5 Stages of Coping with Loss of Search Query Data

Living with loss can be hard. After Google sufficiently handcuffed the Internet marketing world by choosing to default to SSL search for signed-in users, it removed the ability to track referring keywords… and a piece of my heart. There is no doubt proving the value of SEO efforts just got harder.

To help everyone deal with the grief, here are five steps to recovery, followed by a summary of actionable work-arounds and some thoughts.

1. Denial

The initial human response to an event this intense is disbelief. Still in the heat-of-the-moment, emotion takes over and we revert to child-like behavior. Not unlike my condition after a holiday party, time is the only cure as this stems from the primitive fight-or-flight response. Generally the denial stage is short and after nearly three months (Google announced on 10/18/2011), this stage should be a thing of the past.

2. Anger

On the path to recovery everyone will or has already felt anger. Embrace this anger. Avert from co-workers and use it to fuel motivation and inspiration to find ways to regain search query data.

3. Bargaining

There is nothing that could have prevented this from happening. We all must come to terms and realize that Google gave us access to the top 1,000 keyword search queries in Google Webmaster Tools as a half-served, insufficient substitute for things to come.

4. Depression

The depression stage represents the vast space of emptiness and helplessness felt. This is where the strength of your person needs to show itself. Surround yourself with uplifting people who are positive. Living beyond your means by buying something completely unnecessary like an iPad, also seems to help.

5. Acceptance

Congratulations if you’ve made it to this step and good luck forward if you haven’t. Even after completing each of these phases, there will always be a void where complete organic search keyword data once stood.

Moving Forward

Unfortunately, there isn’t a silver bullet that will compensate for losing a rising percentage of keyword data in analytics. There are several things to consider however, to help gain insight and work around this obstacle. Experimentation is essential.

The best ideas are built off and combined with those of several others. When something big happens, the SEO (Internet marketing) community leans on each other to find actionable solutions.


Avinash Kaushik does some very smart data analysis by first quantifying “not provided” data, then segmenting and attempting to understand user behavior to gain insight. Using landing page keyword referral analysis, he was able to take a before/after snapshot at the URL level to determine what keywords are sending an abnormally small amount of traffic. I can see this being especially useful when looking at year-over-year comparisons.

Having a large historical data set of traffic could really pay off here. Starting with this foundation, these notable items could be additional comparison points.

  • Search query data for the top 1,000 keywords can be found in Google Webmaster Tools.
  • Google gives access to referring keywords for paid campaigns.
  • Bing referring keyword data isn’t affected.
  • In Google Analytics tracking assisted conversions using multi-channel funnels might help account for a percentage of “not provided”.

As an ending point, every domain will be affected differently by SSL search, because there is no way to tell what keywords secured searchers are using to get to a site, it’s important to first quantify the impact “not provided” is having, then segment data in an attempt to find insight.

Looking at things at a granular level is important now more than ever. To this point, I highly recommend the free Excel plug-in Excellent Analytics to help pull several dimensions and metrics from Google Analytics at once.

As we begin gaining more insight through experimentation, we’ll be sure to provide updates and new findings.

Related reading

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The SEO metrics that really matter for your business
How to take advantage of the latest updates to Google Search Console
Using Python to recover SEO site traffic (Part three)