SEO in the Era of “Not Provided” Keywords

“Not Provided” Keyword Update – Where Do We Go Now?

What Are “Not Provided” Keywords

Google Analytics records the keywords used in search engines that bring traffic to your site. These are broken down under “paid” and “organic” searches. About two years ago, Google started removing some of this keyword data for organic searches and replaced the keywords with the term “(not provided).” This would happen if someone was signed into Google (if they were using Gmail, Google Plus, or another Google Service) and performed a search. The official word from the Google offices was that this was being done for privacy reasons, to protect their users, and that it would only affect about 5-8% of search queries. Although this could be annoying, it would not eliminate a significant amount of data.

The Current Landscape of “Not Provided”

Over time, despite Google’s original claim, the amount of keywords that were being shown as “(not provided)” continued to increase, especially in the tech sector where users were more likely to be logged into Google. Frustrations started to rise as the “(not provided)” number rose in excess of 20%, well over double Google’s original promise.

Google has recently changed their reporting again, extending the “(not provided)” data well beyond users that were simply signed in. It is now affecting a significant amount of search queries. We sampled three websites in the healthcare industry and found that these results have now skyrocketed. The following is the percentage of the total organic searches that “(not provided)” keywords accounted for:

Website 1:
8/19/13 – 8/25/13: 28.8%
9/16/13 – 9/22/13: 47.5%
Website 2:
8/19/13 – 8/25/13: 46.6%
9/16/13 – 9/22/13: 65.4%
Website 3:
8/19/13 – 8/25/13: 42.8%
9/16/13 – 9/22/13: 71.8%

The results have increased dramatically, and are only expected to rise. It is likely that in the near future, Google will not provide organic keyword data at all.

How This Will Effect You

There are a few ways that the “(not provided)” update will affect you. Here are some of the most important:

  • It will be increasingly difficult, ultimately impossible, to differentiate between branded (company name, products, etc.) and non-branded search results. We can measure search results as a trend and as a whole, but will not be able to differentiate between “people who have heard of you and are searching for your site” and “people who are searching for services you provide, but don’t know you yet.”
  • It will be impossible to see what keywords people are using to access your site. This will make it difficult to see what keywords are actually bringing in traffic and should be focused on further.
  • Keyword research will have to be done in other ways. Gone are the days when looking at current search keywords as an indicator of customer behavior is a part of keyword research – at least as far as looking at current search terms.

What You Can Do in the Mean Time

(We realize this may be a little heavy for some readers. If you need help, please let us know.)

  1. Look at your landing pages. The landing page data in Analytics is going to become your new best friend. Look at your landing pages, and be sure to use the dropdown to select “medium” as your secondary dimension, and use an advanced filter to select “organic” search traffic. You can now see what pages viewers are landing on in organic searches. This is not going to tell you what keywords were used, but you’re likely to have a good idea based on the content that people are landing on.

    You may not have all the data, but you can now see what general keywords are effective, and which keywords are ineffective. You then have some basis for your strategy in content development – What content areas are strong? Which are weak? What needs more help? What performs well already?
  2. Start thinking more in terms of marketing and in terms of SEO. Traditionally, many SEO firms (and clients) have been very focused on specific keywords and how they were performing. We can now move past this narrow-sighted focus and towards an overall marketing trend. Monitor overall performance, market like a true marketing firm both online and offline, and work to grow the notability of the business. This will produce results in search as well as offline traffic – and that’s ultimately what we’re looking for.

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