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!

25 thoughts on “Not Provided is Not the End of the World”

  1. Finally, a voice of reason! Excellent post, Thom.
    I already had my doubts that the “for security” argument was totally false, but hadn’t been able to pinpoint precisely why I felt that way. You laid it out beautifully.
    I also don’t ascribe to the theory that everything Google does is designed to push for more ad sales. Their vision has traditionally been one of a long view… search quality suits that, not short-term gains in ads. I’m no fan-boy, but I their stance on this makes perfect sense to me.

  2. I’d like to believe that with an encrypted connection, they’d be able to somehow link up with Analytics and pass that information in a way that precluded easy connection of IP and search terms, so that we could still get our keyword data. Probably not going to happen though.

  3. Adriel: I’ve thought that for a while. But then, if you’re Google and you give those data to a 3rd party to store somewhere else, you can’t be accountable for what happens with it and then Google becomes liable.

  4. I agree with you that SEO is NOT about ranking #1 on Google. SEO is about creating great content, and a great user experience, which Google will inevitably pick up on and increase your rankings. However, I think this move affects more than just “SEO” data. I use the GA keywords to know what people are searching for my site to find, so that I can make sure I am providing the kind of content they hope to see. If people are coming to my site to find black widgets, and I only sell green widgets, I need to think about making black widgets! Your post is totally one-sided, and misses the total value of the keyword data outside of an SEO Rankings perspective.

  5. Chris:

    Thanks for your comments. I understand what you’re saying about using the data. I left a similar reply to a comment on the Search Engine Watch post. Sometimes the data can be useful to determine what people are looking for. However, your own site’s search data should also help there. Either way, you can still see these queries in Google Webmaster Tools – and know how many times people clicked through for those terms.

    I’m sorry you felt it was short-sighted. The post was really more directed at people who are shouting “we have no seo data” (their terms) and all the paid conspiracy stuff I mentioned. It wasn’t intended to address the usefulness of keyword data. Those data are dead useful. But, we haven’t been getting it all for a while and (should have) been developing different (dare I say better) methods for measuring.

    Thanks for reading!

  6. @Thom The problem I have with all this is that we need to provide metrics to our customers — and even ourselves to see what’s working. There are no perfect metrics. I know that. You know that. However, according to Google, keyword-tracking is somehow a violation of TOS, and we don’t get HTTP_REFERER data. Historically, lots of people whom I won’t mention were blabbing about how people who monitor keyword rankings were Neanderthal SEOs or something.

    But now we can’t even look at analytics and say “hey look, we have 25% more traffic for terms with the word ‘widget’ in it!”

    So I totally agree with you that we’re not screwed, but I’d bet has a surge in new accounts this month, and I’ll Shoryuken anyone Ryu style if they dare say keyword-tracking is obsolete. Even if you generate the reports _manually_, you need a metric.

  7. I guess we respectfully differ here. I provide metrics to my clients. I track positions, but I don’t suggest we NEED to have X number of visits from particular keywords.

    I track revenue and various completions. I look at page copy to determine what works and what contributes.

    I measure by landing page, with causal keyword data supplied from webmaster tools and other3rd party tools. Keyword measurement, while great, has not been reliable in quite sometime.

    I don’t think it’s as smoke add everyone thinks with respect to Google not wanting to help SEOs by but telling us the keywords. GWT tells us keywords. They’re just not correlating those wordsto individual personal data.

  8. I’m not correlating it. It’s additional “nice to know” data. I know which pages are top landing pages and I know which words were targeted for those pages. As long as rank doesn’t drop below 20, everyone is happy. We just don’t base decisions on keywords. There’s too many other ways to bring traffic to focus on.

  9. At the end of the day, if we’re not providing value to our clients we’re not SEO-“artistes” we’re SEO-“snake-oil-salesmen” – we hone in on “metrics that matter” and create our SEO strategy around those, that way we’re tracking, measuring and reporting on what our clients feel are success metrics.

    Does this involve a keyword strategy? Potentially yes, but more around keyword *themes*, content “silos” and engagement metrics that prove the value of our services.

    Not provided isn’t the end of SEO, but it is (hopefully) an end to keyword fanaticism and focus on traffic vs. “better” traffic.

    Great post Thom.


  10. I don’t disagree with anything you say here necessarily (though I definitely agree with Chris Dayley’s comments) except for on one point, the way you paint Google.. the, “Yes, this is all about user privacy”, comment. While I think Google is concerned about user privacy, I think they only are to the point where they think they might have some liabilities. IOW, you imply it’s Google protecting the user and I would say it’s Google protecting their ass. There might have been a time when this wasn’t the case but today, I think Google does whatever is best for Google, period, full stop. That might sometimes mean we need to protect user’s privacy, it might sometimes mean we need to work cooperatively with webmasters.

    Now, I’m not some anti-Google hater that starts frothing at the mouth whenever Google’s mentioned. I simply want to point out that, IMO, gone are the days when there was some semblance of partnership been Google and webmasters/SEO/users. We’ve already ceded all power necessary. Google does whatever is best for Google and if it lines up with something you need/want, good for you. Just please don’t try to play them as the bastion of user’s interests.

    (Reading back over this before I hit the Post button, I sound just like a Google hater to myself… but I’m still going to hit Post)

  11. Brett: I Totally agree. I didn’t mean to imply it was all about user privacy. It’s all about privacy. If they leak your privacy, they’re up the creek. Just like the privacy pot been stirred in Europe, it will only continue through other countries, including the U.S. Personally identifiable information along with keyword searches mean potential legal implications for Google.

    Passing &kw=my-search-query in a URL as a GET string not only gets logged in Analytics, but also in a Web server’s log files – with the IP address and Time Stamp. This is why they can’t pass it through. Passing it through via POST means that the server still needs to interpret it, parse it and create some JavaScript for tracking. Either, way, the server has record of the IP, timestamp and keywords all at the same time.

    I discussed that with Doc Sheldon on Level Headed Marketing today. It should be up by week’s end.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  12. Pages are targeted to terms and audience… correlating pages to KW is not that hard since you had goals when you started the page…. I’ll bet it was to sell more widgets with part of that being position in rankings but in the end you’re pretty dense and not worthy of calling yourself a professional if this inhibits your business…I strongly urge you to consider a new career…cuz your chances of success as an SEO are pretty limited

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