It is this problem with which Google, its competitors, and search marketers must increasingly contend, according to a new study out of Cambridge, Mass.
The study -- conducted and authored by Catherine Tucker, a management science professor at MIT specializing in marketing and economics; and Alex Marthews, president of anti-warrantless surveillance advocacy group Digital Fourth -- examined Google search trends in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations of NSA and other government surveillance over the past year. Their research revealed that people in the United States and several other countries have apparently been self-censoring in their Googling habits since news of Snowden's leaks to the press broke.
Using 2012 and 2013 Google Trends data to compare search habits in 11 countries before and after June 6, 2013 (when news broke that the NSA was tracking Internet activity and monitoring cellular subscribers), Tucker and Marthews found that searches for Department of Homeland Security watchlist terms and dozens of other terms deemed via survey "embarrassing," "private," and/or "trouble[some]" have fallen by a statistically significant amount. This is particularly true in the US, the UK, and Canada. The researchers compared these search trends against those of a control group of Google's "top" 50 search terms of 2013.
"This study is the first to provide substantial empirical documentation of a chilling effect... that appears to be related to increased awareness of government surveillance online," the researchers write.
Already, this "increased awareness" has harmed the US cloud market. The rest of the tech sector, Tucker and Marthews argue, could well follow because of it.
"At the most limited end of the spectrum, it could steer [international users] away from conducting certain searches on US search engines," they write. "At the most severe end of the spectrum, they might choose to use non-US search engines." Tucker and Marthews even acknowledge that the total number of searches for the sensitive terms they tested for may not have actually decreased -- but, rather, decreased on Google (whose data is known to have been compromised by the NSA). Indeed, DuckDuckGo -- a search engine service that boasts the slogan "Google tracks you. We don't" -- saw a 90% rise in its direct queries within two weeks of the first NSA revelations on June 6.
These issues may also cause SEO specialists to rethink their keyword strategies. For a very basic example, a disaster recovery firm could see fewer hits because of reduced searches on, say, "disaster." Additionally, if people aren't Googling -- and thus submitting data that drives targeted marketing -- the trend could stunt ROI for online campaigns. This, in turn, could lead to reduced revenue for companies like Google as marketers hedge their bets with other search marketing options.
Tucker and Marthews suspect that Google could be similarly vulnerable in other avenues of its business, beyond search. "For example," they write, "as Google's services are embedded in a large array of products, [the government surveillance revelations] could potentially hinder sales of Android-enabled mobile phones."
"On the basis of the effects we find, the strong possibility of substantial economic effects exists," the pair conclude. "Such potential adverse economic impacts should be incorporated into the thinking of policy makers regarding the appropriateness of mass surveillance programs."