In late 2011, Google began encrypting searches from anyone logged into a Google service (Gmail, Google +, etc.), so site owners could not see many of the keywords from organic searches that were driving visitors to their sites. In October 2013 Google took additional steps to make search “secure”, so the majority of all keyword searches are now coming through as “(Not Provided)”. The trend is expected to continue until effectively all organic keyword data is blocked from your Google Analytics reports.
This blog post isn’t about Google’s motivation for making this change, or about how to try to recover some of this lost data through other means. You can get some data from Google Webmaster Tools, or hope that a portion of your organic traffic comes from Yahoo and Bing, etc. There are plenty of good articles that cover tips for that in detail, such as the following:
Google ‘(Not Provided)’ Keywords: 10 Ways to Get Organic Search Data
Instead, I’d like to focus on the opportunites this change provides for website owners and online marketers to go back to the basics and do a better job with some of the fundamentals of tracking. Search engine optimization (SEO) may be forever changed by this major change on Google’s part, but there are many best practices that haven’t changed — and in fact, this (Not Provided) trend makes them more important than ever before.
This may seem to be playing into Google’s hands, since their stated motivation for encrypting the search results was to protect user privacy, but few have believed that.. Since paid advertising on Google still gives you the keyword data, most pundits have assumed the move to “(Not Provided)” for organic search was intended to keep the valuable search data for Google’s own use, and drive people toward paid advertising on Google Adwords and Google +.
However, I have long believed that every business should be doing some amount of Google Adwords experimentation. Even if you don’t have an advertising budget, spending $100+ a month on Google Adwords can provide some of the most cost effective research into your target market available anywhere. Get search volume and keyword data, see what types of ad text and headlines draws the most clicks, and more. Build out your keyword lists for your content marketing, see the keyword data you are no longer going to get from organic search, and hopefully get some conversions as a bonus.
Since tracking of organic keywords is mostly if not completely going away in the age of ‘(Not Provided)”, time to step up your game in other areas. Be sure you are tracking everything else you can track, and plug up those gaps that have been on your marketing to-do list for months. Add tracking to your ecommerce, signup and contact us forms to get data on as many of your conversions as possible. (I am not objective in recommending my Campaign Tracker app for this, but please check it out if you are using Salesforce CRM). In the end, maximizing conversion tracking is more important than focusing on keywords that brought you clicks and traffic.
In addition, use Google Analytics campaign tags (utm_campaign, utm_source, etc.) on any links to your site that you give out. Not just in your advertising URLs, but in your social media posts, links you give to your partners to publish on their sties, blog posts, directory listings and profiles, etc. Tagging your URLs will eliminate some of the untracked traffic from other sources (social media sharing or referral sites) and give you more consistent, better data for the incoming link data that you can control.
Finally, for SEO go back to focusing on the basics — good site structure and good content. Without detailed organic keyword data, you won’t be able to do many of the search engine optimization tricks often promoted by some fly-by-night “we will increase your Google rankings” SEO firms — but you shouldn’t have been doing those things in the first place anyway. Tricks never work for long if they do work, and they can backfire badly.
Instead, accept that your site keyword data is going to be lacking, but use aggregate data from elsewhere — Google Webmaster Tools, Google Adwords — and start producing content that your audience would value. Blogging is very difficult to do regularly, but critical to this back-to-basics approach. Though for most busy professionals with multiple work responsibilities it is nearly impossible to find time to write regular blog posts, not only will they generate positive SEO returns, but they have the added benefit to establishing a voice and thought leadership for your particular field (or at least I hope so!)
What do you think of the Google ‘(Not Provided)’ change? Any tips you think I missed? Let us know in the contents below.