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September 27, 2010

Google SSL search explained

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Of all the recent releases Google has rolled out, SSL Search has probably received the least attention on the search engine optimisation blogs I frequent. Despite this lack of coverage there are some interesting points to note and some implications for webmasters, not least of which is how Google really kind of ballsed it up.

What is SSL?

Secure Sockets Layer. Since that doesn’t really simplify anything, allow me to expand. Most of the time, when a browser program connects to a website, the data that passes between the two computers is not private. If you are at work, websites you visit may be monitored by your employer, or similarly, if you’re using a public Wi-Fi network, you may be monitored.

Since we all need to protect personal details, websites often provide SSL connections to achieve that level of privacy. When a user logs into a secure area of the website, the connection gets encrypted, and data passing between the two computers (hopefully) becomes safe from prying eyes. You’ve probably noticed if you log into a secure website, such as an online banking website or PayPal, the http gains an S and becomes https.

What is Google SSL search?

Put simply, Google SSL is an encrypted searching option, designed to protect user privacy. In late May 2010, Google introduced a beta version of the encrypted search on https://www.google.com, which was later moved to https://encrypted.google.com due to unforseen issues*. It works by encrypting the connection between your computer (browser) and Google. So, whatever you are searching for is strictly between you and Google.

* kiddies were able to search for naughty things at school and network administrators at said facilities had to prevent students from using SSL search (all in the interest of protecting their innocence, of course).

Why would I want to encrypt my search?

Any number of reasons, really. Matt Cutts recently used the example (video below) of searching Google for a new job while working at the office or protecting your privacy while searching Google from a hotel provided network connection.

Is search Google SSL search the same as “Private Browsing”?

No. Most modern web browsers have some sort functionality for private browsing, Internet Explorer calls it InPrivate, Chrome – Incognito, Firefox and Safari – Private Browsing. These options are privacy in a different form, they protect you by deleting browsing history and cookies after your session is complete (among other things). This is more useful if you’re logging into your personal accounts from public computers or internet cafes and do not want to leave personal information in a web browser’s cached files.

What are the implications of Google SSL search for webmasters?

Browser referrers are turned off, so if you’re doing something like geo-targeting users to serve advertisements, that’s probably not going to work so well. According to Matt Cutts, uptake rates of SSL search are quite low (<0.2%), and it’s probably not something to worry about. Google claims that they are very concerned with protecting user privacy (probably due the recent Buzz privacy and Wi-Fi snooping mistakes), and while they are now offering SSL search it will not be made default. The reason for that is because it’s slower than normal, unencrypted search. And as most would already know, speed is important to Google, both on their sites as well as ours.

Matt suggests, if you would like to capture referrer data for users using SSL search, you can just “run an SSL version of your own website, and you will get the referrers (here’s the video, 11.5 minutes in). This is due to modern browsers only passing the referrer from a secure connection when the destination URL is secure. But, that seems a bit excessive to recover a loss of approximately 0.2% of referrer data. One would have to assume that people savvy enough to use SSL search to protect their privacy have probably taken other measures to protect it anyway.

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One response to “Google SSL search explained”

  1. Alan Mitchell writes:

    Removing referral data is like going back to the stone age. How can a webmaster or marketer optimise their website or marketing campaign without sufficient data? It will surely lead to inefficiencies, wasted click spend, and ultimately higher prices of goods and servcies for everyone:

    http://www.calculatemarketing.com/blog/discussion/google-ssl-page-how-privacy-leads-to-higher-prices/

    Let’s hope the uptake remains at <0.2%.



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