Every online marketer agrees that understanding organic keywords that are driving traffic and conversions is key to search engine optimization. However, with the dramatic increase in the number of “not provided” keywords, it is more difficult than ever to attribute SEO success to keyword targets. Though only ~39% of organic search queries are currently affected by (not provided), as Google starts pushing SSL and search query encryption on Chrome, this number is bound to increase. Heck, we may even have a day when not provided accounts for nearly 100% of all searches.
So, what can we do if “not provided” reaches the critical 100%? What's better than asking the experts..
It’s a tricky situation, but one that is not hopeless. Before it gets to the point where 100% of traffic is (not provided), it’s important you get used to interrogating the (not provided) data. I’d recommend the following three ways to do this, using Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools and AdWords:
- Create a (not provided) advanced segment and apply it to a Landing page within the Content menu (Content > Site Content > Landing Pages). The data here will show you at a glance the Landing page data for your date range, helping you determine which pages were viewed as a result of (not provided) search results.
- Use Webmaster Tools Traffic > Search Queries report to see the search queries (keywords) used to find your site. The date range is limited, but if the functionality is not removed, then regular downloads of the data may give you visitor data, even if it is a bit manual (and not inclusive of all the other metrics that GA provides).
- For big AdWords sites, keyword information can be viewed within Traffic Sources > Advertising > AdWords > Matched Search Queries in Google Analytics. Google doesn’t mind people’s privacy if you’ve paid for it to get in…
To me the (not provided) debacle is just a symptom of a much bigger issue. Google search becomes less valuable each year for webmasters. I have banned Google search on my own blog as a proof of concept and most of my content theft and manual spam problems have been solved over night. In 2013 and beyond it's not enough to focus on search referrals. It's the age of social CRM. You need to find out who talks about you and who is actively sending you traffic from social media and other sites. In a way I'm glad that the search referral traffic report become useless.
I wasted too much time focusing on search referrers and search as a whole. Google overtakes most of the lucrative markets when it comes to the SERPs by now. So you end up below the fold while above are only ads, hidden ads (aka “paid inclusion”) and Google's own services. So even a #1 spot is in many lucrative markets like travel or ecommerce is invisible for most users who click the Google ads on top without even realizing they're ads. So optimizing for search gets less and less profitable. You have to compete against Google and huge brands that get an algorithmic advantage by Google.
So at the end of the day you need to optimize for people and get those visitors right where they are before they actually have to use Google to find you. The search monopoly is awful in most countries over the world, in Germany Google takes 95% of the search market. Google becomes worse and worse using its market domination: the TINA (there is no alternative) approach works for them now. So it's not only about time to find ways to survive without the referral data, it's about time to become independent of Google. I'm trying right now with my blog. It's very liberating. Nobody forces you to change your writing, your design or your partners anymore.
Btw.: as a searcher I use Blekko and DuckDuckGo whenever I can (for English searches) so life without Google isn't that hard if you're in the US/UK.
You do what you should already be doing: focus on landing page performance. Keyword data is already at the point of being wholly unreliable for trend analysis. It should only be considered within the context of landing pages.
In case of 100% not provided, I will be relying on the Google Adwords keywords data a lot more to understand users’ search behavior. It is highly unlikely that Google will hide the keyword referral data from Advertisers. I will be testing even more keywords through PPC before I decide to target them through SEO. PPC is a quick way to test and evaluate the profitability of any keyword. Often SEO mistakes are so costly that it is better to make some relatively cheap PPC mistakes. I will still be optimizing my landing pages for targeted keywords but I will monitor conversions at the page/product level instead of the keyword level. SEMRush and Authority Labs are good tools to track the performance of keywords in terms of ranking. Google webmaster tools queries report also provide valuable insight like CTR and impressions of the keywords. It is possible to optimize organic search campaigns without any keyword referral data. If you want to know in great detail then check out this post: http://www.seotakeaways.com/optimize-organic-search-campaigns-keyword-referral-data/
I personally believe that we're slowly but surely heading to a point where this hypothetical scenario might become the norm.
