In 2011 Google started removing keyword data for users who make searches while signed in to a Google account. The keyword information for these users began showing up in Google Analytics as “(not provided)”.
The amount of search traffic coming in without keyword data was small at first, but has steadily grown, particularly for tech and online marketing related sites. A month ago our own blog was sitting at 70% or more traffic labeled as not provided. Across our clients this was not as big an increase, with values ranging from 30-50% for an average site we handle.
The percentage of searches with no keyword data being passed has been increasing a lot more lately. Search Engine Land has a quote from Google confirming that they are working towards applying this encryption to all organic search traffic.
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What does this mean?
What this means is that very soon you will not get any keyword data for Google search entries to your site. You will be left with three primary options for making decisions regarding your SEO:
- What pages are getting search entries (organic landing page report).
- Google Webmaster Tools data.
- Keyword ranking reports run by a third-party (or compiled yourself).
Each of these has problems of course. For instance, as an SEO you probably want to know whether certain keywords are driving conversions. You would also generally want to know overall how brand name traffic differs from non-brand searches. This type of analysis is impossible.
The landing page report can be combined with historical data to allow for an educated guess at what percentage of organic traffic coming into the page is branded or non-branded. This will be a pretty weak analysis, particularly as your historical data ages. Totally clean data is already getting on for 2 years old.
Keyword ranking reports are only going to become more important for the time being. This is very frustrating because not only are these reports inaccurate due to all the ways search results can vary thanks to personalization, but of course Google really doesn’t want you running these reports in the first place. In the last year or two some services that provided ranking report data and other information based on scraped data were faced with revocation of their AdWords API access, ostensibly because of these features.
The Webmaster Tools data is still there at least, and can be brought into your Analytics if linked. However, this data is heavily obfuscated. It only shows you a fraction of all search traffic data, misses certain metrics completely, and those that are provided are usually rounded to the nearest 100 at best (the exception being numbers below 100).
So what now?
At the moment it doesn’t appear that this change has been fully rolled out. It’s more consistently showing for U.S. focused sites compared to Canadian or UK ones from what I’m seeing. It’s possible that Google might reverse their decision, but quite unlikely.
Chances are good that you’re just going to have to get used to doing non-keyword traffic analysis. As noted above, there may be some good ways to cross reference various data to make decent educated guesses, but that’s the best you can hope for. We’ve already been steadily progressing towards this for more than a year, so hopefully you already have had plenty of opportunity to practice this kind of analysis.
Why would Google do this?
Google has been positioning this as a privacy change to protect their users. There are some merits to this argument, but at the same time PPC traffic is still going to be fully available for analysis. Similarly, the privacy concerns over keyword data are minimal at best.
What many will point to is that this is just another way to make PPC a more attractive offering. At the end of the day Google is a for-profit and publically traded business. They have shareholders to answer to. The harder they make it to make good decisions about SEO, the more likely it is that they’ll make more money from AdWords. As frustrated businesses, particularly smaller ones, find it harder and harder to be sure they can justify putting time, effort and/or budget toward SEO, that budget will naturally move over to AdWords with its more easily provable ROI.
It’s really not that hard to reduce virtually every decision Google makes to a profit motive. Just look at their high speed fiber internet offerings or the announcement of free wifi from balloons. Efforts like these may seem altruistic, but they’re a good investment because they’ll help people use the internet more, which means more Google use, which means more advertising revenue.