(not provided) is here to stay – deal with it

Google logo

If you work in digital analytics or SEO, by now you’ve heard about the web tracking phenomenon that is (not provided).

Since the end of 2011, Google has implemented measures to respect the privacy of Internet users on the words and expressions they use on its search engine. Specifically, Google is gradually switching searches to secure mode (SSL / HTTPS) and no longer passes referrer information to the search result website, which means that keyword information is lost.

As of now you can still know the source and medium (Google organic search), but the keyword is replaced with a useless “(not provided)” label.

The impact for marketing and SEO agencies seems enormous. Entire business models based on Google search could collapse.

Or could they?

There is no silver bullet to fix this “(not provided)” problem and we need to say goodbye to our beloved Google organic search keywords. A few solutions exist to partially circumvent this particular problem and they will be the topic of my next post 😉

We were running organic searches at the edge of the Google desert when the keywords started to disappear

(not provided) : the root of “don’t be evil”

This measure (strategy?) to gradually eliminate keyword information stems from 3 factors:

  • The growing interest and research of U.S. and European governments into data stored by Google
  • The use of said data and its “personal” nature by third-party websites, including sites to which Google is a link in the SERPs (or search results pages).
  • UPDATED – July 2013: Google has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit that stems from two searchers accusing the company of sharing their search queries with third parties without user content or knowledge.

In any case, Google played the privacy card and, by doing so, pre-empted further inquiry by lawmakers – as well as lawyers!

Sure, we could give into the usual “Google paranoia” and focus on its lowly ulterior motives:

  • promote Adwords paid search, which ties nicely into Google Analytics and provides keyword performance and ROI
  • stop SEO agencies from freeloading/piggybacking off Google’s platforms and business models

Let’s go even further: the next version of Google’s Chrome browser (v25 beta at the time of this post) is set to run all Google searches as secure searches. As Chrome updates itself automatically and transparently, users may not choose to upgrade. Then again, user acceptance is irrelevant. What matters is that eventually all visitors using Chrome to browse your website using a Google search will yield (not provided) as keywords in your analytics solution. On this blog, for instance, Chrome totals 53% of organic search traffic, which represents 30% of all traffic to this site. I expect those 53% to turn into pure (not provided) visits very soon. But there is not much we can do here.

The cold truth about (not provided)

From a objective yet cynical standpoint:

  • Google is in no way required to provide full referral information, including search keywords
  • Google has no obligation to reveal the inner workings of its search algorithm
  • No one is forced to use Google; they may use other search engines too, such as Bing, Yahoo, Exalead, Wolfram Alpha, Duck Duck Go, and more.
    Made you smile? Remember the market share of ancient search engines (Altavista, Lycos et al.)?

The problem is that everyone wants to search and to be found on Google (ideally in the top spots). Monopoly? Just barely. Unless the US government dismantles Google (the way it broke down Bell into pieces which, ironically, are merging back together) the only way to change habits and lessen the importance we give Google is to educate Internet users and show them that alternative search engines exist. They do exist, they totally do 😉

But let’s drive the topic of secure search even further, all while providing more fairness the the argument: Google Chrome is not the only web browser that uses secure searches by default; Internet Explorer and Firefox have similar behaviors. With IE, privacy settings are just silly. And don’t get me started with Do Not Track support. Firefox has more consistent settings when it comes to privacy but will favor secure search. Of course, the Mozilla Foundation is funded by Google at around $300 millon per annum for the next 3 years, which would explain how and why they are aligned with Google’s position on secure search.

At this point, if you know me you’re probably thinking:

What is wrong with Julien?
Why is he being so tough with Google in this post?

Fear not, I am still a die-hard Google fanboy. Always have been and very likely always will be 😉

However, as part of my job, I have to remain vendor-neutral and this self-imposed neutrality means I sometimes have to ask the hard questions. In this case we are talking about how a single company is going to change 90+% of the worldwide measurement of organic search performance in analytics tools: I think it’s fair that everyone knows why and how this is happening in order to take steps to adapt and move on. Right now we should stop feeling sad for our beloved organic search keywords because we will never see them again.

It can’t be all that bad, right?

taken from: http://damyantiwrites.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/independent-070524-google.jpg

Fear not, I have good news!

  • Partial keyword information is still available from Webmaster Tools, although volumes are not accurate
  • Your web analytics tool will still show you how much traffic comes from Google organic searches. Just no keywords.
  • You can still get keyword position in Google SERPs. Do mind placement offsets due to universal search.
  • You can still see which page visitors land on after an organic search (provided you don’t have any funky redirects)

Also, if you tagged your website properly, you may still get some information on keywords but that’s the topic for my next post 😉

So what do I do now?

Now you understand the situation is not hopeless. Keyword information is available but not in a format that can help online marketers the way the “old” keyword reports could. Short of an API/data exchange between Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics (à la Adwords), keyword information will remain as (not provided).

So instead of moping and feeling sorry for yourself (and your keywords), you should:

  • Optimize your conversion rate for visits coming from organic search.
  • Produce quality content that will be indexed better in Google (hello structured content)
  • Optimize your conversion process/funnel
  • Identify bottlenecks in content consumption and conversion
  • Identify exit pages and make them sexier

I’m sure you have better ideas and constructive comments so let’s hear them! Use the comments form below. 

(not provided) is here to stay – deal with it was last modified: May 13th, 2014 by Julien Coquet

Julien Coquet

Expert de la mesure d’audience sur Internet depuis plus de 15 ans, Julien Coquet est consultant senior digital analytics et responsable produit et évangélisation pour Hub’Scan, une solution d’assurance qualité du marquage analytics.

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