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As many of you have heard, Google confirmed this week that it is securing all organic search keyword referrer data. The new update to Google Search has added the SSL protocol to all searches, essentially making all keyword referral data display as not-provided in Google Analytics.

What does this mean for marketers and businesses that depend on this data to enhance their online marketing campaigns? To understand that, we’ll have to go back a couple years and find out what prompted the change.

Rewind to 2011

In October 18th, 2011, Google announced that they were making logged–in searches (a user that ia logged-in to any Google property) secure by redirecting searchers to the SSL version of the search engine. In other words, all the searches performed in these circumstances would be encrypted, and the keywords that sent a user to a given website would not be visible to the website owner.

This initial move by Google was supposedly in response to the rising interest surround the level privacy and security its users could expect. The head of Google’s Webspam team, Matt Cutts, told Danny Sullivan that the impact the initial rollout on searches in Google would be in the single digits.

2012- 2013: Browsers Start Encrypting Google Search

In July of the following year, Mozilla announced that they were making all Google searchers encrypted from anyone using their Firefox 14 and newer browsers. In February of this year, Google followed suit with their Chrome browser and started encrypting all Google searches from anyone using the Chrome 25 and newer versions.


Chrome Secure Search Chrome Encrypted Search


firefox Firefox Encrypted Search

The Rise of Encrypted Searches

For the past two years, digital marketers have become accustomed to seeing the percentage of keyword data listed as (not provided) in their organic search reports gradually increase since the initial rollout in 2011. Now, according to http://www.notprovidedcount.com/, the average percentage of (not provided) Google Traffic was at 75.19% (7 days up to September 23rd) for the 60 websites that it tracks. In the coming days, weeks and possibly months, we can expect this number to climb to 100%.


Image Credit: http://www.notprovidedcount.com/ Image Credit: http://www.notprovidedcount.com

Not Provided Results for All?

It’s worth mentioning that keyword referral data will still be provided to Google AdWords customers, fueling speculation that the move was meant to increase the number of websites that participate in Google’s pay-per-click (PPC) advertising program. Google did provide Danny Sullivan with an update regarding the rollout:
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“We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.”

Why This Update Matters To Marketers and Businesses

Having keyword referral data was extremely actionable for marketers and businesses. It allowed us to analyze which keywords are sending traffic and driving conversions, and use this insight to improve campaigns and the user experience on a website.

There has been mixed reaction in the search marketing community, with some not happy with the recent update and others who try to remind fellow marketers that most sites were already receiving a notable percentage of (not provided) traffic and that there are other tools, resources and strategies that are available to us.

What now?

Despite this sudden change in how Google reports its data, all hope is not lost. Webmasters can still discover which keywords drive organic traffic by understanding which pages on their websites are considered relevant for certain search queries, analyzing landing page traffic, and reviewing their search query report and top pages reports in Google Webmaster tools.

Search query data can be accessed through Google’s Webmaster Tools, which provides useful information on the queries that are getting clicks in the results pages. There are a few limitations to the tool, including the number of search queries it provides and the amount of back data it offers users.


Webmaster Tools Webmaster Tools Top Queries Report

This is also an ideal opportunity for online marketers to once again evolve their services and showcase their brilliance. Most algorithm updates have forced the SEO industry to constantly change and evolve, keeping a focus on helping websites provide a better user experience. With this shift to 100% (not provided), we will start to see another shift – only this time we will see people move away from keyword data and start measuring the experience visitors have by focusing on landing page metrics.

As with all free products and tools provided by Google, services can and do change. Google does frequently make updates to its search feature and it’s up to us as marketers to employ ingenuity and learn to utilize other tools and resources to compensate for this lost data and find new ways to get actionable insights.