Google first announced its plan to “protect the personalized search results [they] deliver” on October 18, 2011. An SSL encryption protocol (https) became the default search for users signed-in to their Google accounts. For digital marketers, that meant that visits from organic search listings no longer included the information about individual queries, i.e. keyword data showed up as (not provided) in Google Analytics.
As of this month, all signs point to secure search becoming the default for everybody – signed into a Google account or not. In short, no keyword data will be provided at all in referrals from Google.
There are several theories as to why Google is doing this; to help protect user privacy, to protect itself from accusations of cooperating with the NSA and, of course, the big elephant in the room… to boost its ad sales.
As organic keyword data from the most used search engine becomes increasingly obsolete, the implications and consequences will impact digital marketing teams in different ways.
At iProspect, we have been adapting to the loss in search data for a while – even when it was only a small percentage of the reported data. Knowing that Google will cease to report 100% of keyword-level organic search data in the near future, it is important to further adjust the way we approach keyword research, traffic analysis, and reporting.
That said, we wanted to cover this issue not only from an SEO standpoint, but from PPC, sales, upper management and client services, as well. We crowd-sourced the opinions of our bright team to get their take on how the (not provided) spike affects the web marketing industry, as well as provide insights and actionable solutions for website publishers to extract relevant data and achieve their digital marketing goals.
Here we discuss:
Gautier Lemesle – Director, Digital Marketing Innovation
Being able to match search query to searcher intent has been vital to the execution of successful web marketing strategies. It’s what helped us define how people were searching for and landing on content, while also enabling website owners to optimize key pages to best respond to users’ intent and incite them to take action.
I think the most significant impact will be on reporting practices, and to a certain degree, Google has paved the way for us. By progressively changing the game rules with blocked signed-in search queries, it forced us to change our methodology—in SEO and what we report on.
Jack Allen – SEO Coordinator
Realistically, the change will only make reporting slightly more difficult and client education a “must.”
The thing is, with localization, personalization, knowledge graph, etc. keywords themselves have become less foundational than they have been in the past. Once seen as the critical building blocks of burn/churn SEO, they now serve as a stepping stone somewhere between awareness and conversion.
Guillaume Bouchard – CEO
I think that most updates from Google are for the better. Better for AdWords and for SEO, most of the time. But the value of 100% loss of keyword-level reporting is debatable from an advertising, relevancy & user experience standpoint. I agree that AdWords should own a lot of SERP real estate, as it is Google’s main business model, and a smart one! But I think SEO, as a discovery tool, should be more prominent in discovery searches. Currently, I do not think this is the case and it hurts relevancy…
The unfortunate part is that many rich AdWords campaign keywords that were directly derived from SEO queries—terms that you may not have expected to rank for and end up driving qualified traffic, will go undiscovered and likely, unanswered. Unless Broad Match catches them all!
Wes Walls – Team Lead, SEO and Social
I think the biggest impact this change will have is in our ability to easily slice and dice keywords into clusters, and to associate them with certain website pages, events, goals, sales, etc. The kind of fast data deep-diving that we can do with an analytics tool like Google Analytics is quite powerful and insightful and, crucially, very quick and easy to access. We simply don’t get that from Webmaster Tools yet.
Analytics has always been a very resourceful tool for discovering those out-of-the-box keyword ideas and themes for paid search campaigns. While (not provided) impacts SEO most, we are still able to measure search performance and identify strong optimization opportunities by using other data resources such as using Webmaster Tools data and Rank Tracking platforms. You can also still extract useful data from GA, if your AdWords and Analytics accounts are linked up properly.
In light of the recent Edward Snowden affair and NSA issue, Google might indeed be masking people’s search queries (logged into their GMail/Google Account) for a good reason: to protect them.
But by hiding 100% of search queries, I’m convinced Google is doing this in an attempt to:
I think it’s a blend of providing better privacy for users and harbouring data in order to improve retargeting. That’s what I would do and I can assure you that Google is not the only one doing this. It will hurt weak companies more than strong ones, and create a downward spiral for the average one… The great companies survive, the good ones usually die in dire moments.
Sébastien Neveu – Team Lead SEO and Social
For me it is clear that Google wants marketers to allocate more of their budgets to PPC but also to support the overall growth of their virtual service offering, like Google Shopping, Google Merchant Center, Flight Search, etc. Google quietly rolled out a car insurance price comparison service for drivers in France and has since expanded to other markets. I would not be surprised to see the equivalent arrival in North America (U.S. and Canada)in the near future. This is just a hunch, but I would suspect they would start to target credit cards.
Philip Tomlinson – SEO Analyst
Many think that Google has turned agencies into their customer service representatives. It’s going to be really important in our line of work to explain to clients the reason for traffic decrease for individual keyword traffic and show the value of adopting a more integrated approach to search marketing.
For reporting on boosting traffic, SEOs should already be focusing on organic growth on particular landing pages, as well as overall organic growth. These metrics are invariably more coherent and complete given the current state of (not provided). Where we run into trouble is differentiating between branded and unbranded organic traffic, but I believe that these two segments play off each other in important ways.
François Berthiaume – Account Director
Paid search data will increasingly become the quickest way to help monitor keyword-level performance. Google is encouraging marketers to track more macro-level metrics such as conversion rates, and this means paid search and click-throughs (using Webmaster Tools) to monitor performance will become increasingly important to search marketing strategies.
I think there are three possible solutions:
We are still able to report on organic traffic as a whole and differentiate the traffic coming from Google from other search engines. When we report on the SEO work we’re doing, we’ll look at other user touch points. For example, instead of looking at the search query, we’ll study the landing page where organic traffic is growing. It’ll be a good indicator of the work we are doing on those specific landing pages.
In terms of keywords, there are a couple of options. As mentioned, we can look at Google Webmaster Tools data. Currently it’s limited to the top search queries over the last 90 days, but they plan to provide a year’s worth of data in future). We can also use Google Trends to compare search terms and get a better a sense of interest over time. To discover keyword rankings we’ve found Advanced Web Rankings helpful.
Finally, we can look at Bing/Yahoo data and try to create proxies that we can later use to determine Google search traffic. More options and/or a blend of options are still in the works for most of online marketers. Just as Klout emerged in the Social Media sphere to help make social more measurable, it may come down to blending several tools and methodologies to help us better assess the performance of our offsite SEO efforts.
You can also try this “Not Provided” Kit – we came across. A set of simple add-ons for Google Analytics (put together by @danbarker) “can help you understand what’s happening now that data is absent. It won’t fix the problem, but it may bring other insight around ‘not provided’ visits.”
This post was originally written by Mary Montserrat-Howlett.