Google search change could foil companies

This April 12, 2012, photo shows a Google logo on a window at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

(MoneyWatch) Google (GOOG) turns 15 years old today, and the search giant is celebrating its primacy in the Internet world by making the kind of change to its practices that regularly ripples across the entire industry. It's good to be the king.

In addition to retooling of its search algorithms so they can handle increasingly complex queries, Google has moved everyone to secure searches. That means important information about people's interests and habits that online marketers gathered for years is no longer readily available. As a result, many companies suddenly must reconsider how they attract potential customers to their websites.

Although other search engines, notably Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing, have tried to attract users, Google still gets about two-thirds of all online searches. That makes the company vital to marketers. In the past, when people searched for something on Google and then clicked on a link, Google would relay the keyword search terms to the destination website.

Three years ago,  however, Google made encrypted search an option for those who wanted to use it. Among other things, that meant Google no longer passed the keyword information to the destination site in those searches. In 2011, the company also moved to encrypted search for people signed into their Google accounts. Google claimed at the time the move was about user privacy, but many marketers suspected it was in fact a move to drive them to pay for such data.

Under this latest change, all searches are now being encrypted. Here's an explanation that Google provided to the site SearchEngineWatch:

"We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year," a Google spokesperson told Search Engine Watch. "We're now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in."

There are some workarounds for the lack of data using some other Google tools, but the process is slower and less accurate.

The upshot for many companies is that they'll need to become less reliant on keywords in collecting customer data and focus more on providing content that is of value to the people they want to reach.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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