(not provided) - Google flicks the switch to secure search

William Julian-Vicary

Strategy & Innovation Director

This post discusses the increase of "(not provided)" as a search term shown within Google Analytics Organic Keyword Report (which shows what keywords users searched for to get to a website). For more information on what "(not provided)" is check out http://www.notprovidedcount.com/what-is-not-provided/

Everyone in the search world knew it was coming, but I think we all thought we might have had a few more months before Google pulled the plug on our precious keyword visit data.

Initially affecting purely logged in users only a small fraction of website visits had the dreaded (Not Provided) keyword, fast-forward almost 100 weeks and its a very different story. Google has now moved to redirect all traffic through secure search, meaning very soon Google organic keywords will hit 100% "Not Provided".

Why Google, Why?

There is, as with anything Google does, speculation and rumours around the web about why this move has happened and how they are evil, doing this for profit, hating on webmasters etc.

However Google's official statement via SearchEngineLand is as follows:

We want to provide SSL protection to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can — we added non-signed-in Chrome omnibox searches earlier this year, and more recently other users who aren’t signed in. We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users….

The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.

Whether or not you believe Google's claim, that this is all for search users, does not matter. Common opinion and voice will not change anything. Not Provided will hit 100% and we, as search marketers, need to adapt.

What Next?

Now that the Not Provided percentage is so high it does make our jobs harder, KPIs will need to change, organic traffic can no longer be separated by brand/non-brand keywords, understanding if keywords are worth targeting is more of a challenge, etc.

But not all is lost, there are methods to help understand which keywords users are searching for. They just got a little bit trickier:

  • Google Webmaster Tools is now more essential than ever - use the Search Queries interface to discover keywords users are searching for.
  • Use Landing Pages rather than keywords to understand what content users are looking at - if you see a spike on a page about Wedding Dresses its pretty likely you gained some ground for some keywords related to that page!
  • Run comprehensive ranking reports - I would argue the importance of a ranking report has increased significantly following this change. I'm not talking about tracking a handful of keywords - track hundreds, or thousands, and look for trends - if you see Wedding Dress related keywords increase in rank and the Wedding Dress pages' traffic increases then that's a pretty strong correlation.
  • Run some Adwords - whilst not always practical, running even a short term adwords campaign will allow you to observe keywords that have a high number of impressions and running with phrase, broad and broad-match modifier match types will allow you to uncover the long tail. Use exact match to analyse a specific keyword you’re working on to try to pre-empt how it will perform.

Whilst this change does take us all out of our comfort zones with analysing SEO performance, all is not lost. As with all things SEO – we just have to adapt.

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