(Not Provided) - Google’s World of Encrypted Search


Privacy has been a massive talking point recently, some of the largest internet giants have been under ever-increasing scrutiny for their laissez faire attitude towards data and privacy. If that wasn’t enough, the conspiracy theorist’s jackpot PRISM, saw the NSA able to monitor users’ activities in the name of “national security” and share this data with other Governments around the world. But whether it’s Facebook selling your personal information, Google Street View sticking a camera where it’s not wanted or the US Government tracking your every keystroke, yesterday we witnessed another decisive move in the online privacy battle.

In the name of protecting users’ privacy, Google finally flicked the switch on all its search services, encrypting all search data.

To spell it out in plain English - by the end of the year it’s highly likely that you will have no organic (Google) keyword data to report on, Google will stop providing it. It’s that simple.

Change to Encrypted Search

The issue of data encryption and privacy in search has been going on for some time, in 2011 Google started to encrypt searches for all users signed into its services, and that began the digital marketeer’s near-dystopian future of one day having no keyword data to report back on in Google Analytics. The way this manifested itself to users was a conspicuous absence of keyword data in the form of “(not provided)”, an effectively useless metric by which to judge a website’s presence within search and the keywords people find your site by.

Since this date most marketeers, webmasters and website owners have noticed a steady increase of this (not provided) traffic, with websites like www.notprovidedcount.com setting out to publicly chart this rise, which is what initially highlighted the latest leaps in the percentage of keyword data (or lack thereof).

As you can see, from humble beginnings of <1% of keyword data being returned as (not provided), there has been a steady rise with a few noteworthy peaks as the black hole within analytics data continued to rise.

A massive spike in (not provided) in August - set to rise further.

In addition to seeing this growth via Not Provided Count we’re also seeing signs of this exponential growth over the last 90 days (based on monthly visits >400,000).

Whilst this isn’t 100% yet, it’s not far off and the conservative estimate by Not Provided Count is that we’ll be witnessing a complete lack of keyword data by December 5th (based on current growth rate, although it’s exponential rise suggests it could be much sooner).

Why Should the End User Care?

For many outside of the Digital Marketing/SEM world, the idea that their data might somehow become a little more secure, they may welcome the move and even applaud Google for taking these steps. With speculation that this change was made as a belated reaction to PRISM/NSA-style eves-dropping, there certainly seems to be some healthy pro-Google spin to be had here.

This isn’t the case for the digital marketing world where within the next few days we slowly see keyword data ebbing from our analytics reports. But it’s not just Google’s Analytics programme where we’ll see this absence, this is encryption on Google’s side, which means other tracking like Omniture and even server logs will be returning “(not provided)” or similar.

Keywords are Key

Keyword data is a fairly crucial part of the optimisation process and removing this is a fairly poignant message, whether it’s in the name of “privacy” or not. The squeeze on the Organic results towards paid search has always been a hot topic and since this increase in “privacy” has only been for organic data (Google still provides keywords for paid searches) it’s hard not to feel like this latest move as been a fairly sharp slap across the cheeks of SEOs the world-over.

On the morning after the change to encrypted search it’s unclear exactly which way the industry will move, there have already been suggestions of getting around this lack of keyword data through adwords campaigns (if you’re already paying for them) or even using Google Webmaster Tools data - which typically has been considered “quirky” at best, yet able to give some broad trends in your organic traffic.

Whatever the solution, I certainly expect we’ll see an increase in a reliance on content/landing page reports, of more thorough content audits and an awareness of your current visibility through ranking reports to ascertain your keyword data. It might take some time, but we’ll soon be weening ourselves off keyword data.


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