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Google made an announcement this week that they’ll no longer be passing search query (keyword) data along to a Website when a user is signed-in to their Google account and performs a search on Google. In short – this means that Google is blocking access to organic keywords data. Not just in Google Analytics – but in any Web analytics package.

Explaining the Change
  1. Signed-In user does a search on Google
  2. Signed-in user clicks on an organic result
  3. Website owner sees “Not Provided” in their Web analytics reporting instead of the keyword that brought the user to the site

Get the idea? They’re not reporting on organic keyword searches anymore. However, if a signed-in user clicks on a paid search (PPC) advertisement, then Google will pass the keyword data through. Keep that fact in mind…

If you believe the party line, then according to Google, this move was done in the interest of making their search engine a more secure & safe place for users to search by protecting search query data & personalized results. If you’re a conspiracy theorist, then this is just another way that Google is forcing site owners to use AdWords… which is how Google makes money. In other words – the message might be “if you want to know which keywords are the best for your Website, better pay for them.”

Either way, if you’re a Website owner or Internet marketer, particularly an SEO, this could be a game-changing move re-setting your level of sophistication to the mid-2000′s.

How it Affects Site Owners & SEO’s

As explained above, Google will no longer be passing search query data to Google Analytics if the user is performing a search via SSL. This means that while you will be able to view that a visitor from Google organic search came to your website, you will no longer be able to see what search query that user typed in to find your site. In place of the keyword in Web Analytics reporting, you will now see “Not Provided” instead.

How big of a deal this is to a Website really kind of depends on how much of your search traffic comes from Google organic search, and whether the sub-set of that traffic is significant. A lot of that has to do with your target audience, how technically savvy they are, whether they have a Google account and stay signed-in, etc. In other words – it depends.

Google claims that “…the change will affect only a minority of your traffic.” So, out of curiosity – I took a look at the keyword reporting for our site and a few of our clients. Granted, this change only took place a couple of days ago – but for every single site we work with including our own, “Not Provided” is a top 10 keyword result. In most cases, it was a top 5 result. Doesn’t seem so minor to me.

"Not Provided" Google keyword referral

Example "Not Provided" result from a client's keyword referrals. Since the change, "Not Provided" is showing up as a top 10 result for ALL of our clients.

How pervasive is the problem? As expected, Google organic traffic makes up the bulk of our client’s search traffic falling somewhere between 88% – 93% of search traffic. If a substantial portion of those Google users are signed-in, then you aren’t going to be getting much information from your organic keyword referrals…

Example of the amount of organic traffic that comes from Google for a client site

This is a typical organic traffic breakdown for our client sites. Guess which search engine makes up the blue slice of the pie? That's right - Google.

Why I Think Google’s Privacy Claim is a Bad Joke

Google Analytics (or any kind of Web analytics package) is fairly good at not really disclosing too much about the user. Sure, we are able to get information such as the proximity of where the user was located, the browser that was used, the search query that was used and other information… but what we’re not able to get is:

  • First and last name
  • Mother’s maiden name
  • Name of family pet growing up
  • Favorite food

Basically – when we’re looking at the keywords that drive our client’s businesses and are looking for ways to make their content more relevant and drive a better experience, we aren’t really getting anything “private”.

Further Reading, Takeaways & Thoughts

  1. There’s been a substantial backlash to this announcement. I could be wrong, but I’m betting that Google doesn’t budge on this one.
    1. Google’s Announcement: [fancy_link variation=primary_green link="http://analytics.blogspot.com/2011/10/making-search-more-secure-accessing.html"]Making search more secure: Accessing search query data in Google Analytics[/fancy_link]
    2. [fancy_link variation=primary_green link="http://searchnewscentral.com/20111019195/Latest/dear-google-this-is-war.html"]Dear Google: This is war[/fancy_link]
    3. [fancy_link variation=primary_green link="http://outspokenmedia.com/seo/google-invests-in-privacy-for-profit/"]Google Invests in Privacy for Profit[/fancy_link]
    4. Search Engine Land: [fancy_link variation=primary_green link="http://searchengineland.com/google-to-begin-encrypting-searches-outbound-clicks-by-default-97435"]Google To Begin Encrypting Searches & Outbound Clicks By Default With SSL Search[/fancy_link]
    5. Avinash Kaushik – THE Web Analytics guru – posted a Google Analytics custom report you could use to keep an eye on Google’s https keyword change trend. [fancy_link variation=primary_green link="http://t.co/FlnPF5Ib"]Get it here[/fancy_link]
  2. Google Analytics user? Create an annotation in GA and note October 18, 2011 as the day that Google started blocking organic SSL searches. Believe me – if you’re at all accountable for reporting & analyzing on search traffic, you will likely be doing a lot of explaining and will be glad you pegged the date.
  3. Are you an SEO? You’ll likely be taking your level of focus to a broader-level perspective than focusing on specific keywords. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing… Create & use advanced segments. Get used to using multi-channel attribution. Get used to relying on AdWords data…. and trying to make sense out of Bing referrals.

I’m sure some more things will come to mind over the next few days and weeks. I can’t WAIT to go to my next search marketing conference and watch every Google speaker take Q&A. It’s gonna get ugly.

I’m looking forward to YOUR comments, thoughts, takeaways and links.

About Christian Bullock

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