On October 18th, Google announced that they have decided to make the default method for searches encrypted. In layman's terms, this means that, when a user is logged in to a Google account, through Gmail, Google+, or any other of their services, site owners will no longer be able to see exactly how a user found their site. While this change will rouse annoyance from quite a few site owners, it actually presents a great opportunity for attentive SEOs who do high-quality work, and might even put a dent in the prominence of so-called 'content farms'.
Before this change, site owners using Google Analytics, Adobe Omniture, or any other decent web analytics package, could track the actual search term that a user entered into Google to get to their site. On our own site, for example, we could track how many of our visitors had searched for 'chicago search marketing' before coming to our home page. Beyond that, we could track their behavior once they landed on our site; Analytics would let us know if those visitors were likely to click around to various pages of our site, and how they differed from users who entered something like 'chicago internet marketing'.
In short, search queries allowed us to better target our pages, and to ensure that our content was speaking to our visitors. It was an extremely valuable feature to have. And while the changes only affect a small percent of searchers (users logged in to Google), overcoming its removal will take some creativity on the part of SEOs and site owners.
We've always felt that targeting and tracking content to specific keywords is a legitimate and useful tactic, but taken to extremes it has been one of the driving forces behind sites like eHow.com and bleacherreport.com. These sites, called content farms, have exploited the data provided by query reports to create multiple versions of essential identical, largely useless pages, each of which was targeted towards specific variations of keywords (eHow, for example, has several different pages dedicated to 'How to make a Cheeseteak Sandwich', 'How to Make a Chees esteak Sandwich Easily', and 'How to Make a Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich'). Ultimately, these sites took advantage of the data to create low-quality pages that polluted search results.
Although we can't track keywords directly for Google users anymore, attentive internet marketers will still be able to make plenty of indirect inferences of how users got to a site. One obvious example is that we can place a greater focus on quality pages, rather than keywords. Without extremely granular information on every single keyword used to reach their site, it will be more important than ever to focus on creating quality pages that target a set of keywords. This is good for users, and also levels the competitive landscape for owners of high-quality sites.
It's important to note that the recent changes are only a minor issue. Google estimates that only about 10% of searches will be effected, since users are only logged in some of the time. That being said, it's not hard to imagine that this change could be just a precursor to changes in the future, and that eventually, we might not be able to see any query information from any Google search.