Can Current SEO Processes Survive Privacy Regulations?

You might have heard that Google Analytics has been banned in the EU on the grounds that it violates the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) published in 2016.

This is an oversimplification of the situation because there is no single European ruling that deems Google Analytics (GA) illegal. However, the Data Protection Authorities (DPA) in Austria, Denmark, France and Italy recently conducted a joint investigation and concluded that the way GA processes data from users in the EU may indeed be illegal.

The heart of the matter

The core issue is that Google is headquartered in the US, and, as a US company, is required to comply with the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act. This means that they are obliged to transmit all the data they hold to the US authorities, including personal data collected from users in the EU. The DPA investigation found that Google’s transmission of data under the CLOUD Act may infringe GDPR by constituting a transfer of personal data outside the EU.

What are the consequences for SEO professionals, website owners and anyone else in Europe potentially affected by these findings? Like the situation itself, they are not necessarily simple.

Google’s response

The first thing to note is that the findings by the Austrian, Danish, French and Italian DPAs relate only to the Google Analytics tool. GDPR-compliant alternatives such as Fathom do not collect the same level of data as GA, and therefore do not infringe European data protection legislation.

The second thing to note is that the concerns raised relate to the version of GA that was available when the investigation was conducted: Google Analytics 3.

Google responded by releasing Google Analytics 4, which has some crucial differences from the previous version. These are intended to circumvent the potential legal problems inherent in transmitting user data from the EU to the US. For example, GA4 determines the user’s location by their IP address, which it then deletes. Users can also opt to anonymise their IP addresses – if they do, this takes place before any data is collected at all.

The consequences for SEO

Another repercussion of the new version of Analytics is that certain data, such as  bounce rate is no longer accessible in GA4. These metrics can be useful for SEO purposes – although precisely how useful they are is a matter for debate – but many people have come to rely on them. Fortunately, Google has provided alternative ways to measure user engagement on a web page in GA4 that could arguably be better than the old Bounce Rate metric.

Given the potential legal implications, it’s unlikely that Google will add these metrics back into Google Analytics. So SEO professionals and website owners will probably need to adjust to life without them in the long term. In the meantime, their absence necessarily has an impact on how user engagement (an SEO ranking factor) is measured and reported.

Michelle Symonds of Ditto Digital comments:

“You (Chris Plummer) got me thinking that it isn’t a matter of time before Google adds that data; some of it will never be available again and SEO professionals will need to adjust their monitoring and reporting processes.”.

For the professionals, this impact is likely to be less from the start. The introduction of GDPR has already forced many SEO specialists to change the way they work, relying on anonymised data and optimising their clients’ websites for effective, GDPR-compliant strategies such as keyword use. The new restrictions on Google Analytics are less of a shock in this context.

There’s a bigger impact on marketers and website owners who rely on paid advertising. Paid ads rely on cookies, which collect personal data. Since users in the EU must legally be able to review – and reject – cookies, this means that data protection legislation has a direct impact on how effective paid advertising can be. And it means that removing personal data from an easily accessible source such as Google Analytics has a more direct effect.

Past and present

“If your dataset becomes something very different, you lose your history, you lose being able to reference your current data back to historical data.” 

Michelle Symonds, Ditto Digital

But anyone who’s used to relying on Google Analytics will have an adjustment to make. A key component of an effective long-term SEO strategy is being able to understand your current data with reference to the data collected in the past. Lose access to certain types of data, and your dataset changes on a fundamental level. To put it simply, you lose your history.

For SEO professionals and their existing clients, this is an issue we don’t yet quite know how to solve. It’s likely that data will have to be captured from different sources in future. However, there is one way to maximise SEO benefit, and it’s one many business owners don’t consider: server-side rendering.

Most websites are built with at least some JavaScript, and the majority of those use client-side rendering. This is where the JavaScript for a given website is rendered in the visitor’s browser, rather than on the website’s server. In contrast, server-side rendering assembles the website on the server itself and then delivers it to the browser. You’ll find a fuller explanation here.

Client-side rendering is the default, and it’s also the cheapest, easiest option for website owners. But, while server-side rendering involves more cost – both for the server itself and in terms of technical expertise – it has a positive knock-on effect on SEO. Because the website arrives fully assembled, search engine bots can crawl it quickly and in full, resulting in better rankings as well as a faster and more intuitive user experience.

“It will have a positive knock-on effect for SEO.”

Michelle Symonds, Ditto Digital

Looking to the future

The recent conclusions about Google Analytics are rightly worrying. While it would be incorrect to say that GA has been banned outright across the EU, individual DPAs increasingly agree that its use is a legal concern. And we don’t yet know whether Google’s response will be deemed adequate by the European Data Protection Authorities.

It’s also the case that GDPR compliance – which is legally required, on pain of serious financial consequences – has had its own impact on website design. Necessary features such as privacy notices and opt-in forms, such as newsletter sign-ups, need to be clearly visible and accessible without getting in the way of the user experience.

At Freestyle Internet, we create clean, compliant and effective websites that help your business grow. SEO is an integral part of our approach. If you have any questions or would like to explore working together, just contact us or go directly to our calendar to book your 30-minute discussion call.