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Measuring Natural Keyword Traffic in the Age of (Not Provided) Secure Search

April 4, 2012

Dear Jill,

Keywords Unavailable (Not Provided) jumped from 12% to 22% in March. What does Google want us to do?
(Not Provided)
Two sites I manage jumped from an average of 12% keywords not reported (January and February) to 20% and 26%, respectively, in March. Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) queries reports only 40% of all of the actual natural clicks to these two sites.

What does Google expect honest search marketers to do when we can no longer accurately report the natural keyword segmentation of traffic? We search marketers are held accountable for the time and effort we invest in increasing site traffic for the most relevant keyword phrases. How will we be able to measure natural keyword traffic accurately in the future? At this rate, we're only a few months away from most of the keywords being blocked.



++Jill's Response++

Hi Betsy,

The first and most important thing to understand is that Google doesn't care whether you or I or anyone else can measure their natural (organic/free) search traffic. Google is an advertising company that uses their search engine as a medium to show their clients' ads. Period. The reality is that it's of no concern to Google whether businesses can improve their visibility in the free search results.

For anyone who doesn't look much at their analytics and isn't familiar with the (Not Provided) phenomenon, this is happening because Google instituted a secure searching platform. Previously, all Google searches left a trail of what keywords were used in the search query, and this trail could be picked up in server log files and via web analytic programs. With the new secure searching, Google is blocking the search queries from being shown when people who do Google searches are also logged into any Google product. It seems that they haven't been blocking them all, but blocking more and more every week. In addition, the Firefox browser recently announced that they'll also be blocking all search queries. It can be assumed that the Chrome browser will soon start doing the same thing.

What all this means to website owners, businesses and SEO consultants is that they can no longer rely on receiving the same keyword information they were used to getting in their analytics program. Note that this affects ALL analytics programs, not just Google Analytics (GA), so it's not as if you can just switch. And it's not going to go away; it's only going to get worse. In fact, for my High Rankings site, the percentage of (NP) keywords has doubled in just a month, with more than half my Google organic traffic coming in from them.

Not Provided Keywords Have Doubled

To see something similar with your own numbers in your account, create a Google Organic Advanced Segment. (Clicking that link will create one in your Google Analytics Account for you.) With that segment turned on, just click the Standard Reporting tab and scroll down to the Search Traffic area.

Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about it. With the major browsers soon to be not providing keywords, I would expect to see most sites with at least 75% of their keywords being NP'd very soon. Sites whose target markets are those who are typically logged into their Google account, such as those for my Google Analytics Custom Report Sharing (CRS) site, are already close to that number. While my CRS site is new and doesn't receive a whole lot of Google traffic yet, its NP keywords are already at a whopping 72.5%!

Not Provided over 72%!

Thankfully, I'm not relying on Google for traffic to this site, with most of it coming from Twitter and word of mouth at the moment.

What Does This Mean for SEO?

For now, we can still have some idea of which keywords people are using to find our sites by thinking of the keywords they do show us as simply a sample. You can also learn what some of the NP keywords are by looking at the search queries report in your Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) account.

For instance, when checking the keywords that were used to find my "blog ideas" post, Google Analytics showed me 219 NP keywords. It also showed the following number of visits per keyword search:

212 blog ideas
69 blog topics
10 ideas for blog
7 ideas for blog topics
5 blogging topics

Plus many more similar phrases from fewer searches. By comparing those keywords and numbers to my GWT account, I was able to recover 65 of the NP keywords that were the same as the top 3 keyword phrases showing in GA. That still leaves 154 keyword phrases unaccounted for.

The Good News

The thing is, while many pages of a website may get found for hundreds or even thousands of different keyword phrases, they're typically some variation of some core keywords. With pages that see lots of Google organic traffic, the exact numbers and keywords aren't going to be missed terribly. In fact, you may not have ever paid much attention to them in the first place. You'll still be able to see those core, high-traffic keywords in your GWT account, if not your GA one.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, for newer and/or smaller sites or pages that rely on highly long tail search traffic, things are looking more grim. While you may be able to recover a similar ratio of NP keywords for those URLs, the sampling of actual keywords is likely to be too small to be helpful. My hope is that Google will start showing more actual keywords in GWT, but as I said at the beginning, they have no incentive to do so, so I'm not going to hold my breath for it!

What You Can Do

Other than checking your GWT account more often and/or using your paid search keyword data (which isn't a bad idea), there's nothing you can do to recover most of the lost organic keywords. But you CAN still see which pages of your site people are landing on from Google organic search. And you can use that information to make some assumptions on keywords.

Eventually we may just have to stop thinking in terms of measuring keywords and instead look for overall traffic to any given URL. Obviously, if you're getting lots of Google organic traffic to particular pages of your site, whether you know the exact keywords or not, you do know you're doing something right.

You can look specifically at the landing pages that your NP keywords brought people to, by keeping on that Google Organic advanced segment I mentioned earlier, and clicking the (Not Provided) link.

Use the landing page secondary dimension
Then click the "Secondary dimension" tab and add "Landing Page" (within "Traffic Sources"). This will now show you all the pages people landed on from Google organic searches that have the (Not Provided) keyword.

Can still see how many visits get to any given page

From there you can make sure that your usual highly trafficked pages are still getting traffic, and also see how any new content is faring. While you may not know all the keywords, you can assume they're similar or some variation of those that you can see.


P.S. If you'd like more custom Google Analytics reports, please do visit Custom Report Sharing - it's free!

Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings Jill Whalenand an SEO Consultant in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Mark said:
Hi Jill,

Dan Barker at Econsultancy posted a filter that can get some of that not provided keyword data back

Currently trying it to see how it works.
 Jill Whalen said:
Mark, do we have that one at Custom Report Sharing?

I'll have to check it out because I can't imagine how it would be possible to recover it. If it's what I think I saw it just helps you make inferences.
 Ruth Wells said:
Please write more about coping with the March 2012 changes that have caused many sites including mine to take their first big drop ever for a site that has been online and on top of search engines since 1996. Not a lot is being written on this that is useful. White hat SEO seems to be useless right now. I followed all the rules and now have not much left to show for it. Visits off 30%, sales off by even more. Phone has stopped ringing.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Ruth, I actually did just write about the at TalentZoo:

Over-Optimization: It's Not Your Mother's SEO Anymore!