New Firefox Version to Encrypt Search Terms

It’s been publicised by Mozilla (operator of Firefox) as a great leap forward in web privacy practices. The latest update to their browser included a feature that made all search terms submitted when using their browser, encrypted.

Essentially they were saying that all search activity when using Firefox, would be kept out of the hands of anyone. This is often called referrer data. However it seems that the update will only apply to unethical “eavesdroppers” and not Google themselves.

Google SSL Search

Firefox will actually just be using Google SSL Search by default. This feature is set up to provide end-to-end encryption for any search terms used.

So it stops any non-secure sites or networks from seeing referrer strings (what they call search term data) but Google still gets the data. The exception states that while they won’t send referrer data when you navigate from a secure site to a non-secure site, they will if you navigate between secure sites. This means that the search terms you used to find a website on Google’s SERP won’t be shared with that website, but they will share it when you click sponsored links.

Google and Their Advertisers Still in the Fold

Google are using a loophole to still provide referrer data to their advertisers, if you click on one of their ads as a result of your search query. Search suggestions will also make use of search data, regardless of encryption settings.

This feature came out when Google stated that search terms could be considered sensitive information. Mozilla argues that Google are within their rights to have access to this data, as you’re communicating directly with them. However, the main complaint was that Firefox was misrepresenting the extent of this encryption.

So while your search behaviour is safe from network administrators on public networks and pages in the organic web results, referrer data will still be sent along to advertisers on Google. This makes sense to Google whose revenue stream is tied to advertising and being able to provide search behaviour data. It is a black mark on their credibility though.

SEO Implications

The concession is good news Google Ads advertisers, who can still see which search terms users entered, but for optimisers, this means an even further reduction of the amount of organic search terms that will be available via Analytics, as Firefox’s move will be cumulative with Google’s already existing policy of excluding organic search terms entered by Google users who are logged into their Google account. (Google Ads search terms are still transmitted, regardless of whether you are logged in or not.)

As a result of this move, organic search term data on Firefox, however, will effectively disappear. This poses problems for SEO practitioners, as organic and paid search behaviour to tend to differ in certain ways, particularly with searches for commercial versus non-commercial websites.