The dust has settled a bit on Google’s decision to stop passing keyword referral data from searchers that are logged in to their Google accounts and using encrypted search by default. That began in mid-October and then ramped up a couple weeks later.
At first, [not provided] represented a small percentage of overall traffic to most of the sites for which I have analytics access. And then it grew. And grew. And grew.
Today, [not provided] represents about 25% of the daily referrers to this blog. But it also represents double-digit daily referrers to non-marketing/tech sites that I follow.
And maybe the most head-shaking thing of all is that, in just 2.5 months, [not provided] managed to become a Top 10 referrer for most of the sites that I monitor. Here’s a look at three.
Small Business Search Marketing
My impression is that this blog attracts a mix of marketing consultants/agencies and small business owners. In both cases, it’s probably safe to assume that many readers are Google users and also frequently logged-in to their Google accounts. The [not provided] keyword referrals bear witness to that.
Not surprisingly at all, [not provided] occupies the No. 1 spot among all keyword referrals for 2011 to this blog. That’s among almost 69,000 different keywords that sent 168,000 total natural search visits.
But lest you think that [not provided] only affected marketing/tech blogs and websites, consider this next case.
@U2 is my long-running hobby site about the rock band U2. It’s been in existence since 1995 and for at least the past 12 years has never ranked lower than third on a search for the band’s name. (It was #1 until the official site launched in 2000, and stayed #2 until the Wikipedia page overtook a couple years ago.)
@U2 had more than 1.4 million unique visitors in 2011 from all corners of the globe. It’s a very diverse site and certainly not limited to the tech crowd like my own blog is. Visitors range from teens to senior citizens (yes, we have readers in their 70s).
In 2011, natural search sent 1,763,917 visits to @U2 on 237,929 total keywords. But in just 2.5 months, [not provided] cracked the top 10 overall keywords sending traffic to the site.
Related: On the @U2 forum, which has its own subdomain (forum.atu2.com), [not provided] was No. 7 on the 2011 keyword referrer list. We also have a blog on its own domain (atu2blog.com), and [not provided] was the No. 4 “most popular keyword” during 2011.
In other words, this is not just a problem for tech/marketing sites.
Dr. Cynthia Bailey, California Dermatologist
As many of you know, one of my clients is Dr. Cynthia Bailey, a dermatologist in California. Dr. Bailey’s target audience is also not the tech/marketing crowd. Her site offers high-quality skincare products and solutions to a very mainstream audience; it skews female, but us guys have skincare needs, too!
And, much like my mainstream U2 site, [not provided] cracked Dr. Bailey’s list of the 10 most popular keywords; in her case, it was No. 2 on the list in only 2.5 months.
The Problem With [Not Provided]
In each case above, with three very different target audiences, [not provided] made up a substantial percentage of the overall search traffic to these sites — and the numbers would be higher if I only compared it to overall Google traffic.
There are ways to use analytics data to help get a general idea of who these [not provided] visitors are. Google’s own Avinash Kaushik has some ideas and examples in this excellent article.
(I should mention that next month’s SMX West conference has a panel dedicated to discussing ways to cope with this issue: Life In A [Not Provided] World.)
But you know what? I don’t use analytics for general ideas and guesswork; I use analytics for specific answers. And Google has taken away a lot of those answers.
For a number of reasons (many of which Danny Sullivan explained yesterday on Search Engine Land), the [not provided] keyword referrer is nothing short of a pain in the arse for anyone who does serious work on the web.
For me, a blogger who relies on analytics to understand what content visitors are looking for, [not provided] is more than 7,500 visits that are a mystery to me — and remember, that’s in only 2.5 months! I shudder to think what the full 2012 statistics will look like.
For someone like Dr. Bailey, [not provided] directly impacts the bottom line. She not only relies on keyword referrals to help decide what to write about on her blog, but also to understand which keywords drive online sales of skincare products. And in just 2.5 months, [not provided] was No. 2 among all keywords that directly led to online sales.
This isn’t the end of the world for Dr. Bailey, nor for me, but it’s a serious hurdle to accomplishing our website’s goals. (And it’s a slap in the face to think that Google’s paid advertisers aren’t facing the same hurdle, but that’s another post for another day.)
I’m curious: In your analytics, where did [not provided] wind up ranking among all 2011 keyword referrals? How has it impacted your website(s)?