Though I would subscribe to the view that you should focus more on the quality of the content you're creating as opposed to “optimizing for keywords”, assuming that something like this happens, here are some ways to bring in some sort of attribution to the kind of keywords that might be driving visits and conversions.
There is just one way in which you can get some minimal data – Look at the pages where you're getting traffic
Analytics will definitely give you the list of pages that are getting organic traffic – you could attribute some of these visits to keywords, provided you don't have a large portfolio of keywords that you're targeting with these pages that are getting traffic.
You can isolate the traffic coming via (non provided) searches to specific landing pages by setting keyword = (not provided) as the primary dimension and landing page as the secondary dimension.
Though there is a lot of margin for error and attributing the wrong keywords with this method, it may still be a good option to get some basic data to understand which of your efforts are paying dividends.
In the long run, keyword linked search optimization will die, as Google pushes SSL search more aggressively and we will move towards content driven search engine optimization where the content you create gets credit for the visits and conversions you get.
If “not provided” were to become 100% of search traffic (a real possibility) then Google will need to improve Webmaster Tools Data in order for webmasters to make meaningful decisions.
Ever since “not provided” was introduced, SEO's have devised all kinds of workarounds to try to understand the missing keywords. In reality, these workarounds are clumsy, non-intuitive, hard to setup and don't provide the actionable data we rely on with normal keyword referral data.
Google's solution has been to instruct us to use keyword data from Google Webmaster Tools, and the similar information provided in the SEO report in Google Analytics. While these keyword reports do provide a good estimation of the traffic entering your site, it's impossible to tie these keywords to more meaningful actions, such as bounce rate, conversions, page views, etc. In addition, the keyword history only goes back 2 months.
If Google is serious about webmasters using the GWT keyword data, then they need to make a better effort at making this data more substantial. If we're trying to make the web a better place, we're going to need a little help that isn't profit motivated.
I’d probably invest on developing our own web analytics software (one of our biggest clients developed their own for internal use, but haven’t checked its features yet). I believe it’s a better option, especially for agencies who’re offering services to enterprise level companies, with long-term contracts.
Larger agencies have a lot of options, if in case 100% “not provided” data happens, as they can easily switch to using other paid analytics services, like KISSmetrics (here’s a list).
I think [not provided] is a sin. It was a great way to feed a content strategy, allowing me to develop content based on what a few people may have found me for. If Google thought I was qualified for a certain search, I would take the opportunity to qualify myself more related searches. With more [not provided] it becomes harder for me to keep creating the authoritative content Google wants marketers to make. But without it, I still have other ways to do that research (on-site search, other keyword tools, PPC search data, etc.).
In the end, I can still produce valuable insights with page level conversion data segmented to natural search, matched with old school ranking reports and estimated search volume. I've got my campaign pages laid out pretty well, with notation on every target page, correlated with every associated target keyword (with an assigned estimated keyword value based on the client KPIs). I've also got a full, iterative marketing calendar so I can usually tell (to a large degree) what content themes hit, and what missed. Every page has performance and marketing goals.
Google has made things harder, but at this point I don't think I would need to pivot much more than I already have when the first [not provided] damage started to occur. I think it will be a bigger burden to smaller online businesses and webmasters who don’t understand why this is happening, or why Google is taking away a basic success metric for them. They ask easy questions like, “How many searches am I getting for my brand name?” Google will be frustrating them the most in order to fulfill their bigger agenda. Businesses that live in the dark get preyed on by shady companies, and unknowingly make bad decisions.
I have yet to actually see “not provided” as high as 100% – but if I were to, I would make heavy use of Google Webmaster Tools data. I think it's terribly underused by SEOs. I would use the data WMT offers such as impressions, avg position, clicks and click through rate – to measure keyword performance. There's also a few ways to try to match up that data against Google Analytics data to make a good educated approximation for how each keyword is performing. You can also connect analytics and webmaster tools to see that data right within analytics.