Why Are Many Google Analytics Keywords “Not Provided”?

In September of last year Google made a change to their search engine process that encrypted all search activity except for clicks on ads.

When asked about this change, Google confirmed the change, saying:

“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.”

What this all means is that marketers won’t even be able to get keyword data for searches conducted by users who aren’t signed into Google.

search bar with arrow pointing to the keyword find.

Google Search Keyword Protection.

Why the Change?
Google claims, the reason for the change is to provide “extra protection” for searchers. However, many suspect that Google may also be attempting to block NSA spying activity, since Google was accused of giving the National Security Agency access to its search data back in June, which it strongly has denied. Another popular theory is that since Google is encrypting all search activity for everything but ad clicks, this is a move to get more people to use Google AdWords.

What this Means to Google Users
Back in October 2011, Google announced, under reasons of privacy, it would start encrypting search result for logged-in Google users. This also included any products owned by Google like YouTube, Google+, Gmail, etc. This meant that marketers were no longer able to identify which keywords a person who was logged into Google searched before they arrived at your website, even if they were using a web or marketing analytics platform like HubSpot. Without this keyword information, marketers would have a much tougher time knowing which keywords to target to achieve greater visibility in searches.

Google initially claimed this implementation would impact less than 10% of all searches conducted. However, this percentage quickly rose. In November 2011, experts said, HubSpot’s customers recorded that more than 11% of organic search traffic was affected. By January the following year it was stated, for the HubSpot website specifically, about 55% of the organic searches was encrypted. This number rose steadily by an estimated 4 percentage points each month.

Other webmasters were reporting similar numbers. The site, Not Provided Count, which tracks 60 sites to chart the rise of the keyword “(not provided)”, has been reporting on the effects of encrypted keywords over time. As of the publish date of this article, 80.15% of search terms are being encrypted.

What Search  Marketers Can Do
This question is hard to answer, in terms of preventing Google from making this, there is most likely nothing marketers can do.

SEO professionals have historically used a combination of ranking, traffic and conversion metrics as the primary KPIs to measure SEO performance.

The following metrics are still available, even with the Google change:

  • Overall Organic Search Traffic By Engine
  • Total conversions from Organic Traffic / By URL
  • Search Rankings for Critical Terms
  • Search Rankings by Page Tags / Types
  • Search Rankings by Keyword Tag

These are no longer available:

  • Year-Over-Year Brand / Non Brand Total SEO Traffic
  • Year-Over-Year SEO Traffic by Keyword Tag
  • Conversions by Keyword / Keyword Tag
  • Keyword Traffic Patterns by URL
  • Long-Tail Keyword Traffic Patterns

Here are some ways you can still measure and use search data:

  • It is still possible to tell how much traffic your website is getting from organic search. Although you may not know the exact keywords, you can still correlate the work you do to optimize your site and create content to the increase or decrease in organic search.
  • Other search engines like Bing and Yahoo continue to provide keyword data. According to comScore, currently, Google.com has about 67% of the search market share, Bing has 18%, and Yahoo has 11%. Although this will not provide the full picture, analytics tools like HubSpot can continue to show keywords for the 33% of searches that come from search engines like Bing, Yahoo, AOL, Ask.com, etc. This data will give marketers at least some indication of which keywords are the most useful.
  • If you use Google AdWords for pay-per-click marketing, connect your company’s AdWords account to your Google Analytics account and use that data for keyword research, which is suggested by Larry Kim of Wordstream.
  • Rank will continue to play a role in helping measure the results of search engine optimization and content creation.