not providedThe internet went nuts a couple of days ago (or at least, the SEO world of it did) when Google confirmed that it would be encrypting almost all keyword searches in the near future. The Not provided Google Analytics section has easily become the most talked about thing in the past.

Various industry professionals weighed in on the change, what it means for marketers and what other options we have to inform our marketing choices.

Let’s take a look at what happened exactly, and then we’ll explore what kind of responses we’ve seen to the change so far.

Google confirms a change

After encrypting search terms from signed-in users in 2011, Google is now expanding that protection to all users. This means that marketers and website owners will see these keywords as simply “(not provided)” in their analytics.

Google didn’t make an official announcement to kick this off, but made the change quietly, only offering an explanation after being asked directly about it:

We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.

Search Engine Land reported that since July 2012, “not provided” keywords have been steadily increasing, as Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome have all started encrypting search terms, even for users who aren’t signed in to Google.

The real shock came in the last month, when the number of keyword terms listed as “not provided” spiked dramatically:

not provided google analytics

While Google did confirm that this will continue until pretty much all keyword terms are hidden, Google’s AdWords system does allow for keyword terms to be shown, still:

Publishers can still see these terms by going into the Google Webmaster Tools area, though they only see the top 2000 per day and only going back for 90 days (something Google said will increase to one year, in the future).

How the SEO world responded and the real impact on marketers

So let’s take a look at how the industry has responded to this change, and what kind of impact it will have on marketers and website owners.

Search Engine Land pointed out the possiblity that this could be a plan to create more advertising revenue for Google, since AdWords customers can view and save keyword data:

It’s an odd change to withhold search data from non-advertising publishers within the publishing support tool Google created for them but suddenly make them available in an alternative fashion through the ad system, one that suggest it’s all been part of a plan to create new Google advertisers.

Aaron Aders, the Co-Founder of digitalrelevance told HubSpot that this could be a good thing for digital marketing in general:

This move by Google will force SEO marketers to focus on business results rather than keywords – which is where the focus should be anyway.

Aaron’s point is that there are so many more important ways for marketers to be spending their time, like “lead generation, growing branded communities, and earning brand mentions,” instead of focusing solely on optimising for keyword searches.

Larry Kim, the Founder and CTO of WordStream, offered an alternative way of optomizing website content:

I’d argue that tracking organic content at a page level, rather than an individual keyword level, makes a lot more sense given the recent increases in keyword ranking volatility.

Larry also pointed out that other search engines are not following suit, so any keyword searches coming from Bing, Yahoo and others will give you some idea of the keywords that are most useful to you.

Lee Odden at TopRank blog wrote about some suggestions for content marketers, who might be used to relying on keyword terms for idea-generation, including using the keywords available to you if you’re an AdWords customers, and using a keyword research tool like Ubersuggest to get general ideas of search query syntax.

He also pointed out that monitoring social media can be useful for this purpose, and that any searches on your website’s internal search engine can provide ideas about the topics your customers are interested in.

Rand Fishkin, Founder and CEO of Moz, said that one of the biggest tolls this change will take is removing the ability for marketers to show the results of their efforts in improving search traffic (or at least making it a lot harder). Without proof that new search traffic is being generated, marketers will have a harder time defending their work.

What to do if you need those keywords

A couple of different marketers offered some suggestions of ways to find the keywords you need after this change takes full effect.

1. Track pages that target keywords

Kristi Hines pointed out at KISSmetrics that if you know which keywords you’re targeting with each page of your website, you can use that knowledge to your advantage.

not provided google analytics landing pages

By adding a search term for the source “google” to your Google Analytics reports, you can see exactly which pages are being sent traffic from Google, which can help you to work out which keywords are improving your organic search traffic.

not provided google analytics advanced search

2. Monitor anchor text

Another suggestion from Kristi’s post is to keep an eye on the anchor text that is sending traffic to your site. She suggests using a tool like cognitiveSEO that shows a list of the most popular text links that people are following to your site.

not provided google analytics anchor text

This can give you a good idea of what terms are naturally being linked to your site, which might inform the keywords you decide to target.

3. Run AdWords campaigns

Rand Fishkin explored some possible strategies in his Whiteboard Tuesday video on this topic, including paying attention to internal search terms, focusing on page-level search data, rather than keyword-specific data, and using keyword research tools to get broad ideas of keyword volume.

He also pointed out that running AdWords campaigns can be very beneficial in this situation. Although it points to the possibility of Google going against its “don’t be evil” ethos, it could be that Google’s plan is to increase AdWords revenue by removing the keyword data available to customers who don’t run ads.

Still, this is a valid option if you have the budget for ad campaigns, as you’ll receive much more useful data from your AdWords account.

Image credits: Not Provided Count, KISSmetrics

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • “This move by Google will force SEO marketers to focus on business results rather than keywords – which is where the focus should be anyway.”

