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

Emma North

by Emma North on 29th November 2012

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.

Emma North

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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17 Comments

  • Matt Rhys-Davies 7th December 2012

    Hi Emma,

    Are you certain that the premium Analytics package provides KW data instead of (not provided)? I’ve read elsewhere that it’s still (not provided).

    Also, it makes sense that AdWords data shows all KWs as it’s a separate product, and people are paying for the click. Whereas organic is (at least at point of delivery) is free traffic.

    Matt

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 7th December 2012

    Thanks Matt.

    There has been a lot of speculation regarding not provided on the Premium Analytics but it would now seem that indeed even Premium users do not get the data. I guess there is justice in the world!

    I agree that AdWords users should see the keywords when they’re paying for the click, but it does seem to contradict Google’s aim of protecting the search data of https users. If AdWords users get the information, why shouldn’t Analytics users? Surely neither platform should have more or less access to the “private” data of users?

    Emma

    Reply to this comment

  • Matt Rhys-Davies 7th December 2012

    I imagine Google’s reasoning would be that the PPC links are advertised as “Sponsored Results” therefore consumers know that they are engaging in marketing and thus expect to be reported on. Whereas organic results are seen as ‘fair’ by the people who don’t understand SEO / SEM.

    Also if an advertiser is only getting back reports on some of their advertisements, their spend will quickly be pulled back in favour of other channels. Less spend means less revenue for Google and thus less investment in improving organic search. So I definitely do think the AdWords platform should report on all KW data, and the cynic in me sees (not provided) in organic as a slight push to those relying on its ‘free’ traffic to their PPC model.

    As I manage sites I do feel the pain and frustration of (not provided) hitting up to 10% of organic traffic reporting, and have deep, deep sympathies for those who run tech-focussed sites who will see this go into the 40%, 50%, 60% marks. Either way – when the best search traffic generator out there does something, you need to adapt to it quickly.

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 7th December 2012

    Absolutely: it is more important than anything else to ensure we can make the most out of the (not provided) situation. The bottom line is it is only going to get worse as more people start to use the secure search, especially if other browsers follow Firefox in only using the https version.

    It is likely Google will be expecting some users to increase PPC spend to counter the increasing amount of data they lose with (not provided). But for now, making sure we get what we can out of (not provided) results has to be the most important action we can take as SEO’s.

    Reply to this comment

  • Paul Reynolds 10th December 2012

    Controversial comment – but I wonder if (not provided) is a subtle Google strategy to nudge advertisers towards Adwords, to stay on top of tracking keywords.

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 11th December 2012

    Hi Paul.

    I have to believe the idea would have crossed their minds when they implemented (not provided)! I think the potential increase in profits will have been discussed in the early stages of the change and they can certainly expect to see increased usage of paid campaigns as the percentage of (not provided) results increases in the next couple of years.

    Some industries are already seeing a huge percentage of (not provided) and as this grows and spreads across other currently less affected lines of business, more people will need an alternative – something that paid campaigns do provide.

    Reply to this comment

  • Jennifer Wong 12th December 2012

    Hi Emma,

    Thanks for providing alternative ways to discover what (not provided) searchers searched.

    We recently conducted a study and found that (not provided) now accounts for almost 40% of referring traffic from organic search.

    http://www.optify.net/press-releases/optify-study-googles-not-provided-rises-to-almost-40-of-organic-traffic-for-b2b-sites

    Jennifer

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 13th December 2012

    Hi Jennifer

    That’s a really interesting study and it doesn’t surprise me to see such a sharp incline in (not provided). It is very frustrating for users but it will surely continue to grow throughout the year.

    What will Google do when 95%+ of our organic traffic is (not provided)? Will users just go without or will Google offer a solution? Or will users be expected to increase PPC spend to get keyword insight?

    We will have to wait and see, but in the meantime spending time adapting our analysis techniques to get the most out of the situation has to be time well spent.

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 14th December 2012

    This is a great reference for (not provided): 60 websites are being tracked for (not provided) keywords, with live counters and predictions on when we can expect 100% (not provided based on current growth: 2017!

    Hope you find this interesting:
    http://www.notprovidedcount.com/

    Reply to this comment

  • Adriel Michaud 18th December 2012

    Now that Chrome uses SSL search (I think it uses it for the omnibox), I’m seeing a LOT more (not provided) visits.
    Mobile is still relatively unscathed, but desktop is starting to really mess with my analysis. I’m starting to see some really skewed data in keywords used, and I think it’s largely due to these default SSL searches.

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 19th December 2012

    Thanks Adriel.

    I think browser SSL defaults will be the biggest problem for (not provided) data. Firefox was just the beggining; I understand Safari is the latest browser to follow suit and I’m sure Chrome will not be far behind. As it stands I believe Chrome only uses the https:// search platform if you are logged into Google products (Google+, Gmail, etc.) but with other browsers defaulting it is surely only a matter of time now.

    It’s going to get harder and harder to monitor organic keywords, so spending more time analysing landing pages might become the new best practice.

    Reply to this comment

  • Vishal 20th March 2013

    Hi Emma,

    In this case, (Not provided) percentage is going to increase as we move ahead. With Google pushing Google + as social platform, we can expect increase users using Google + and performing search. Doesn’t it mean that Google is discouraging webmasters to use Google analytics, if i am not able to track data properly, them I am going to look into alternatives fro Google analytics.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 20th March 2013

      Hi Vishal. It does seem that way sometimes! If anything though I think it’s about Google trying to drive webmasters to use AdWords more. Ultimately Analytics is a free tool; it is much more in Google’s interest that we use AdWords for keyword data.

      Reply to this comment

  • wintrotech 1st October 2013

    This is very obvious that google not provided will unsatisfy the analyzing works of so but we can do other things to unlock not provided?

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 1st October 2013

      We can’t get the data we used to, especially now that (not provided) will be hitting 100%, but with landing page analysis as well as the improved Search Queries report in Google Webmaster Tools we can start to claw back some of the data we’re losing.

      Reply to this comment

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