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Helpless - Keyword Not Provided

Posted on 2.28.2013

If you’re dealing with the growing Keyword Not Provided problem, you're working in the dark

In late 2011, Google implemented a major change, forcing search engine optimization professionals to work in the virtual dark, as keyword-level data from users logged into and searching on Google was no longer available to them. While the change has benefits to users (improved privacy/security, faster speeds and an improved overall experience), it has been a significant problem for digital media professionals. The issue is only getting worse.

The problem is these professionals no longer have information on why Google search engine users are showing up at their websites. This is particularly detrimental for SEOs, as that data is essential to running any halfway decent optimization campaign and driving traffic to websites from natural/organic results.

As Tad Miller, vice president of accounts at Search Mojo, puts it, “It makes it harder to justify your existence as an SEO.”

The Growing Epidemic

When Google first announced the change, it impacted less than 10 percent of queries. The situation has gotten much worse leaving many to wonder if Google knew exactly how far reaching the implications would be for websites.

“I think that Google definitely underestimated the impact this would have,” said Shannon Welch, the director of Web analytics at Terakeet Corporation.

According to Welch, keyword not provided has had a “pretty huge” impact on her work, and it is currently affecting the company’s top-three keyword searches.

“It makes our job to improve searches for users more difficult,” said Welch. “It’s hard to come up with concrete answers with a large percentage of branded traffic not provided.”

Miller, whose company works with a mix of B2B and consumer brands, has noticed similar problems. He reports that Search Mojo has “some clients with 50 percent of their traffic encrypted, so obviously that makes it completely impossible to do any year-over-year analysis.”

But this isn’t an isolated problem, as Optify released a study in late 2012 showing that 39 percent of Google search terms are shown as “not provided,” and that 64 percent of companies are now seeing between 30-50 percent of their traffic displayed as such in Google Analytics.

Before It Gets Better

Anxiety about the future of keyword not provided is getting more intense thanks to an increasingly tech-savvy customer base for many online companies. According to Welch, one of the biggest problems “has to do with what your audience is. If your users are generally Googleheavy or younger and likely to have a Gmail account, it’s more of a problem.”

Adding to that concern is a recent change to the Chrome browser (v25), as all searches that are conducted in the address bar (or Omnibox) will now also be encrypted, even if users that aren’t logged into Google accounts conduct them.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way to slow down the adoption of Google’s online services, all of which require users to sign up for a Google account. “The problem is only going to get worse as Google tries to push people to get involved in Google+ because of the personalization it provides in the search results,” said Miller.

How to Deal

To date, there hasn’t been much that Web professionals can do to combat the keyword-not-provided problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.

“Our work around has been to look at the yearover- year traffic on a page and gather from the history what data is provided and what keywords drive the most traffic to a page,” said Miller. “Say a homepage has a 20 percent drop — [from that] we can usually assert that searches for a brand name are down.”

Meanwhile, Welch has been creating custom filters in the Advanced Segments section of Google Analytics and rendering landing pages for not provided keywords to see just where those particular searchers are trying to go. Creating landing pages and custom reports have so far become some of the industry’s best (and only) practices for dealing with this issue, as they are one of the only ways to fill in the gaps left by missing keyword data. For now, it’s just a temporary solution to the very big problem.

“We can do work arounds, guess and assume, but we’re still missing a lot of data,” said Welch.

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