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Emma North

Making the Best of a Bad Situation – Surviving (not provided) Keywords in Google Analytics

29th Nov 2012 Analytics | 17 Comments


Classified & Confidential - Keywords Not ProvidedAny user of Google Analytics will understand the value of knowing what keywords bring in your organic traffic. However, we can no longer ignore the dramatic and unwavering increase in the number of “(not provided)” keywords, making it more difficult than ever to effectively analyse our organic traffic.

What does (not provided) mean?

Of course, “(not provided)” is not what the user searched to get to the site, nor did they arrive by some miraculous keyword-free search. They may have used any search term in your target list, or maybe a different phrase altogether, but the bottom line is that it is data Google is choosing to no longer share with you as a result of its updated privacy policy.

The searches have come from users logged into any of Google’s services while searching, such as Gmail or Google+ and also using newer versions of Firefox. As a result, they are browsing a secure version of the search engine (with an https prefix instead of the standard http).

Why is Google doing this to me?

Good question. Google’s answer is that it is to protect the privacy of the user. As they are no longer anonymous, their activity is protected by Google’s secure site and the detail of their search activity is (not provided).

When Google made this announcement in October last year, they had this to say:

“What does this mean for sites that receive clicks from Google search results? When you search from https://www.google.com, websites you visit from our organic search listings will still know that you came from Google, but won’t receive information about each individual query. They can also receive an aggregated list of the top 1,000 search queries that drove traffic to their site for each of the past 30 days through Google Webmaster Tools. This information helps webmasters keep more accurate statistics about their user traffic. If you choose to click on an ad appearing on our search results page, your browser will continue to send the relevant query over the network to enable advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns and to improve the ads and offers they present to you.”

You can read the full Google blog post here.

On the surface, this may seem like a valid and logical reason, until you realise that this protection is only for organic searches – paying AdWords customers will see the search terms to ensure they can still manage their PPC campaigns. It is almost as though Google values its paying AdWords customers over non-paying users. Go figure.

So what can I do to find out what (not provided) searchers searched?

Webmasters and SEO’s just need to work a little harder to understand what the data within (not provided) results means and get a smarter understanding of the site’s analytics. By following these three steps, you can stay on top of the change and get the most out of your (not provided) data.

Step 1 – Monitor Impact

Before you begin trying to analyse what the (not provided) data actually means, set yourself up to monitor how your website is being affected and what on-going impact the change has on your reporting.

Avinash Kaushik has a great way of working this out.

Calculate your (not provided) traffic as a percentage of your total organic traffic from Google alone. This will give you the most accurate result, as (not provided) results only come from Google searches. Monitor this result monthly to see how quickly your percentage of (not provided) traffic increases.

For example:

Total Site Visits: 100,000
Organic Search Traffic: 50,000
Organic Search Traffic from Google: 40,000
Total (not provided) visits: 5,000
Percentage Impact of (not provided) = 5,000 / 40,000 = 12.5%

You’ll find different results here depending on many unique website factors. Don’t be surprised if your percentage is a lot higher – it just means your visitor demographic is more likely to be signed into Google products when searching.

Now you know this figure you can continue to watch what happens over time. It is a pretty safe bet that your (not provided) data will increase steadily, as more and more users sign into Google products when they browse. There isn’t much anyone can do to stop this, but it’s important to know how much time you should spend analysing your (not provided) data.

For example, if 80% of your traffic is coming from (not provided) keywords, you are going to want to spend a lot longer on your research and analysis there before you worry so much about the data you can already see.

Step 2 – Landing Page Analysis

Despite the search keyword being missing, you can still get a good idea of what the user was looking for simply by reviewing the landing pages for (not provided) visits. By clicking into the keyword, you can take a deeper look at what Google does choose to share.

Not Provided in Google AnalyticsFor example:

By looking into the (not provided) data and adding “Landing Page” as a secondary dimension, we can see exactly what users clicked from the Google search. This information gives you a pretty good idea of what users were looking for.

Building custom reports in Google Analytics is a quick and effective way to review the landing pages of (not provided) searches alongside other keyword search results. Setting up a report on organic searches from Google showing both keyword and landing page dimensions allows you to visually compare the user activity of (not provided) visits with that of normal visits and understand what your (not provided) visitors were looking for.

Things to consider when analysing:

  • Bounce Rate – how do your (not provided) bounce rates compare with your average or that of other keywords?
  • % New Visits – are your (not provided) visitors mainly new or returning visitors? How does this compare with your other keywords?
  • Pages Per Visit – are visitors from (not provided) searches viewing more or less pages on your site than other visitors?
  • Time On Site – are visitors from (not provided) searches spending more or less time on site than other users?
  • Goal Completions & Conversion Rate – are visitors from (not provided) searches generating more conversions than other users?

Each of these points, along with other dimensions which may be relevant to your site, can help you to understand exactly how important your (not provided) visitors are. It is easy to get caught up in the keywords you can see, but it may be more important than you first realise to spend time looking deeper into your (not provided) statistics.

Step 3 – Webmaster Tools

As mentioned in the Google blog post referenced earlier, we can also get some keyword information from Google Webmaster Tools.

Within the “Traffic” section, find “Search Queries” to see your most popular search terms along with approximate numbers of impressions and clicks. It also gives you your average search engine position for each term.

While this information is useful, be sure to use it only as a guide. The data in Webmaster Tools is approximate and should be used as indication and trend only. The keyword information available from Webmaster Tools isn’t as precise as anything you will get out of Analytics. Nonetheless, it is a good resource for seeing which terms you are doing well on and which you may need to invest some time into.

So what could this mean for Google?

Private Or PublicOn the surface, it’s hardly surprising that Google is not all that concerned about holding back data from its non-paying users, but the move does present them with some potential repercussions.

Firstly, the policy seems half-hearted in its intentions by only protecting the search terms in organic searches, but still handing the data over to AdWords users or Premium Analytics users. If the whole purpose behind (not provided) is to protect users’ private data, then surely users who click sponsored listings are having their privacy violated?

Secondly, given that more and more users are using the secure versions of browser, the percentage of (not provided) keyword terms is going to continue to grow for Analytics users.

Your thoughts?

If you have any thoughts, opinions or suggestions on dealing with (not provided), I’d love to hear them! Comment below to get in touch.

Stamps Image from Bigstock
Public or Private Image from Bigstock
Extract from Google Analytics is not taken from any client’s account and is used as an example only.

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Emma North About the author

Emma North

Emma has more than 5 years’ digital marketing experience and has worked on dozens of websites in a wide range of industries. She has a passion for both SEO and PPC and is driven by the need to develop her digital skills and knowledge. She is always exploring innovative solutions for new problems encountered in the ever-changing digital world.

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