Content marketers may have hated Google’s “Not Provided” dumping ground before, but a recent announcement from the company is poised to make measuring content effectiveness just a bit more challenging.
Google in 2011 explained that it “will no longer report the query terms that the user searched on to reach your site” and that it “created the token ‘(not provided)’ within Organic Search Traffic Keyword reporting.”
At that time, the world’s most popular search engine acknowledged that the source of approximately 10 percent of organic searches would become virtual unknowns because it was critical for privacy reasons not to reveal data tied to searchers logged into their Google accounts.
But this month, Google said it would extend that privacy protection to its search engine users even when they aren’t logged into their accounts.
So it seems that down the road (Google won’t say when), content marketers can expect “Not Provided” to cover up to 100 percent of organic searches in Google Analytics. Well, thanks Google — now that kind of covers everyone (not 10 percent).
Google can point to privacy all day long, but marketers suspect that it’s really a deliberate measure to force website owners to use its AdWords product.
I’m stunned by how Google can offer a sophisticated analytics product and not provide natural keyword data. It’s like going to your accountant who says: “I’ve got good and bad news about your financial forecast, but I won’t show you any of the numbers.” Google clearly doesn’t respect the fact that online marketers look at natural keywords to understand search behaviors and to ensure that relevant website content closely matches the information people need.
But fear not: Google’s ill-advised (though apparently not illegal) move doesn’t signal the death of search engine optimization (SEO) or the website analytics that help drive content marketing business decisions for B2B and B2C companies. Fortunately, there are still many practical options available for measuring content effectiveness, including the following:
- Become historians: No one really knows whether Google will hide Google Analytics anytime soon, but now would be a good time to organize and save any historic keyword data (including keyword phrases used over different periods of time in Google Analytics). By keeping old keyword data on hand (search terms people used, keywords that led to conversions, etc.), you will have a sense of what’s working in the future. In other words, if your future keyword rankings are comparable, you can loosely estimate that the keywords (assigned to “Not Provided”) are driving the same amount of traffic.
- Open a Google AdWords account: Google isn’t so concerned with privacy that it won’t continue to provide keyword data for paid search customers who want to know what keywords people used before clicking on their ads. Now, it’s hardly organic data, but an AdWords account will provide some insights and an indication about whether a keyword phrase has any value. (It’s worth noting that Google won’t even give its paid ad customers access to the organic keyword data it is keeping “safe and secure” behind the “Not Provided” label.)
- Don’t ignore Bing and Yahoo!: Like other solutions for the “Not Provided” issue, you have to make some assumptions that may be off the mark. In other words, you can look at the traffic you get from Bing and estimate what you might be getting from Google — if your natural keyword rankings are comparable on both search engines. Though it’s still a bit of a leap to draw firm conclusions, the bottom line is that you have access to other data, and you can explore creative ways to leverage it. According to comScore in August 2013, there were 19 billion U.S. searches, and 17.9 percent of the traffic went through Microsoft websites (Google websites represented 66.9 percent of searches, and Yahoo websites accounted for the remaining 11.4 percent)
- Track your search engine rankings: There are multiple tools available to help you paint a somewhat accurate picture of your search performance (as rankings can vary by IP address, search engine data centers, and other variables). Combined with tools that forecast the number of monthly searches for keywords, ranking data will continue to be invaluable.
- Make sure your conversion data is readily available: Track your forms and eCommerce sales with website analytics so you will at least know when organic “Not Provided” visitors influence some type of lead or sale (for more information on this, see this Google eCommerce tutorial).
- Pay attention to your landing pages: In your website analytics, landing pages are a critical area to study (given that search engine traffic affects that data). If you know your target keywords for the page, your rankings, conversion goals, and other estimated keyword search data, you can determine whether natural search engine traffic is helping those pages perform well for your company.
- Use Google Webmaster Tools: For the time being, you can still analyze up to 2,000 keyword phrases over a 90-day period in Google Webmaster Tools. Again, grab that history for future reference — it’s anyone’s guess how long it will remain available.
- Evaluate third-party offerings: Look for major enterprise SEO platform products to launch innovative products in the near future that supplement the search data that had been available via Google. For example, Conductor already is promoting True Traffic, saying that the product involves a calculation of “traffic and revenue generated by individual keywords based on online visibility, consumer demand, and behavioral models.”
- Try some web analytics “acrobatics”: When “Not Provided” originally hit the scene in 2011, some online marketers started to devise ways to explore the potential of using other data to draw conclusions about the natural keyword data that had become inaccessible (e.g., through the use of filters and advanced segments in Google Analytics). In a 2013 KISSmetrics post, Claire Broadley detailed a few of these options, and referenced alternatives that others have identified.
- Use site search: You can get some insights from your internal site search that can capture keyword phrases that people use once they reach your website. Crazy Egg has a good tutorial on this.
- Review the anchor text of inbound links: Study the anchor text to see what types of keywords or phrases others use when linking to your website. While this won’t reveal the organic searches, it does provide another way to get a sense of what may be working (or to uncover keyword ideas). Kristi Hines provides more details in her KISSmetrics post
- Keep your other best practices in play: As central as keyword data is to SEO, content marketers have plenty of other tools, tactics, and strategies to help them stand out from the competition and measure their results, such as:
- Create content that is high-quality and reflects buyer personas and business objectives.
- Pursue inbound links from authoritative websites.
- Develop ongoing relationships with influencers who may champion your cause, product or service.
- Step up your efforts with social media.
If you have some other suggestions, let us know.
On a (final) side note, all of the attention on “Not Provided” is not related to Hummingbird, a major update to Google’s core algorithm. For example, it accommodates searchers who use longer, more complex search queries (including when people speak into smartphones).
In the meantime, you can track the “Not Provided” trend with (Not Provided) Count, which monitors the growth of “Not provided” over 60 websites.
Danny Sullivan, one of the top search engine experts in the world, explores the topic in more depth in “Post-PRISM, Google Confirms Quietly Moving to Make All Searches Secure, Except For Ad Clicks.” Here, Danny also suggests that the focus on “Not Provided” may be fallout related to a U.S. National Security Agency controversy and accusations about the use of searchers’ data.
Though it’s a frustrating situation, it’s not likely that Google will change its mind, so the most foolhardy option would be to sit it out and hope for the best. Google doesn’t owe SEO professionals anything, regardless of the feedback we’ve offered over the years. The company takes its cues from lawyers (just as most enterprise businesses do) and must go out of its way to please shareholders and its customers (unless of course they’re paid search customers who may have an interest in the natural keywords people use to visit their websites).
What are your thoughts about Google’s change with keyword data? Do you have any additional questions or suggestions? Let us know in the comments.
For more information on content marketing measurement techniques, read CMI’s eGuide on Measuring Content Marketing Success.
Cover image via Bigstock