In October 2011, Google began encrypting searches for signed in users, resulting in a small and growing percentage of searches in web analytics that appear as “[not provided].” Initially Google’s head of search spam, Matt Cutts, estimated that the number of secure searches would be in the single digits. However, today it’s much larger. When Resolution Media technology partner Bright Edge tracked “[not provided]” searches across 8,000 of their clients, they reported that on average, 49% of searches are not passing a keyword through to web analytics. For two years, marketers have had to use workarounds to determine conversions from keywords, as the total number was no longer provided in analytics for Google searches. ComScore estimated that Google sites represent 67% of US Search traffic in August 2013.
On September 23, 2013, Search Engine Land broke the news that Google is slowly moving toward secure search for 100% of searchers, with Google saying “it’s a good thing for users.”
How it Works
When a user searches on Google, there’s a very good chance that their search will be encrypted, and will show up as “[not provided]” or some variant in web analytics reports. Keyword-level data has been disappearing from web analytics since 2011, and it will continue to disappear as Google moves to 100% encrypted searches.
Keyword data is still available in different sources. For example, traffic and conversions for Bing and other sources is still available for marketers to analyze. Data is also available in Google Webmaster Tools, but that data is limited to the first 2,000 terms and to 90 days if you haven’t synced it with Google Analytics. The webmaster tools data will not be tied to conversions, but it’s a suitable replacement for organic keywords in web analytics. The best data is available in the new paid and natural search report in Google AdWords, as the data is real time and not rounded to buckets. And for AdWords customers, conversions are still available for paid search keywords, as they always have been.
Many workarounds have been introduced in the two years since the secure search change happened, but many of them relied on some keyword data being available in web analytics and will be obsolete with this new update.
Not the End of SEO
What marketers are losing in this change is organic keyword data in web analytics. What we still have is more data than we had ten years ago and more than enough data to optimize web sites for natural search traffic. Optimization becomes more difficult with this change, but nowhere near impossible.
Most use this keyword data for tracking conversions and on-site actions at the keyword level, which is not available in alternative tools such as Google Trends or Bing Ad Intelligence. So from now on in web analytics, an analyst won’t be able to tell that they sell more blue widgets from the keyword [blue widgets] in Google than any other keyword. However, if they focus on organic revenue overall they still know whether their optimizations are working, and if they focus on organic revenue per URL, they can make optimization decisions at the page level just as they had before.
While the lack of keyword data in analytics will prevent us from easily seeing top converting keywords in Google organic data, AdWords customers can still see top paid search converting keywords in AdWords as before. The data is not apples to apples, but it can help us recover some of the data that we’ve lost with this change.
1) Not Entirely Good for Users
Part of what has made Google so successful as a company is that they have a laser focus on improving their products based on large amounts of user data. Search engine optimization uses keyword data as a proxy for user intent, and SEOs make web sites more user-friendly by incorporating that data. Now we have a less clear picture of what users want, and will have a more difficult time focusing our web sites on their needs.
2) Will Require Workarounds to Get Keyword-Level Conversion Data from Google
At Resolution Media we will implement workarounds so that our clients don’t notice that big of a shift. For the short term, we will look at the URL, keyword by URL and track lift in organic revenue to model optimizations for that keyword. In the long term we will build forecasting into ClearTarget so that we can get an estimate of revenue by keyword based on the data that we have.
3) Shift Focus to Business Metrics for SEO
At Resolution Media, we’ve historically tried to educate our clients as to the most important metrics for understanding success in natural search results, and keyword data has always taken a backseat to overall natural search traffic & revenue. Number one ranking on a prized keyword doesn’t mean anything if revenue or on-site actions from organic search is trending down overall. It’s good to know what’s profitable at the keyword level, but as marketers, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger picture.
This lack of transparency into conversions at the keyword level will hopefully empower everyone in an organization to focus on the metrics that matter for the business. Keyword data is important — but not the most important; and if this change helps us shift our focus to different metrics in pursuit of SEO success it’s a good thing in our estimation.
Working with Google to Provide Insights
Being a digital marketing agency that offers both paid and natural search services to enterprise clients means that Google is one of our biggest partners. We’re setting up meetings with our Google representatives to discuss how this affects our clients, as well as potential workarounds that have worked for other businesses. We do have input into certain Google products and services and may be able to find a way to recover some of this data without violating user privacy.
“[not provided]” has been growing steadily for the past two years and it will get to 100% of natural search keywords soon as Google moves entirely to secure search. As mentioned in point one, it deprives users of web pages that are geared to their user intent in aggregate. SEO is not in danger, as we still have plenty of data to optimize web sites with. However, it will require workarounds in order to get it. We will work with Google to ensure that our workarounds are comprehensive. Hopefully one positive change that will come from this is a shift of focus for SEOs from keyword level metrics to business metrics that better define SEO success.
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