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5 Tips for Handling (Not Provided) Data

Uri Bar-Joseph
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It has been more than a year since Google announced its SSL enhancement. What follows are some thoughts and tips on how to handle the growing lack of data you receive from your organic visits.

A Little Background

Google announced on October 18, 2011 that it would be “enhancing [the] default search experience for signed-in users” by making SSL search the default search for signed-in users. This change encrypts your search queries and Google’s results page and means that visits from organic search listings no longer include the information about each individual query. Instead, Google started passing the term “(not provided)” as the referring keyword for those organic search visits.

Google mitigated the issue by offering publishers to “…receive an aggregated list of the top 1,000 search queries that drove traffic to their site for each of the past 30 days through Google Webmaster Tools.” Google didn't block paid search visit data “to enable advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns and to improve the ads and offers they present to you.”

What Changed

SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is a protocol that helps provide secure Internet communications for services like web browsing, email, instant messaging, and other data transfers. When you search over SSL, your search queries and search traffic are encrypted so that intermediary parties that might have access to your network can't easily see your results and search terms.

  • Search terms are encrypted and are excluded from the referrer headers that are part of the request sent to the result site you visit.
  • The landing site still receives information that you're coming from Google, but not the query that was issued.
  • If you click on an ad on the results page, your browser will send an unencrypted referrer that includes your query to the advertiser’s site.
  • Google logs the same information about your search when you’re using SSL search as we do for unencrypted search. SSL search doesn't reduce the data that Google receives and logs when you search, or change the listing of the items in your web history.

google-vs-encrypted-google

The Current Status of (not provided)

A recent Optify study (disclaimer: I work for Optify) found that the term ”(not provided)” now accounts for almost 40 percent of referring traffic data from organic search and since the introduction of the SSL enhancement, recognized referring keywords have dropped by almost 50 percent.

This means that for 1 of every 2.5 visits from organic search, you're no longer able to see the referring keywords and that almost 50 percent of the keywords you were previously able to track and measure are no longer available to you.

not-provided-percentage-of-total-organic-search

recognized-keywords-from-organic-search-indexed

What it Means

The study shows that the trend of “(not provided)” is only going to continue trending up until the majority of organic referrer data (search terms) will completely disappear. But what does this mean for you, the marketer? It means you will no longer be able to:

  • Truly measure the performance of your SEO efforts by connecting a search term with website metrics such as traffic, conversion rate, leads, engagement (page views and time on site), and revenue.
  • Use referrer data to customize and/or personalize your user experience. For example, if you used to offer related content based on referring keyword, or used referring keywords in your lead nurturing rules, you will no longer be able to do that.
  • Score visitors and leads based on their referring keyword. If you use a lead scoring system that uses referring keyword as one of the rules, this option will no longer be available to you.

But you will still be able to:

  • Measure your overall SEO performance and report on ROI since the visit source will still be organic search, but you won't be able to analyze what keywords contributed to that performance nor will you be able to report ROI on specific SEO initiatives.
  • Practice SEO and work on getting more traffic from organic search. This change doesn't prevent you from following any SEO best practices; it just means that it will be harder to measure their effectiveness.

5 Tips for Handling “(not provided)” Data

What can you do as (not provided) continues to eat away at your organic search data?

  1. Make the most out of the data you have. With the “(not provided)” rate approaching 40 percent, it means that you still have more than 60 percent of organic visits with referring keywords data. Make the most out of that data since it won't be there for much longer.
  2. Use Webmaster Tools. Google offers a lot of data about your website in Google Webmaster Tools. This includes the top 1,000 daily search queries and top 1,000 daily landing pages for the past 30 days, in addition to the impressions, clicks, click-through rate (CTR), and average position in search results for each query. You can compare this to the previous 30 day period as well as export to a CSV file to import to a different system or analyze it using Excel. For most small to mid-size B2B sites, this should be more than enough data to analyze in aggregate. See Linking Google Analytics to Webmaster Tools.
  3. For personalization, use other data. If you're using keyword data to personalize the user experience you offer on your website (related content, targeted landing pages) and off your website (follow up emails, lead nurturing), you will need to start using other data instead. Form submissions, page viewed, and campaign tagging could be used to replace keyword data in your personalization efforts.
  4. For SEO work, use proxies. The problem with the aggregate data is it doesn’t give you the ability to tie a referring keyword with the subsequent website behavior like page views and time on page. More importantly, actions like form submission (B2B) and clicks on page (B2C, e.g. shopping cart actions) can't be associated with a keyword making it impossible to report on ROI for specific keywords. This means that you will have to start using proxies such as keyword rank and ranked page to estimate single keyword performance.
  5. Use PPC data to estimate keyword performance. Since Google is still passing referrer data to advertisers for clicks on their sponsored results, you can use PPC to estimate the performance of keywords you're targeting or considering.

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