How Many of Your Visitors Are Logged In to Google?

With Google’s announcement that logged in users will now be, by default, passed through SSL causing you to lose valuable keyword tracking data, you may be wondering how to find out how many users actually are logged in. While the change was in response to legitimate informational leakage concerns, it has left many in the webmaster community concerned with the impact it may have on our ability to track simple, non-private information such as the keyword which generated the search (more info here from our Analytics team). We have been looking at this number on one particular site for quite a while. In this case, we looked at 135,000 unique visitors from Google to a site over a period of 3 months. As you can see in the graph below, we are able to chart the percentage that are and are not logged in to Google. From our tests, the numbers do bear out that right around 10% are logged into Google at any given time.

If you would like to perform this test, you will need to follow the instructions on on the next link provided. I will go ahead and warn you, the method of acquiring this information isn’t exactly the nicest thing in the world. The image used in the example is no longer available, so I would imagine that Google frowns upon this kind of methodology of getting data. We have subsequently stopped running the tests ourselves, but knowledge is power. The method for tracking this was presented by Mike Cardwell, who exposed this method over at his blog a while ago. It involves loading images that you can only get access to if you are logged in, then using Javascript to check whether they loaded successfully or not. Be careful.

The Big Data Concern
The problem with losing 10% of your tracking data is not that the number represents a significant impact on your data at large. The problem is that it creates a real, unavoidable selection bias in your Google Analytics. There are, more likely than not, substantive differences between individuals who tend to be logged in and those who do not. Subsequently, conversion statistics generated from organic data in Google may misrepresent the actual behavior of your general user base because it neglects to include that 10%. This is especially important if that 10% proves to be a valuable, higher converting audience (which could be related to their technological savvy, for example).

The Legitimate Frustration
Virante has been a strong proponent of search privacy and have actually run our own advocacy campaigns to encourage Google, Yahoo and Bing to up their efforts. However, this particular change is frustrating for myriad reasons.

  1. It is hard to enunciate a reason why hiding the immediate search history of a user from their destination site is a pressing concern
  2. The user gives him/herself away the second they leave the HTTPS environment – perhaps not revealing the keyword, but at least revealing the destination
  3. Google clearly has a method of tracking and displaying keyword activity for Adwords users, but has chosen not to include this in Google Analytics.
  4. If Google believes there is a strong reason to use HTTPS, there is no clear reason to restrict it only to logged in users, seeing as Google personalizes all search results to some degree.

In my opinion, Google should simply redirect users through a page that would carry referrers, unloading them to HTTP at least whenever they are visiting a site this is not secure. The entire search session would remain private until the user chose to exit the service by visiting a page. If that page was not secure, nothing substantive is given up in privacy to insert a simple redirect that would carry the keyword referrer onto the webmaster. You could image how much better the response from webmasters would be if Google’s announcement said “and, we are protecting your referrers!”

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  1. Koozai Mike
    Oct 19, 2011

    Nice to see that Google are right Russ. I’d be curious to see if this number went up following the launch of Google+ as I’m sure that will drive the figure up more in the future.

    Quite surprising it’s so low really when you consider all the Gmail, AdWords, Analytics, iGoogle and Google+ accounts.

  2. Ryan Jones
    Oct 19, 2011

    I think I stumbled upon a better method – although just as questionably ethical.

    If you have adsense on your page, it uses your Google cookie to serve you custom ads. You should only have that google cookie if you’re logged in.

    So couldn’t you just look at the server variable HTTP_COOKIE to see what the browser is passing. It should be pretty obvious what you’re looking for in that string. Should work for identifying logged in users and possibly even organic search no?

  3. Salvatore Surra
    Oct 21, 2011

    Great test and glad someone performed it and show their data versus trying this on every site. I was a little concern over their comments that this loss in data would only affect a single digit percentage, but seeing your results makes me a little more confident in that assessment. I was thinking it would be closer to 25% of the traffic, but surely not below 20% so seeing that your actually reporting that the logged in users are closer to the single digit area means that Google was safe to say that the loss would only occur at that level. I’m still not happy about losing 10% of the data, but I guess it could be worse. However, I’m wondering how much will be lost in the future as Google pushes G+ more and people are getting used to being signed in while surfing on Google.

  4. Alan Charnock
    Oct 24, 2011

    I bet the number has porbably doubled since the launch of Google plus,I run three of four Google accounts on different browsers and im logged in 99% of the time, so in my eyes your figures are a little low.

  5. Chad Burgess
    Oct 29, 2011

    SeatGeek’s non-paid google traffic appears to have only 2% of users logged-in. That seems low, but it’s what I am seeing in Google analytics for not provided visits / total google organic visits.

  6. W3B
    Nov 1, 2011

    Google plus is not a problem. Gmail – how many of us use gmail and are logged in all the time? This is bad. But fortunately we have other ways.

  7. A SEO in Denver
    Feb 22, 2012

    We have been watching this statistic for 20 local sites in Denver. Our results show it closer to 35%, starting January 1, 2012. Could be the audience.

    We are spending a lot more time with the content reports, as that’s the big clue on keywords that are not available.


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