now results in $1.06 more revenue than a natural search click through. Last year the difference was only $0.65.
As the relative value of paid vs. natural/organic search has increased marketers have focused less on SEO and are paying more for search traffic instead. On average the cost-per-click of paid search has increased double digits since last year.
What can marketers do?
We expect the gap between paid and natural/organic search to continue to widen as marketers lose the capability to deliver keyword-based personalization for visits coming from natural/organic search. Marketers should consider shifting their optimizations efforts towards audience profiling and visitor retargeting techniques. As paid search continues to become more valuable relative to natural/organic marketers shouldlearn to use new paid search tools to target multi-device users and would be wise to continue to diversify their spend across multiple search engines.
Have you seen a decline in natural search quantity and quality? Did you increase your investment in paid search?
All data-points reference analysis performed by Adobe Digital Index and calculated as follows:
- Browser share = visits from X browser/total visits
- Google search share = visits from X category/total visits from
- Google Search Referral Type share = visits from X referral type/total visits
- Revenue per click-through = revenue from X click-throughs/clicks from X click-throughs
- Cost per click-through = cost of X click-throughs/clicks from X click-throughs
About Adobe Digital Insights
Adobe Digital Insights publishes research on digital marketing and other topics of interest to senior marketing and e-commerce executives across industries. Research is based on the analysis of select, anonymous, and aggregated data from more than 5,000 companies worldwide that use the Adobe Digital Marketing Cloud to obtain real-time data and analysis of activity on websites, social media, and advertising.
Receive email updates on the latest Adobe Digital Insights Research.