Google Makes Organic Keyword Referrals 100% Not Provided: Now What?

On Monday news broke that Google has finally made the move to switch entirely to secure search.  What this means is that Google no longer shares organic keyword referral information and that (not provided) data as communicated in Google Analytics is now 100%.

Specifically what this means is that two years after encrypting organic search referral data, which resulted in a steady increase in “(not provided)” data, Google has switched all searches over to encrypted searches using HTTPS.

This change means no more keyword data will be passed to site owners. For organic search marketers it will be more difficult to identify which keywords are driving traffic to a website from organic search (i.e. Google search engine results page).

Encrypted searches from Google will no longer pass the keyword data through to websites, effectively eliminating the ability to track users by their keyword searches. This is a monumental move that has a huge impact on being able to determine where organic search traffic is coming from at a keyword-level perspective.

So why did Google do this?

Their official stance is due to privacy issues and concerns, but really if you read between the lines, one might think that one of the reasons that Google did this was to push more advertisers into using the AdWords product. Through Google AdWords, users can still obtain traffic insight at a keyword level. In the past few weeks Google has launched combined paid and organic reports via AdWords (no doubt in preparation for moving to 100% secure search as launched this week). Google reps have stated, “We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.” Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land has identified and discussed two reasons as to why Google has decided to make this move now:

  1. Blocking The NSA? This relates to the whole US National Security Agency spying thing. In June, Google was accused of cooperating to give the NSA instant and direct access to its search data through the PRISM spying program, something the company has strongly denied.
  2. Boosting Ad Sales? The other reason is that Google recently made a change so that one of the easiest ways for publishers to see the actual terms that have been withheld over time is through the Google AdWords system.

Mediative agrees with these two reasons for Google’s decision. Google does not. Their reply to Sullivan’s post:

“We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users… The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.”

Regardless, this move by Google is troubling if you’re a site owner or online marketer. We no longer have insight into when Google sends a visit to our sites and pages, or what that person searched for. In the past, as organic search marketers, we have used this data to:

  • Identify keyword opportunities to improve the relevancy of a given site page.
  • Monitor content optimization efforts; not to game the search engines, but to provide a more relevant piece of content for users to engage with and find the information they are looking for.
  • Monitor page performance for a given page.
  • Evaluate branded strength: are people simply searching for branded terms to come to your site or are they arriving to your site based on non-branded search queries?

How Does This Change Organic Search Marketing Initiatives?

Google has made it a little more difficult (not impossible) to obtain organic keyword level data, but it also means that organic strategists must look to new metrics to tell the story and see the progress of organic search efforts. Some of the insight that all of a sudden becomes more important include:

  1. Google Webmaster Tools Keyword Data – evaluating a sample list of some keywords that are sending us traffic. Google has stated that they may be looking to elaborate on this data in terms of providing more historical keyword level data.
  2. Google AdWords Data – interestingly enough, keyword level data is still available via their paid advertising platform.
  3. Analyzing Page Level Data – in addition (or opposed to) keyword level data, organic search experts will be evaluating which pages received referral visits from Google Search.
  4. Ranking Data Combined With Estimated Search Volumes – this will identify keywords that we are suspecting are driving traffic.

Just to be clear, this is a fundamental paradigm shift in the Search industry. We realize that this change was inevitable since the first rollout in October 2011 – we knew that this was coming. Having said that, it was still difficult to prepare for because at the heart of Search is a user’s query.

A user, who is looking for information, types in a search query into a search engine and receives a set of results (relevant or not). However, while we may have lost some keyword level insight, this lack of data does not change the fundamental approach of creating high quality content that speaks to your audience.

It’s not just about having a number one ranking in Google for a given key phrase, it is about driving qualified traffic to your site, delivering a successful site experience and hopefully having the user be an advocate of your brand and complete a conversion. It is about guiding your users and site visitors through their Search journey. They have an issue that potentially your site can solve. Provide the right information at the right time to the right audience.

Right or wrong, Google is the main player in Search and they often flex their muscle at will (as seen this week).

FACT: Google is removing all organic keyword data under the guise of “protecting users’ privacy” while still providing full keyword referral data to AdWords customers.

The decision to eliminate the ability to track users by their keyword searches is a monumental change that impacts organic search marketers, it presents a challenge but an opportunity at the same time. Keyword referral data has been an important aspect as to how online marketers, specifically organic search strategists and webmasters, monitor success and tailor content and optimization strategies for their web properties. It has a dramatic impact on understanding how users are arriving at a website. This traditionally has been invaluable insight that has allowed online marketers to make decisions on how to best deliver their content to their audience.

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