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So, Google's announced this week that it will be hiding keyword referral data for users that are logged into their Google accounts. Ostensibly, this is to protect users' privacy, so that horrible, evil search marketers won't see what they typed into search engines in order to reach your website. Ian has already discussed how hiding keyword referrals will affect SEO campaigns, however, it is important to understand that this data is already anonymised - you can't attach a specific query to a specific searcher.
There's also the issue of the EU Cookie laws, which are about to come into effect and mean websites must allow users to actively opt in to receiving cookies, rather than forcing them to actively opt out by disabling them in their browsers.
This would, on the surface, appear to be a win for individuals' privacy rights - if there's less data being shared with website owners, then surely, we, as searchers can worry less about who knows what we do online.
Do searchers really care if their queries are passed anonymously to website owners?
You only have to look at most people's Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles and Twitter feeds to see that most people aren't all that bothered about strangers knowing what they do online and off. Browse Flickr or Picasa, see what people are willing to upload to YouTube and you quickly realise that people share far more in their own names (and with their own faces and the faces of their friends and family) than any Google search would ever provide to a business owner.
Much of the data that people willingly share on social media sites about likes and dislikes, with pictures of themselves and regular updates about their daily activities is already being sold on to businesses - Facebook does it; and as Businessweek has pointed out, it's an accepted part of traditional marketing. It's just easier to assemble the data when it's being freely provided in the form of social media profiles.
If we're clearly happy to give away our right to privacy; why is Google trying to protect it?
They aren't - they're just trying to find a way to profit from it.
Remember, no data is being obscured for paid search campaigns. If you pay Google, you get all your data. This means that PPC campaigns can continue to operate with full visibility and understanding - whereas ORGANIC search campaigns will not. In fact, as more people use Google+ and Gmail they will search while logged in, so less and less search data will be available to SEO consultants to use to measure the success of campaigns.
Would Google really cut off a webmaster's access to that data just to encourage more businesses to use paid search?
Maybe. But probably not. More likely, as others have already said, Google just wants to start charging search marketers and webmasters for that data.
So, why try and obfuscate this by saying the change is to protect the privacy of users (most of whom don't care about protecting their privacy)? Well, it's not like Google would want to appear evil, is it?
What about the EU?
I have to applaud the EU to some degree for at least recognising that while individuals are more than willing to stream their lives to the public online, maybe it isn't such a good idea to willingly give away the hard-fought right to keep our personal lives private.
However, while the EU has rightly acknowledged there's an issue that will have to be dealt with in terms of protecting people's personal data; their means of attempting to legislate regarding the issue is a bit misplaced. Rather than anonymising or protecting personal details of individuals, they've tried to stop businesses gathering anonymous data about the performance of their marketing spend.
Surely it would be more beneficial to pass laws regarding what profile data and online content remains the property of the creator, what becomes the property of the website which hosts it and what can be bought and sold for marketing databases, rather than hindering the collection of the essential anonymous data which helps businesses plan for the future?
In the end, I can't help but wonder at a situation which has search behemoths and governments worried about protecting the privacy of data that's already anonymised but entirely unconcerned about protecting all that personal data we're willingly adding to the public sphere that not only isn't remotely anonymous, but is also potentially harmful.