Google's Keyword (Not Provided), One Year Later
Last Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of one of the more controversial announcements in Google’s sordid history with the SEO community. On October 18, 2011 Google rolled out secure search as the default setting for authenticated Google Account users. So anytime a user is logged into GMail, Google Docs, or Google+ and performs a search prior to logging out, the search query is encrypted and will not be passed along to the publisher site following result selection and click-through. In practical terms, some percentage of organic search engine traffic is identified within Web analytics tools as unavailable, or “(not provided).”
In the wake of the original announcement, many SEOs (myself included) temporarily lost their minds. The knee-jerk responses were chockfull of conspiracy theories that Google was trying to quash competitive search retargeting technologies. Others cried foul over Google’s declaration that this was in the name of user privacy, yet the change only applied to the organic set of results; search advertisers are still privy to the full set of keyword referral data. Overall, the entire announcement, its implications, and between-the -ines posturing was well explained by Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land.
Bottom line: It’s now a pay-to-play proposition for marketers looking for raw query data from authenticated Google search users.
With last week’s anniversary, I was curious to understand how keyword (not provided) has affected the SEO landscape, and how marketers have maneuvered around this missing piece of data. For starters, I have always been highly suspicious of Google’s position that this would affect less than 10% of organic search referrals, even at full rollout. I offered some anecdotal observations in a column I wrote earlier this year that less than 10% wasn’t anywhere close to reality, but I wanted some more definitive data this go-around and reached out to a few trusted sources.
According to Dennis Hart, President North America for Analytics SEO, the current percentage of (not provided) search queries is 20.5%. That stat is culled from more than 10,000 websites globally in both English and non-English languages. Essentially, 20.5% is the new statistically valid mean.
When asked how SEO technology firms can overcome this trend of incomplete data, he offered: “While we continue to be concerned about the increase in Not Provided data, this challenge underscores the ongoing need for SEO platform providers to continue to innovate as we help marketers communicate their value propositions to those who are searching for it.” Basically, SEOs and technology platforms will be pressed to communicate SEO value through new(ish) measures and success outcomes.
I was also interested to learn whether Bing’s position that it will continue to deliver full keyword referral details to webmasters had changed. It hasn’t. I connected with Duane Forrester of Bing via email and he had this to say: “Your data [will] always [be] provided. We see data about your site as being yours, too, and it’s tough to make important business decisions when you’re missing data.” At least for now, this challenge that SEOs and technology providers are facing appears to be one of Google’s creation alone.
SEO in a post- (not provided) world
The situation isn’t all doom and gloom for SEOs, though. While I’ve voiced my frustrations with Google’s actions here and in conversations with industry colleagues, it hasn’t really hurt the value delivered via SEO. We may now have to make a handful of educated guesses where we didn’t before, but the work product remains relatively unscathed. Still having access to the other ~80% of queries from Google organic search referrals isn’t insignificant either.
But SEOs should proceed with caution from here on. There are definite signs that things will only get worse and our visibility into query specifics will become more limited. In July Mozilla’s Firefox browser introduced Google Secure Search by default, further extending the reach of (not provided). We can also expect Google+ and other Google efforts to continue to grow their collective user bases, meaning larger holes in our data are inevitable.
Adding to the frustration is Google itself. The counsel provided to SEOs has long anchored on optimizing the user experience, even to the detriment of “ranking” for a specific keyword target. It seems counterintuitive then, that Google’s own advice is more difficult to follow because it restricts this flow of data.
The best advice for SEOs seems to be: optimize the user experience across your sites using the data that is available. That data can originate from paid and organic channels across Google, Bing and others; it can also originate from on-site search engine usage. Smartly apply that intelligence with aggregate search visitor behaviors to arrive at an acceptable view of channel performance. One year after the introduction of (not provided), and for the foreseeable future, it seems the best we can do.