Search Marketing

Not Provided, but Not the End: Keyword Data Loss in Google

September 25, 2013

The day that search marketers have been anticipating for nearly two years has finally come: Google has officially ceased the sharing of organic keyword referral data to publishers, brands and individuals alike. During a time when Big Data is dominating the industry conversation, this rare loss of data poses new challenges for brands’ natural search efforts within the world’s most dominant engine.

In 2011, 360i reported Google’s initial switch to SSL-based encrypted search for users logged into a Google account at the time of their search; meaning that any keyword data previously captured for signed-in members would no longer be shared moving forward.

We’ve been closely tracking the rise of “Not Provided” data since the trend first emerged in 2011. Most recently, about 80 percent of our clients’ Google natural search data is encrypted, with some brands coming in at closer to 90 percent. Note: Yahoo!, Bing and other engines remain unaffected, though together their market share comprises less than one-third of all U.S. search queries.

What 100% ‘Not Provided’ Means for Brands

Google’s move to encrypted search affects marketers’ ability to judge the effectiveness of their SEO efforts, and more broadly, lessens their ability to identify opportunities to improve and expand on content that resonates with their audiences. However, while gaps will exist in the data available to analyze and report against (such as unbranded versus branded traffic share), there are ways to obtain valuable, strategic insights regardless of this change.

A New Era of SEO Measurement

Back in July 2012, 360i presented a variety of next steps for marketers seeking to begin the transition away from keyword-based analytics. By October 2012, a year after the initial change, more than 25 percent of search traffic from Google was encrypted.

Since that time, we’ve been working toward a new model that relies less on particular keywords and more on individual pages, which are concisely-focused on topical groups of keywords. The future of search analytics takes on a holistic view incorporating data from many sources that moves beyond simple keyword-based organic traffic.

Accurate rank tracking, page-level organic traffic, and page-to-keyword alignment will allow us to continue to understand which keywords are driving organic visits. Incorporating each aspect of page performance into our analysis will provide improved measurement as we further align with the next stage of organic search analytics.

Next Steps for Marketers in the Near Term

The loss of keyword-level data is a temporary setback for marketers; however, the ability for brands to tie SEO efforts to the bottom line is here to stay. And because the news from Google has been a long time coming, new methods for surfacing the impact and value of SEO have already been tested and honed, not limited to drawing upon data sources such as:

  • URL-level web analytics
  • AdWords data (if you pay, you may)
  • Content engagement (e.g. page views, bounce rates & value per visit)
  • Internal site search queries
  • Search volume (via Google Insights & Ad Planner)
  • Bing, Yahoo! and other search engines

Google’s recent policy decisions will no doubt have a tangible and immediate impact on how marketers report on their SEO efforts. Marketers should also understand that the change does not influence the effectiveness of SEO as a channel or practice. As new reporting and measurement techniques evolve with the shifting landscape, marketers will adopt new ways that can similarly measure the impact of natural search on their brand’s bottom line.

Cover photo via NoCookie