So you've most likely heard the news, or seen the alarming change in your Google Analytics data. Specifically, the organic search keyword data. This recent development is currently making waves in the Search industry, causing SEOs and web marketers to feel lost and well, angry.
In October 2011, Google changed the way it gathers data to protect personalized search. When a user is signed in to any Google product (Gmail, Youtube, or any Google Account), his search activities are conducted over SSL, or what we call secure search.
You'll notice this when you access Google.com. Google redirects its pages to https:// which means, your user data are taken off Google Analytics, and webmasters are not able to access that information.
Take note that your keyword search activities are still being tracked by Google, only now, they are hidden from website owners and webmasters.
Since then, keyword referrals from secure Google search pages appear in Google Analytics under the keyword group "(not provided)" instead of the actual search terms.
When Google started rolling this out, they assured webmasters that they "will continue to see aggregate query data without any change; only the queries for signed-in user visits will be affected."
For the past 2 years, SEOs and online marketers lived with it, trying to ignore the glaring (not provided) keyword that dug a hole in our GA traffic reports.
The gradual increase of (not provided) data
Gradually, marketers started to notice that the (not provided) keyword is getting more and more hits, which poses a grave threat on the accuracy of our data. Many have offered solutions to overcome this missing link.
I included the publish dates of these resources for reference.
- Smarter Analysis of Google's https (not provided) change, November 21, 2011: Analytics Guru and Digital Marketing Evangelist (Google), Avinash Kaushik discussed 5 ways to dig into GA (not provided) data. Hardcore data stuff.
- Google Analytics: Overcoming (Not Provided) Keywords, November 7, 2012: As early as November 2012, Jaime Brugueras of Practical E-commerce noticed that his website's keyword data showed 36% (not provided). He offered tips on how to overcome this missing data. I think some of his points are still applicable today.
- How to Unlock Your 'Not Provided' Keywords in Google Analytics, February 5, 2013: Kissmetrics listed down its own methods to work around the (not provided) issue.
- How To Measure Branded Search Traffic in the 'Not Provided' Age, July 24, 2013: Econsultancy suggested other metrics to offset the impact of (not provided) specifically to branded search. At this point, the author thought there was still enough data to make reasonably accurate guesses.
The death of organic keyword research as we know it
Many of us probably didn't realize that the death of the Keyword Tool was an indication of things to come. Seems like Google was preparing us for an even more tragic death. As someone who uses Keyword Tool every single day, it took me a while to get over the death of (what felt like) an old friend.
And now, not only are we deprived of access to data we used to easily get off Keyword Tool—exact match, global and local monthly search data, device targeting, “closely related” search term filter, etc—we are also deprived of access to our own websites' keyword data.
On September 23, a discussion on Threadwatch erupted with confirmations that Google Analytics has rolled out (not provided) up at an alarming rate overnight.
ClickConsult put up a website specifically to track these changes, and at the time of this writing, (not provided) is up at 76%
At this rate, (not provided) will hit 100% by November 30, 2013, says ClickConsult.
One of the websites we manage also showed above 70% (not provided) count.
At this point, the keyword search data is too small a sample already to qualify for any sound keyword assumptions.
Chaos in the Search Industry
Google has a way of shaking up our little world of search. Some of us are still recovering from recent Penguin and Panda updates, and here now Google drops another bomb on us.
You know something is up when Moz publishes a Whiteboard Friday on a Tuesday. And you know it's big when major search engine news sites and industry experts erupt with the news almost simultaneously:
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- Rand Fishkin thinks this is very troubling and concerning, if you're a web marketer.
- Barry Schwartz thinks this should make every webmaster, marketer and SEO angry.
- Aaron Wall thinks that if this move is for the sake of user safety, then Google should block paid search referrals as well.
- Danny Sullivan presents theories on why Google did this, including possibly to boost ad sales.
All in the name of privacy
The official Google Analytics blog is mum about this recent development as of yet, but Danny Sullivan was able to get confirmation from a Google representative:
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.
And there you go. In a sudden turn of events, secure search is now Google's default setting, even for users who are not signed in.
Is secure search really a good thing for users?
I like the way Rand Fishkin explained this major concern in his Whiteboard Tuesday, emphasis mine:
Today I'm going to talk about this extremely troublesome and worrisome problem that Google has expanded "keyword (not provided)" potentially to 100% of all organic referrals. This isn't necessarily that they've flipped the entire switch, and everyone's going to see it this week, but certainly over the next several months, it's been suggested, we may receive no keyword data at all in referrals from Google. Very troubling and concerning, obviously, if you're a web marketer.
I think it should be very troubling and concerning if you're a web user as well, because marketers don't use this data to do evil things or invade people's privacy. Marketers use this data to make the web a better place. The agreement that marketers have always had—that website creators have always had—with search engines, since their inception was, "sure, we'll let you crawl our sites, you provide us with the keyword data so that we can improve the Internet together. I think this is Google abusing their monopolistic position in the United States. Unfortunately, I don't really see a way out of it. I don't think marketers can make a strong enough case politically or to consumer groups to get this removed.
Admittedly, there was once a time when SEO was a game of numbers. Time and time again SEOs abused the organic search, automating content, harvesting links, and manipulating rankings. And while many SEOs are still promising keyword rankings and high PR/DA links to date, I'd like to think we know better now.
Rand hit the nail hard in the head when he said that some of us do want to make the web a better place, and search a better experience. Ideally, search engines and marketers should come together in a mutual give-and-take relationship to accomplish this.
Pre-(not provided) era
Back then, marketers are able to optimize their pages with relevant keywords to improve search visibility, in order to put their content where people can see.
Back then, marketers are able to understand their market better because they know exactly what website visitors are looking for.
Contrary to what others might think, there's a noble and charitable side to this thing online marketers do.
Because of the search industry, everyone now has an access to thousands of relevant resources in the web, materials that took a lot of time and effort to research, content that are based on relevant keyword data intelligently stringed together.
Because of this industry, everyone is able to easily find and research about products and services that he needs, wherever in the world he is.
Because of this industry, websites have gone through months of Google Analytics optimisation, years even, in order to give the user a better experience.
And all of these were possible because marketers
have had access to keyword data that helped them understand their market better.
It's not Google who makes these great content you can access every single day. Google is merely curating them. That said, Google taking away this important piece of data from marketers is just plain wrong.
Now, webmasters and online marketers are operating in the dark, wide-guessing who our audience are.
Alert levels are up; we're keeping watch on the next developments and brainstorming possible ways to move forward from here. Some random questions in my head:
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- So we have no choice but to depend on Webmaster Tools for keyword data, but someone proved that Webmaster Tools data is worthless. What's the next best keyword metric to use?
- Oh, but Webmaster Tools is also Google's, so should we expect that it's the next one in the death row?
- Will SEOs still have jobs tomorrow, or should we all be PPC experts now? #halfkidding [/checklist]
But I do know one thing. The (organic) search industry has been around for years--through algorithm changes, Google penalties, long days and sleepless nights.
Google took away something that's relevant to the way we do our job, but online marketers always, always, find ways.