Analyzing Google’s (not provided): Extracting Data About Visits with No Keywords
Nearly a year and a half ago, Google began sending visitors to websites without providing the keyword from the users’ searches. Google claimed this was done for security and privacy. However, when the search engine still passes the keyword for paid search, this seemed a bit disingenuous. For online marketers who care about driving inbound traffic to their websites, Google has taken a step backwards toward old media where it’s difficult to track and measure your marketing efforts. To counteract this problem, we looked at Google referral data across a variety of SMB and B2B websites and were able to measure how many website visits are affected by (not provided) using data from Optify in hopes to provide actionable SEO insights.
First, let’s do a bit of background work.
What does “(not provided)” mean?
Users typically see (not provided) listed as the top referring keyword driving traffic to their sites — not just in Optify, but largely in any analytics program, such as Google Analytics. In October 2011, Google began to change how it sends people on to their destination website after completing a search. Specifically, Google does not pass referring keywords from the referring URL for any people using Google via https. This includes all Google users logged into Google accounts, and, of course, anyone using Gmail. As an online marketer, this means you don’t know how people are finding your website. So, how often does this happen now?
By January 2012, Google was “not providing” data on 25% of visits for Optify tracked websites. But most concerning is the trend of this keyword data suppression. Google has been suppressing steadily more and more keyword referral data. October 2012 — one year after Google implemented the change — was at an all-time high, with 38% of visits having no referring keyword. This means that it’s been becoming more and more difficult for marketers to understand their potential customers. Many Optify websites today continue to see even higher rates of keyword referral suppression.
Why It’s Wrong
A bit of a digression… I’d like to get a bit more technical on why I think Google is wrong here. Web browsers and websites have historically managed to pass referral data along as you move from page to page across the web. Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, Yandex, and virtually all websites pass along the page (and keyword querystring) that the visitor was on before he/she came to your website. Google has decided to change this standard open practice by putting many of their visitors on https, then selectively deciding what they will pass on to destination websites when someone clicks a referring link on Google. It may be a slight improvement in privacy, but it’s a step back on one of the greatest reasons for the astronomical growth of the web: transparency. Without transparency, the web would probably not be where it is today in terms of global user adoption and sheer usefulness. I’m not anticipating a change on Google’s part for this issue, but I’ll be watching them closely.
Back to marketing… So, what can you do to work around this problem?
A Few Tips Moving Forward
A post from Zach Okun – Does Google Rank 1st for the Keyword “Hypocrisy”? – provides some good background and tips on how to approach the changes. In short, here are the main points we’ve extracted using Optify data:
- Campaign tracking – If you’re using Optify, be sure to leverage our campaign tracking with any links you put out there. If you’re using other analytics dashboards, such as Google Analytics, there are similar methods for tracking specific campaigns.
- Email marketing – Utilize email marketing where you are in control of your audience, your content as well as any links to your website.
- Social media – Leverage content and your message on your social media channels and direct people back to your website whenever you can.
For more info, download our study to find out more about Google’s “not provided” keyword data and learn tips for how to deal with this aggravating issue.
Optify “(not provided)” Study