Not Provided is Not the End of the World

What’s This Not Provided Stuff About?

Since 2010, Google has made encrypted search available to its users. When using encrypted search, your query (keywords) that were previously supplied to owners of the sites you clicked through to stopped being provided. Marketers and Web analysts who have come to measure site visitors by which keywords they used on Google to find them no longer can because in place of keywords, they now see the phrase (not provided).Not Provided in Google analytics

Since then, Google has ramped up encrypted search so (not provided) crept into analytics reports.  This past week, Google confirmed they were all-in on encrypted search for all users. This means that for all visitors who arrive at your site from Google search, you will see (not provided) instead of the words they used to find your site.

Across the Web and Twitterverse SEOs are furious. The (not provided) invasion in Google Analytics and other Web analytics tools has been on the rise over the past three years. Now it’s certain for all Google searches.

Google’s official response to “not provided”:

“We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.”

I’ve seen conspiracy theorists shouting it’s not about privacy because Webmaster Tools and AdWords still show the phrases. I’ve seen angry people blaming a Google push for more AdWords sales. I’ve seen and been asked “what do we do now?” and “how does this effect search and PPC?” Let me dispel rumors and try to provide explanations to the angry masses.

What Does This Really Affect?

Just your keyword reports in your analytics clients. But only the keywords data for Google users. Bing, AOL, Yahoo and other search engines are still provided keyword data. It’s still a subset of data. Depending on your traffic, it might even be a statistically significant sample.

It won’t affect your PPC campaigns. It won’t change your rankings – good, bad or otherwise. It won’t affect how you search. It won’t affect your Webmaster Tools or your bounce rate or your page views. Don’t let it affect your temper, either.

No Keywords Means SEO Is Dead / We Can’t Do Our Job

If you feel this way, you shouldn’t be doing SEO to begin with.

SEO is not about ranking first on Google – or any search engine for that matter. SEO drives more awareness and hopefully higher rankings. But SEO should be more than moving the needle on a keyword. It should be about driving quality (qualified) traffic to a site to increase that site’s bottom line.

Even still, as a practitioner, I understand that ranking higher is a large part of that. You need to measure that. So you start with a baseline (I currently rank 129th for widgets). You do some SEO-y kind of things. (Titles, Headings, keyword stuffing, etc), then you watch to see where you move to (Great, now I’m 99th!).

Do you measure that with Google Analytics? I think not. There are FAR better tools out there. Google Webmaster Tools shows you all the queries people used to find you, how many times you appeared, average rank for all those queries and how many clicks through you had.

SEO Keywords in Google Webmaster Tools

For straight-up SEO measuring, what more do you need? Maybe the landing page would be nice. But really – does it matter? You should know which pages you were editing for SEO. They should all be targeting different phrases if you’re doing it right. Right?!

SEMrush has more great tools to track ranking. You set the words you want to monitor, then let it go. When you click through, you see pretty graphs showing trends over time. It reports automatically and will even email you every week.

SEMrush keyword position reporting

Don’t know which keywords you’re targeting? (Again, shame on you!) SEMrush will do that for you too, if you want:

SEMRush keyword tracking

Bottom Line: Not Provided is NOT the End of SEO.

It may be the end of how you currently do your job. But now you can do it better. You’re welcome.

Google vs Privacy: AdWords and Webmaster Tools Provide the Same Data

No, they don’t. They’re very much not providing the same information.

When you use analytics (not even GA, others too) properly, you can tie personally identifiable information back to transactions. If you use a logfile analyzer, you also get IP address information. Google has tried to make Analytics as useful as possible without compromising privacy. You can’t get individual IP addresses. I know. I’ve asked Google Analytics product managers about individual transactions when interviewing them about their multi-channel attribution tools. Google won’t offer certain data in certain settings because they don’t want to compromise this data.

Here’s my speculation, but based in reality:

Yes, this is all about user privacy.

Webmaster tools does not show who searched. It doesn’t even show landing page. I can’t trace that data back to anything in analytics. I can’t even segment by it if I tie my GA and Webmaster Tools account together.

If you do paid properly, you have one landing page tied to a bunch of keywords. You’re bidding on those keywords, counting on the fact that people are going to search for them. You’re likely using heavily searched phrases. This is not private information. You should be able (through common sense) tie together people who clicked and hit your specific-to-that-campaign landing page to a handful of phrases.

While AdWords provides conversion data, it doesn’t show unique data identifying a person. Analytics can provide far more personal data, possibly more personally identifiable data depending on what other data a site collects or requires for use. For example:

My local grocery store has a “Shoppers’ Club” card that tracks me in-store. To get up-to-date pricing, I need to log into their site when browsing this week’s ad. They can track me online and offline by tying the two data sets together based on the common unique ID that is my card number. As such, they can track my search data back to me, personally. Google wants to avoid this.

Let’s not forget about Facebook and other sharing sites. The Facebook like/share/recommend button is called directly from Facebook, not from the site on which its placed. Can they access search query? Depending on how it’s passed (GET string), yes, they might be able to maliciously do that. Can Facebook tie that back to you personally? You bet your sweet cookies they can!

But I Wouldn’t Misuse Keyword Data!

Of course not. 99% of us likely won’t. But is your site 100% safe from hackers? Are you storing that keyword data – intentionally or not? Are there malicious sites out there that might misuse the system? Of course there are. Don’t be silly. Have you seen the phishing and spam sites out there?

One bad apple can spoil the bunch. You may not like it, but that’s a hard truth of the Web.

Google’s Only Doing This to Push AdWords and Paid Search

Really? How?!

Paid data is significantly different than organic data. It won’t tell you where you rank for all those SEO efforts you just made. I’ve already said this change will not change your rankings. So tell me how this will push people toward paid? What I’d really like to know is how many of those that are screaming this “more paid” mantra are the same people who say “people ignore ads.”

This argument is rubbish. There’s no correlation between encrypted search and paid. Not when you’re screaming “end of SEO”/”can’t do our jobs!”

Not Provided Final Thoughts

Most SEOs I know have moved off the segment-by-keywords thought process long ago. Those who haven’t shouldn’t be miserable. It’s an opportunity to improve yourself in your field, instead of continuing to use stagnant, older practices.

You’re in a new world of content marketing. Make good content. Know what keywords you’re targeting on that content. Measure people based on landing pages and source (social, email, etc). Keywords are a signal your content is doing well for the words you already targeted. They have no bearing that your overall marketing is bearing fruit.

No one ever made board room decisions based on visits per keyword. They’re based on revenue and cost savings. Stop whining and start marketing!