Google’s [Not Provided]: Assessing 2.5 Months of Analytics Damage

Filed in Google, MY BEST POSTS, SEO by Matt McGee on January 9, 2012 25 Comments

google-not-providedThe 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.

sbsm-notprovided

But lest you think that [not provided] only affected marketing/tech blogs and websites, consider this next case.

@U2

@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.

atu2-notprovided

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.

drb-notprovided

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)?

Comments (25)

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  1. Eric Lander says:

    In our agency environment most of our ~75 clients see [not provided] in the top 2 keyword referral slots.

    It is normally second to a company name or highly branded phrase.

    It has altered our approach significantly, as we’re forced to remember an “x factor” when performing any conversion analysis from search.

  2. Matt Siltala says:

    Hey Matt, on DSM it’s the #1 referrer, but on several ecomm sites it’s hanging around the 8-10 mark. Very annoying for all the reasons you outlined indeed.

  3. Casie G says:

    I think that double-digits are definitely the norm from everything people are saying.

    For the Grasshopper.com site, [notprovided] ended up #4 for keywords but more importantly, #4 for conversions. The real problem I see, is that we pay people to improve specific keywords and drive conversions from those keywords. It’s hard to gauge improvement when so much of that is not being attributed.

  4. Similar to Eric, we’re an agency handling analytics for multiple client sites as well as our own and we’re seeing a rise in the instance of “(not provided)” across the board. In at least one case, it’s #1. Like Avinash and many others, we’re having to constantly create work-arounds to understand our clients’ data and report back to them. (In fact, we recently wrote about it here: http://bit.ly/solving-not-provided

  5. Ben Dundas says:

    On my website, [not provided] ranked 2nd with a total of 10% of visits. Like Eric said, it is second to our company name in search ranking. It is definitely changing the dynamics of tracking search results and does create a lot of issues in finding the real keywords driving business.

    This is definitely going to be more prevalent in industries that include tech friendly people. It will also continue to get worse as more people begin adopting all of Google’s platforms. If Google+ really takes off like a Facebook, are advertisers and businesses going to be happy with the little or no information Google provides. Or, could this be their first step in creating a paid analytics platform to track these [not provided] keywords?

  6. SCW says:

    I ran the numbers for my top-5 clients and it looks like we are 11-19 percent. For the passed 30-days, [notprovided] is the number one or two top referrer for each client. I agree, a “general” idea is not good enough. I wonder how much more “G” plans to take away – and why?

  7. Debra Murphy says:

    My numbers look around 12% for my site and a few of my clients and usually sitting in the first or second position.

    How are you not logged in when you are searching since so many people use Gmail today? When I search, unless I log out specifically to see results that are not personalized, my searches will always be [not provided] to the sites I visit. Very frustrating.

    However, always nice to meet a fellow U2 fan!

  8. For my own three sites, [not provided] is the…

    seoautomatic.com #1 referrer / 29.91% of the traffic
    searchcommander.com – #1 referrer /28.03%
    pdxtc.com – - #1 / 20.24

    quick look at just 7 client sites before i got mad –

    #1 – 11.1%
    #2 – 13.99%
    #2 – 12.57%
    #1 – 12.59
    #1 – 10.81
    #2 – 9.92
    #2 – 14.59

    i’m shuddering too ;(

    • Matt McGee says:

      Thanks for all the comments and validation, gang. One one hand, glad to know I’m not alone in seeing this be a top “keyword” after only 2.5 months. On the other hand, not glad to see how it’s impacting all kinds of sites.

      Debra – a lot of people do use Gmail, but last I saw, it was still far behind both Yahoo Mail and Hotmail in user counts. Not sure on any exact stats, though.

  9. Tim Peter says:

    Hi Matt,

    I’m seeing it representing as much as 15% of natural search (though only about 5% of overall traffic) on my clients’ sites. So while the percentages aren’t as bad as some listed here, (not provided) represents one of the highest converting terms from an e-commerce perspective on these sites. Obviously, this represents a major impact on our ability to optimize the site further from a conversion standpoint. My biggest concern is what happens as Google+ grows. The more folks logged into G+, the bigger potential impact.

    Thanks for keeping the spotlight on this issue. I’m afraid we’re only just beginning to see the effects here.

  10. I have same case as SCW. For around one month 13 – 16 percent was not provided. What is the major cause behind it?

  11. Kris says:

    Me and my clients are all either #1 or #2. Is this just greed? Or are they paving the way for big brands by slowly clearing the playing field. If you can’t use Adwords for keyword analysis moving forward, you are at a significant disadvantage. If you can’t afford that you probably have to bow out of the game. Next time you listen to Cutts hold your nose!

  12. Lori says:

    For 2011 on ours (not provided) came in 3rd after (not set) and our company name. It is amazing that Google created the analytics to help us and then blocks it from its own users?!

  13. Cody Baird says:

    I have real concerns about what this really means for the future of SEO, keyword research, and conversion optimization.

    With Google reviews being so important for small business I see more subscribers for Gmail as SMB’s request and offer incentives for places reviews.

    The importance of Google Places accounts for most if not all small business equals more Gmail subscribers.

    The privacy features available as well as functionality of circles with Google + make it an appealing, popular, and growing social medium…. more Gmail subscribers.

    More and more small businesses are using Google Analytics on at least a basic level….more subscribers.

    I have dentists, hotels, alcohol rehab centers, electricians, & hvac contractors for clients. All have lost double digit percentages to (not provided).

    Gmail users are no longer exclusive to the tech/web/software savvy community by any means. I don’t know many Gmail, Google +, Google Analytics users that aren’t logged into at least one account all day while participating in all other online activities.

    I believe that 70 – 80% of the population will eventually have Gmail accounts just as 70% use Google as the search engine of choice. My question is how far away that day is. I also have questions about how I should act to prepare myself for the data that will continue to go away.

  14. Henry Sim says:

    I got an average of 22% for my top-10 clients. This is frustrating and I won’t be surprise if it hit beyond 25%. Makes real analysis work the more challenging.

  15. Hi Matt,

    We recently conducted a study and found that Google’s “Not Provided” Keywords have increased by 171% over the last 12 months.

    Here’s the full study – http://www.optify.net/press-releases/optify-study-googles-not-provided-rises-to-almost-40-of-organic-traffic-for-b2b-sites

    Some key takeaways were:
    - Google “not provided” now accounts for almost 40 percent of referring traffic data from organic search, an increase of 171 percent since originally introduced a year ago.
    - 64 percent of companies analyzed in the study see 30 to 50 percent of their traffic from Google as “not provided”.
    - 81 percent of the companies analyzed in the study see over 30 percent of their traffic from Google as “not provided”.
    - Recognized referring keywords from organic search declined by 49 percent.

    Jennifer
    @Jenerationy

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