Google (Not Provided) on 100% Of All Organic Search Queries

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What Happened?

As of mid-afternoon on September 23, 2013 (at least in the U.S.), all organic search referral data coming through Google is no longer available.  The ‘keyword’ field, where this data was previously available in the Google Analytics dashboard, will now be populated with the value “(not provided)”.

All search through Google is now encrypted.  You will notice that when you go to google.com, the URL is now prepended with ‘https://”.

The origin of this change dates back about two years ago.  It was around this time that the “(not provided)” value began showing up in referral data.  To be precise, it was in October of 2011 that Google began encrypting all searches for anyone logged in to Google. This was done to address evolving privacy concerns. Now, this change is being applied to all searches. In speaking with some of our partner marketing automation providers recently, this change has caused major headaches for them in terms of product accuracy.  And that slope just became much steeper.

Over the course of the past month, I have personally witnessed a significant uptake in the number of “(not provided)” entries in Analytics with increasing frequency throughout that period.  This observation applies to numerous customers across unrelated industries.

What Now?

There will now be two mediums through which we can view keyword data:

  1. Google Webmaster Tools (though this will only show the top 2,000 per day and  only going back for 90 days  – something Google said earlier this month they will increase to one year, at some point in the future)
  2. AdWords Paid & Organic Report (more information below)

On August 22, 2013 – Google announced the launch of the AdWords Paid & Organic report.  Keyword data will be readily available through this report,   We made our customers aware of this report as soon as it was announced, and we have been leveraging this data and incorporating it into our own reports. Fortunately for us, most of our customers are also using Google AdWords. Therefore for our customers, we should be able to navigate through this tricky period without any upheaval.

I do anticipate that this will impact our reporting structure, but not much else.  With the ability to monitor which keywords are performing well for us and which aren’t (through either of the above options), we will still be able to make data-driven decisions and therefore continue to allocate our resources wisely.  For that reason, as I have learned more and more about this, I have become less and less concerned.  Not to marginalize the significance of the change, but those who will be adversely affected here are those who rely upon keyword data fed directly into their products by Google Analytics.

Why the Change?

This is the part where some might navigate away.  Here is where I get to speculate as to the “why” Google may have done this…

In Response to the NSA Prism Program?

Google has said that this has been done to provide “extra protection” for searchers.  It is quite possible that the company may be aiming to block NSA activities.  It is widely known that Google has been fighting the NSA Prism program in the courts, and this action – and the clearly accelerated deployment of it – would certainly indicate that this is their response to what they have stated is a violation of privacy rights.  Without knowing all the legalities and the impact that a difference between the way search queries will now be stored as opposed to the previous – and how that would block government agencies from obtaining such information – I cannot form an opinion on whether this is true or not.

To Boost AdWords Market Share?

It is interesting to note that, in order to accrue results and gain access to the AdWords Paid & Organic report, you must have a Google AdWords account.   Therefore, some will certainly assert that Google is doing this to create a scenario in which all roads lead to a Google AdWords signup.  Here is why I think that this is NOT true:

  1. Google enjoys a month over month market share of over 83%.  It is not just because Google delivers the most relevant results.  It is also because people like Google.  
  2. Based upon a history of incredible innovation, transparent operations, and respect for individual privacy – it would clearly be out of character for Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergei Brin to force users to use the AdWords platform in this way. It is simply not their M.O.  
  3. What has given rise to Google is much the same consumer propensity which later fueled the rise of social media; the inverse relationship between control and trust.  The brain-trust at Google knows that if this move was perceived as or somehow revealed to be a ploy to drive AdWords signups – they would run the risk of spawning a backlash of revolutionary proportions.  Said simply, they would stand to lose much more than they would stand to gain.

All that said, we need to take this at face value.  It is pointless to speculate on the reasons why any further.  The change has been made.  It is time to adapt.  Ultimately, this change may prove to increase targeting efficiency across both paid and organic search activities.

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