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Google Quietly Moves to Totally Secure Search

Michael Coppola September 25, 2013 Category Digital Marketing

Google Analytics Becoming 100% “Not Provided”

As of Monday, September 23, Google has moved to encrypt ALL searches with SSL (secure search). Almost 2 years after “Dark Google” began and Google Analytics started masking certain organic keyword data referrals with “(not provided),” it looks like the search engine has stopped passing the data to webmasters altogether.

A Tough Year for Organic Keyword Data

Encrypted search is not new; Google’s encrypted search service initially launched in May 2010 on a separate URL (https://www.google.com). A year later, Google began masking keyword data belonging to any user signed into a Google Product, and the browsers soon followed: Mozilla Firefox in 2012, Apple’s Safari browser in iOS6 in September 2012, and Chrome in January 2013. Over time, these incremental steps have led to a steady increase in keyword data gaps from “(not provided)”.

Update: We’ve release our own Not Provided Estimator tool. Our tool helps you get information of what keywords Google is probably using to send people to your top landing pages. Click here to try our Not Provided Estimator.

While the percentage of this traffic has always varied from site to site and ultimately depends on the industry, it’s clear that the increase in “(not provided)” keywords has been especially sharp over the month of September.

google-not-provided-rates

The chart above is from notprovidedcount.com, which tracks the increase in the number of “(not provided)” keywords in Google Analytics data across a cross-section of sites. Beginning the week of September 5th, the rate increased dramatically.

What Does Secure Search Mean for Site Owners?

Site owners will no longer be able to view incoming search keywords driving traffic to their site using Google Analytics. This has important implications for organic search optimization and reporting:

  • Organic Keyword Traffic Performance: site owners will no longer be able to easily correspond incoming keyword traffic with conversion goals in Google Analytics.
  • Non-Branded Organic Traffic KPI’s: benchmarking a growth in non-branded search traffic will also become difficult, as “(not provided)” will replace instances of both branded and non-branded keywords.
  • New Content Ideation Methods: many marketers will no longer be able to use incoming keyword search terms in GA to develop the kind of informational web content recommended by Google; more creative content ideation and marketing methods will need to be employed, likely with the help of content and search marketing specialists.

The Future of Keyword Data – Alternative Options

Site owners won’t be completely in the dark. Organic keyword trends can still be uncovered using other Google tools to make informed estimates. Here are a few alternative methods for digging up organic keyword data:

1. Google Webmaster Tools
Google Webmaster Tools provides keyword data in the form of Impressions and Clicks (Rounded) for the top 2,000 keywords over the past 90 days. (Google has also indicated this month that they plan to provide data for up to one year in the future.) For most site owners, this can be more than enough to make informed decisions about content creation and optimization.

google-webmaster-search-queries

2. Keyword Rankings and CTR
Site owners can also calculate organic keyword traffic estimates by correlating Google’s estimated keyword search volumes with current keyword rankings. In general, most search professionals base average organic search click-through rates on a 2011 Optify study that indicated an average CTR 36.4% for #1 ranked keywords (view the full CTR breakdown and commentary here).

3. Google AdWords 
Google last month released “Paid & Organic” reports in AdWords. In this report, AdWords account owners can view click and impression data for paid and organic results side-by-side. (Note that this requires linking to a Webmaster Central account, and uses Webmaster Tools data – nothing new here.)

Some enterprise SEO tools have also anticipated the rise in “(not provided)” search terms and moved to provide alternate ways of viewing and analyzing organic search traffic trends. Conductor Searchlight announced a new “True Traffic” feature at the platform’s annual industry conference last week, which will help SEO’s make sense of “(not provided)” by providing advanced traffic pattern estimates based on search volumes, rankings, and estimated CTRs.

Why Now, Google?

An article in the Washington Post on September 6th suggests that Google is moving more quickly towards entirely secure search as a consequence of the NSA’s PRISM program. PRISM uses data from American technology companies as part of a surveillance initiative that is causing significant backlash in the technology industry.

Google’s encryption initiative, initially approved last year, was accelerated in June as the tech giant struggled to guard its reputation as a reliable steward of user information amid controversy about the NSA’s PRISM program, first reported in The Washington Post and the Guardian that month.

Though the latest change in Google’s secure search settings may initially be somewhat jarring for site owners, it’s not an impossible hurdle. There continue to be several ways a thoughtful marketer can uncover the organic keyword information so crucial to understanding the search audience.

Want to learn more about how “(not provided)” keyword data will affect your business decisions? Contact our SEO team for additional insights, or click through our blog for more on the latest search engine algorithm updates and optimization strategies.

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