By Rob OConnor
Way back in October 2011, Google announced that any of their searches performed over Google SSL search - the "secure" version of Google's standard search - would not pass keyword information on to tracking software like iAPPS Analyzer and Google Analytics. Websites you visited from organic search listings would still know you came from Google, and so could still count your visit as an organic search visit, but information about individual search terms would be hidden, displaying in Google Analytics as "(not provided)" and in Analyzer as "Unknown."
So who searches over Google SSL search? Well, for starters, anyone logged into any Google account. Sign into your Gmail account, or your Google Analytics account, or your AdWords account, and do a quick test search - you'll notice you are searching over HTTPS. Making matters worse, beginning with Firefox 14, which officially launched in June 2012, Mozilla has announced that all Google searches through their default search toolbar will be through Google SSL search
To give you a sense of just how much information one can lose, here is the percentage of search terms affected by (not provided) for Bridgelinedigital.com from January 2012 to present:
(Note: Given that Bridgeline Digital is a web engagement company, many of our site visitors are "techier" than the average user and so are more likely to be signed into a Google account or using a nonstandard web browser. Don't be surprised if you look at your Google Analytics account and see a much smaller percentage of (not provided) visitors.)
Why the change?
It's a valid question -- after all, Google is generally all about empowering website owners with free tools - like Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools, and others - that help them present better content for the end-user. With the (not provided) our Unknown keyword data, website administrators lose valuable data that can help them develop content users want to see, ostensibly harming administrators' ability to cater to end-users' searches.
Google has claimed that they instituted this change in the name of security, especially for those searching using an unsecured internet connection. Others aren't as convinced, claiming it is a play by Google to drive marketers to use paid search and other advertising options - which, coincidentally, do send keyword data to the advertiser, regardless of whether the end user's search is encrypted. Whatever the cause, the result is clear: (not provided) robs marketers and website administrators of valuable audience information.
What can I do about it?
Unfortunately, not much. Encrypted search terms are lost and gone forever. However, there are two options you can use to fill in the gaps left by these missing search terms:
- Extrapolate. Especially if you have a large enough sample size, (not provided) search terms follow your visible ones pretty closely. If 20% your visits from known terms come from "blue widgets," for example, you can fairly safely assume that 20% of your (not provided) traffic is from "blue widgets" as well. Just remember that longer-tail (i.e. 3 words or more) keywords are very often unique, so you're still missing valuable information about how users find your site.
- Fill in those gaps with paid search. Because Google passes all keyword data from paid search, regardless of whether the searcher is using HTTPS, paid search campaigns can be a valuable tool for uncovering long tail keywords searchers use to find your site. And since you're just data gathering in this case - rather than using paid search as an important traffic driver - there's relatively low cost associated with this strategy.