By Mike Murray published October 2, 2013

12 Ways to Measure Content Effectiveness After Google’s “Not Provided” Decision

locked file-google not providedContent 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.

not provided on the rise notice

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.”
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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
  12. 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).

Additional resources

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

Author: Mike Murray

Mike Murray has shaped online marketing strategies for hundreds of businesses since 1997, including Fortune 500 companies. A former journalist, he has led SEO studies and spoken at regional and national Internet conferences. Founder of Online Marketing Coach, Mike is passionate about helping clients identify their best opportunities for online marketing success based on their strengths, his advice and industry trends. You can find him at his blog, Online Marketing Matters or on Twitter @mikeonlinecoach.

Other posts by Mike Murray

  • John Romaine

    All relatively valid points. I’m still looking at landing pages myself, and marrying that up with page titles.

    • Mike Murray

      Thanks for the feedback on the post.

      The landing pages analysis seems like a good option. I still wish I could be doing more valuable things than running around improving in view of their lame moves.


  • khorst

    I think we should all boycott Adwords until Google’s falling ad revenues force them to rethink their evil, greedy decision. I’ve been seeing some great results advertising through social media, especially from a lower CPA point of view.

    • Mike Murray

      A boycott would be awesome. Clearly, Google lacks vision. I’m sure they are doing it for legal reasons.

      I’m glad you’re seeing a lower CPA.

      Thanks for letting people know.


  • HenryBlaufox

    Don’t be surprised if Google tries charging for the keyword data, relying on their market penetration to make it bearable (as in grin and bear it) for site owners, as long as the fees are low enough.

    • Mike Murray

      A charge would be appropriate given the value. It would be interesting to see how they would suddenly say privacy doesn’t matter. They just say and do whatever they want – because they can.

      Thanks for the perspective.


  • HenryBlaufox

    Mike, thanks for graciously taking a moment to respond. As for the privacy claim, I doubt those of us in the online marketing industry should or will take Google seriously. The simple fact is that national security will trump privacy on this as long as the PRISM program rules are followed. If the NSA needs the data, they will get it. The SSL blocks us, not them. PRISM was just an excuse for Google.

  • Fernando Ziemer

    Mike, I never quite understood the (not provided) until reading your post. Thank you so much for shinning some light on the subject!

    • Mike Murray

      Fernando, thanks for checking out the article. I tried to cover many of the options. Hopefully others will ID more workarounds. It’s such a shame, so much time wasted in an era would keyword data management should be easy and fast in some respects.

  • Sarah Jocson

    In social media you must have quality content and a life time value. Great ideas!

  • Ann Bevans

    Thanks so much for sharing this. You’re right that Google isn’t about to change their mind – they’ve got a revenue model and they’ve got to work it just like the rest of us. I’m looking forward to supporting my clients through this transition and collaborating with them to invent better ways to improve their sites’ visibility and conversion.

  • Jane

    Thanks for bringing this up Mike! It is highly important that we save the data when we have access to it – not something that will occur to everyone. Also “not provided” doesn’t mean end of world! As you’ve mentioned there are quite some tools that can help us with this!

    I use Semrush regularly and don’t bother looking into Google Analytics for keywords that bring me traffic. And, yes well said – there’s Bing and Yahoo!

  • Lisa Adams

    Thanks for writing this article Mike. I too am stunned by Google’s decision when the rest of us are being advised to move toward transparency regarding online content. Like Henry, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Google begin charging for a keyword search function; however, I agree with you that it would be interesting to see Google backtrack out of its “privacy” stance.

    Even though going around Google is possible, reading through your suggestions above makes me think most companies would rather pay for a keyword service (if Google comes up with one) than eat the cost of time and money lost in productivity by piecing together data that could easily be gathered directly from Google.

    • Mike Murray

      Hi Lisa,

      I couldn’t agree more. Productivity will continue to suffer. Some companies will drift away from SEO and find enough comfort in other initiatives they can measure. Or they will make SEO decisions based on limited data. I hope you find the best options that work for you.


  • emarketing-manager

    Thanks for this heads up. I’m guessing referral URLs are still reported. Perhaps looking at referral strings and tidying them up in excel is the next step?

  • Tamar Weiss

    Hi Mike,
    Nice article for those needing a workaround for keywords. But I’m thinking why continue to try to gage info. from information that’s clearly on its way out? Our clients have found online profiling of anonymous prospects based on company/organization and digital behavior much more useful. Of course, adding keywords if they have an adwords campaign helps, but we don’t rely on it.

  • Activ Hub- China Digital Intel

    Thought you may be interested in this. I know there is no such thing as an original thought but he seems to copy huge chunks from your article whilst still using the 1st person pronoun but no acknowledgement to source.

  • Evgeniy Afanasiev

    Thanks, John! Very helpful article.