    I take issue with this statement, certain keyword searches are more actionable than people seeking information. Meaning, certain phrases convert better.

    To my cynical side, Google is concerned about search privacy, unless you are paying for AdWords.

    • James

      It does seem a big fishy. It would have been refreshing if they had come out and said:

      “After offering keyword volume and other metrics for free to the online community, we’ve decided to make keyword-related data a premium feature available to those with active AdWords accounts.”

      But as it is, SEOs might have to siphon a small percentage of each client’s budget to AdWords. And with a few extra steps, they can arrive at nearly the same data if they decide to…

      • With all due respect, it is not the same data, not nearly, not even close. At best it would be a sample to extrapolate. And it’s an additional and direct cost for clients.

        Not clear if AdWords buyers can see my site’s keywords when they buy ads on it. Should I have to buy that as a site owner? And compete with my own adspace?

        As far as Webmaster Tools is concerned, it only shows 30-20% of impressions and clicks.

        And I think that if Google had come out and said that this was financially motivated it would have been even less favorably received. This is Google saying that we are an AdWords company, not a search company, and that organic search keywords optimization undermines that directly.

        • James

          Kyle, maybe you see something I don’t. Maybe we’re talking about different things? Here’s the data I was referring to:

          Keyword-specific [simplified for sake of the example] data we’re used to easily accessing:
          A) Search volume for the kw;
          B) My ranking for the kw;
          C) Site traffic from Google for the kw.

          To arrive at this data then, here’s my comparison:

          To track this keyword-related SEO efforts I would previously:
          1) Use the now defunct external keyword tool for AdWords and search for a keyword phrase, it would show me an estimate of the monthly search volume based on the parameters I set;
          2) Then match this up against keyword ranking data I accessed manually or via 3rd party;
          3) Use Google Analytics to show visits to my page, bounce rate, time on page/site, visits to my page targeting that keyword.

          Granted, this could all be automated and would also include other data and even create a nicely formatted report.

          Here’s what I might do today:
          1) Access the Keyword Planner in Google AdWords (if I remember correctly, some data is even available prior to funding the account) to see search volume based on the parameters I set (in my ad campaigns it populates search volume automatically);
          2) Review keyword ranking (inc. URLs associated with those rankings), probably via 3rd party but could do this manually; and
          3) Look at my traffic in Analytics by landing page.

          By downloading the data and importing into Excel and doing some pivot table work, with a few extra steps (3rd party tools will do this soon if they don’t already), a bit of extra time and a small ad budget from my clients, I can arrive at what I would consider ‘nearly the same data’ as I was reporting to them before.

          Again, the keyword-specific data and how I get it:
          A) Search volume from Google [then: ext. AdWords tool; now: internal Keyword Planner];
          B) My ranking for that keyword [then & now: manually or via 3rd party];
          C) The traffic I’m getting for a particular keyword [then & now: Google Analytics/3rd party pulling from GA].

          So I think I’m getting nearly the same data.
          Do you disagree?
          Why, am I over-simplifying?
          What am I not seeing?

          — Granted, some things are going to be affected – if I rank for 50 keywords all to the same page then knowing which keywords are affecting bounce rate, conversions, etc.
          — I get great data in AdWords at this level so I can supplement there.
          — I can also begin splitting out my rankings onto separate pages, although this is not an overnight fix.
          — Then again, neither was building up organic ranking for 50 keywords on the same page.

          • You are definitely not over-simplifying things, and basically proving my point by showing the complexity involved vs. just pulling up a page in Analytics.

            Your solution still doesn’t provide conversions by keyword. You used to be able to pull conversion out by page and see which keywords actually converted.

            Maybe it’s not a big deal, but the reasons for doing it are suspect at best.

          • James

            I agree – it’s now more complicated. And yes tracking conversions is critical, so I’m looking at alternatives such as:
            * AdWords conversions;
            * Organic conversions by landing page;
            * A combination of the two;
            * ??

            Whatever Google’s motive, privacy or revenue or whatever, it’s a big change. But one that I believe proactive marketers can use to their advantage, IMHO – both in terms of:
            A) Setting themselves apart from their competition because they’re still able to provide some of the data their clients are used to seeing, thereby softening the blow and confusion of this change; and
            B) Using this as a catalyst to ‘up our game’ and focus more on revenue-generating metrics and less on the basic measurements that Avinash Kaushik referred to during MozCon 2013 as “stupid f*%$&$g s#&t” (his expletives, not mine).

            Thanks for the convo!

          • Belle

            Thanks for jumping in here, guys! I expect there’ll definitely be lots more discussion to come about this and what marketers will do in the future to replace this.

  • James

    The availability of track-able, measurable keyword-related data has been a major factor in driving the popularity of SEO. Getting to definitive data at this level (both for internal marketers and agencies) is certainly going to be more difficult.

