This has been a year of change in search engine optimization. In discussing why attorneys need blogs I analyzed Google’s move to favor the type of in depth articles generated by bloggers. I have also discussed that Google’s Hummingbird update impacts attorneys by requiring lawyers to focus more on the quality of their content as opposed to relying on keywords. Another major change, which many started noticing in August of 2013, is that Google is now restricting webmasters from seeing the search terms that people use to find websites. This has an obvious impact on any attorney’s online marketing strategy. Fortunately, there are tools in place that still allow you to compensate for this change as we move forward.

Attorneys concerned about web marketing should know where their traffic comes from

Understanding how your clients are finding you is nothing new. Well before online search, attorneys would ask a new client “do you mind if I ask where you heard about me?” The beauty of web search, when combined with tracking tools such as Google Analytics, is that it allowed attorneys to have knowledge of how many people are actually looking at their site. This is different from a billboard or the phone book where an attorney knows they have an ad but have no idea as to how many eyeballs actually view it at any given time. A key to monitoring web traffic has always been to review the search terms that people are using to find your site. This information has also historically been provided through tracking tools. This has given attorneys a way to track their marketing that has never previously existed.

Attorneys will not be able to see what internet search terms people use as Google is now encrypting this information

Google Analytics PhotoIf you are a lawyer who tracks the search terms used to your website then you have likely noticed a major change. You are likely seeing an increase of instances where the term used to find your site is “not provided.” This is an extension of a policy began by Google over two years ago. In 2011 Google began encrypting searches by people searching while logged into their Google account (encryption is a process by which information is encoded in a way that does not allow it to be read unless the reader has a “key” to the encryption). This was done to protect user privacy. In 2013 this has been expanded so that now Google is encrypting searches performed by anyone using the company’s Chrome browser whether or not they are logged in to their Google account. Also, searches for anyone logged in continue to be encrypted regardless of what browser they are using. Combine this with the fact that Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari began encrypting search in 2012, and the result become limited – Attorneys’ web tracking software will now only return search terms for queries performed by Internet Explorer users not logged into a Google account.

Google’s extension of encryption use has been confirmed by the search company and you likely began to notice its impact in the summer of 2013. There has been quite a bit of speculation as to why this change is being implemented. The likely reason is that this encryption will assist Google in preventing the N.S.A. from seeing the terms people are using to search the internet. Another possible reason for the change is the fact that Google is often facing scrutiny from regulators as to steps it takes to protect privacy. Given the level of public uproar of the N.S.A. “Prism” program, and ongoing regulation issues, the fact that the search giant is taking such an action should not come as a surprise.

What Google’s encryption of search terms means to an attorney’s SEO efforts

It goes without saying how much an attorney is assisted by knowing the terms people are using to find his or her website. At first glance, Google’s new policies may seem like a huge blow to lawyers serious about search engine optimization. It is interesting that many of the so-called “search engine experts” are taking a “there’s nothing one can do” about this change. Hubspot.com, for example, offers no suggestion as to how organic search data can still be obtained from Google and, instead, suggests that users rely on query data provided by Bing[i]. Fortunately, your choices are not so limited. There are still ways for the time being to get data on Google searches and we believe Bing would not provide an adequate reference as to how people are searching.

Lawyers can use Google Webmaster Tools to track search terms

Google Webmaster Tools PhotoGoogle Webmaster Tools is a free cloud service that allows you to monitor various technical aspects of your site. We find it odd that so many webmasters still do not use this service as it provides various updates about technical issues with a site that may be addressed. In addition to providing technical information, however, Webmaster Tools also provides search data and, as of this writing, is still providing the search terms used to find a site as opposed to a “not provided” message. As this service is still providing the exact information that Google is withholding from Analytics software, it goes without saying that this is the best substitute for your previous method of tracking search terms.

Google appears to have no plans to restrict the viewing of search terms from Webmaster Tools. However, given the increasing uproar over government activity and internet privacy, this may or may not be a long term option.

Attorneys should not use search terms from Bing to estimate what search terms people are using on Google

I have read the suggestion that attorneys concerned about search engine optimization can use data from Bing as a substitute for data now being encrypted by Google. As Bing is not encrypting search data, the theory behind this idea is that the search queries used by Bing searchers must be similar to those used by Google searchers. The type and volume of search phrases found to be used on Bing could then be extrapolated to the now unknown Google searches. This theory makes sense until you realize that following it would be comparing apples and oranges.

Bing search queries should not be considered similar to those performed on Google as the two search engines have very different user bases. Studies have shown that the people using the two search engines tend to be disproportionately in different age groups[ii]. These users also tend to have different income and educational levels. These differences mean that the likelihood that these people perform internet searches in the same way is slim at best.

Attorneys continue to have options in tracking their website visitors

There are other options attorneys have for tracking their website visitors but the simple fact is that Google Webmaster Tools provides the very data that is now being restricted in analytics programs. If your Webmaster has not installed Google Webmaster Tools on your site, which he or should have done a long time ago anyway, then have them do so and you will be able to continue tracking your site’s search terms. We will provide additional choices on this topic should Google begin to restrict search terms in Webmaster Tools.

Update: In January of 2014, Google expanded the level of information being provided through Google Webmaster Tools. At the time of our original discussion, the service would “round off” the number of times a particular term was clicked. Google is now providing specific numbers instead of totals that are rounded off. This 1) puts to rest any worry that this information would be restricted within Webmaster Tools as it had been in Google Analytics; Google would not be expanding the available information if it was only planning to restrict it in the future and 2) further establishes that GWT is a must have service for any attorney serious about their online marketing.

[i] http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/google-encrypting-all-searches-nj

[ii] http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2279842/How-to-Dominate-the-Entire-First-Page-of-Bing