If you keep a regular eye on your Google Analytics account (or any other web stats package), you’ve probably noticed a significant growth in (not provided) organic keywords over the last few weeks. You’re certainly not alone, as this graph from notprovidedcount.com shows:
The date when the graph really starts to go north over 50% is 3rd September. It appears that around this time, Google rolled out secure search as a default to more users, particularly those using the Internet Explorer browser.
To re-cap on why (not provided) exists: Google started making a secure (SSL) connection the default setting for some users almost two years ago. The same type of https:// secure connection you get on e-commerce sites, for example. This means that your search is encrypted as it passes over the internet, so if those packets of data are intercepted by someone, they won’t be able to tell what that data is. One of the effects of a secure connection is that referrer data is not passed to the receiving website and that’s why you lose the keyword data in Analytics. Simply, Google (the search engine) is not showing your website (and by extension the Google Analytics code in your pages) the content of the search result URL, which contains the keywords your visitor had searched for when they came across your site in the results.
Why? It depends who you ask. Google say it is for the privacy and security of their users, some think it is to coerce businesses into paying for AdWords to get keyword data, whilst others (including me) think it is a move to harm the competition in the retargeting advertising space. You can read more about this in my blog post from October 2011 when Google introduced (not provided) to the world. Danny Sullivan has good coverage of the history and motivations here on Search Engine Land.
Regardless of the motivation, the reality is that we are in a world where 75%+ of your organic traffic comes without knowing what keywords were used in the search that generated those visits. That means that a favoured metric of SEO practitioners, non-brand organic traffic, has become virtually meaningless. So much keyword data is now tied up in that one (not provided) line in Analytics that trying to understand which keywords are generating traffic and conversions is pointless.
So as marketers, we have to move to the next most meaningful way of interpreting the data, and that is by treating organic traffic as simply a channel and analysing its performance as such. No longer is there any value in reporting how many visits or conversions a particular keyword generated. Indeed, in many cases it will be impossible – there could be hundreds of keywords with no data of their own, all wrapped up in (not provided). If the current trajectory is maintained, there will be no keyword data before the year is out.
On a practical level, it means that from now on, our reports to clients will focus on organic traffic performance data as a whole. We’ll continue to report keyword traffic while we can, but its statistical value is now to the point where it is more of a curiosity or a vague hint of what’s going on than an accurate picture of how visitors are finding your website. Maybe Google will resurrect keyword data in the form of a paid Analytics subscription (I heard a conservative estimate of 10 million active Analytics accounts) – there is no technical reason why they can’t provide both a secure transmission of search data over the internet and keyword data in their own Analytics package, as is already the case with AdWords keywords. Until that day, however, we are plunged into the dark ages of organic traffic reporting.