    Having said that, the inbound marketing community as a whole has relied on keyword data too heavily (it was easy and trackable so why not, right?), often at the expense of ignoring more important metrics. While conversion rate, cost/value per conversion and net present value/lifetime value of a customer are more meaningful, they are much more difficult to track.

    It’s definitely a shake-up, especially for people putting too much focus on keyword-related metrics. The writing has been on the wall for some time, but for the ‘Hems and Haws’ of the SEO world (referring to characters in Dr. Spencer Johnson’s book “Who Moved my Cheese”), this is quite a wake-up call!

    Thanks for the post on this.


    • Belle

      Thanks for weighing in, James! It’s definitely an interesting issue, but I’m fascinated to see some people—like yourself—pointing out how this can be a good thing. I’ll be curious to see how the SEO industry reacts to this in the long term.

      • James

        Thanks Belle Beth (I read the post about changing your name but I’m still not sure whether I should call you both Belle Beth or just Belle when I’m not using your full name).

        I imagine it will take some time before the dust settles. Keyword data is still an integral part of SEO, useful for things such as:
        — Prioritizing tasks on a limited budget;
        — Identifying opportunities to expand website visibility;
        — Conducting competitive analysis;
        — Identifying new products/services to increase revenue opportunities;

        — As Kyle pointed out, it’s more difficult to measure conversion rates, cost/conversion etc. by keyword;
        — And yes, it’s O-N-E measure of SEO efforts.

        As I attempted to outline in my discussion with Kyle, it’s now going to take more work to get ‘nearly’ the same data. So I wouldn’t call this a ‘good’ change, but it shouldn’t kill SEO by any means.

        Although there’s definitely going to be a hand-print on the back side of many an SEO, if you catch my meaning…

        • Belle

          Ah sorry for the confusion James, just Belle is fine 🙂

          I think you’re right—the exact same data will be pretty much impossible to find, but it will be interesting to see where SEO marketers take their work now.

          • James

            No apology necessary of course and the name-change blog was great and an inspiring journey to just be yourself!

          • Belle

            Thanks James 🙂

  • If you deliver your entire site over https (including google analytics), this is not a problem. Referrers are sent to secured destination pages.

    • Belle

      Thanks for pointing this out, I wasn’t aware of that!

      • You’re welcome! It’s something the SEO community seems to be missing in this discussion. It’s not a trivial change for many sites, but if they’re 100% bought into keyword monitoring, it’s an option.

        • Jon Hogg

          I wish it was that simple but I’m afraid that’s not true – secure (https://) sites still face the same problem. Even if you pay $150k/year for Google Analytics Premium you don’t get access to the data (for now anyway).

          What you’re saying about HTTPS sites passing referrers to other HTTPS pages is spot-on, as per the HTTP spec. But the truth is that before all this “(not provided)” business kicked off a couple of years ago, Google was actually BREAKING the spec by allowing referrers to pass from their secure pages to insecure websites.

          • Well that’s dumb. Apparently I’m naive to think they’d follow a spec. Oh well. When you’re the largest online advertiser, I suppose you get to write the rules.

  • This is a good change. SEO has always been a wobbly legged system to me. One shouldn’t have to do all kinds of keyword hacking – or hire an “expert” to do so.

    If you have a useful website, you didn’t have to manipulate the keywords in the first place.

    • Belle

      Thanks Raymond, good point. It’ll be interesting to see if SEO marketers are more useful in the future without the distraction of keyword research, or if it will become a problem for them long term.

      • I think SEO should focus on clarity – not on how to rank better in searching. Ironically, by focusing on being clear, you’ll end up ranking higher.

    • James

      WOAH there buck-o. Did you just call SEOs “wobbly-legged”? Them’s fightin’ words!

      Just kidding. I’m a total wimp. Don’t hurt me.

  • i say just get back to communicating. Let’ the keywords fall where they may.

  • disqus_W4KjfaOksA

    Google sure doesn’t make it easy for marketers. In relation to the key word planning tool, do you know whether that information is accurate if you’re not actually paying for ads?

    • Belle

      I haven’t seen anything that tells me you would get different information if you’re paying for ad campaigns, but I’m not an expert either. I would say it’s at least worth using to get an idea of which keywords have high search volume.

  • Here’s my take on how to get a grip of not provided data:

    1. We could cross check our ranking performance on Bing and other search engine and see the clicks and compare
    2. We could set a filter to see the np keywords combined with landing pages
    3. Monitor Webmaster Tools search query data for an idea
    4. If you have a large site, analyze Site Search feature in Google Analytics

    And as you suggested Adwords is a good tool. Besides, there’s Google Trends and Keyword Tools to give you additional insights.

    I am going to try the Cognitive SEO tool and will get back to you with my feedback. BTW as far as I know, Google Analytics show not set for referral data and never the anchor text. If this tool could do the same then it is really worth a try 🙂

  • Thanks for informative post. Just I want to say: Thank you!