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Why Google Cut Off SEO Keyword Data

And what marketers can do about it

November 18, 2013 By John Lee
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Google confirmed a few weeks ago that moving forward, all keywords from organic search will be encrypted, or secured through the HTTPS protocol. From an SEO perspective, this means site owners and marketers will no longer benefit from organic referral keyword data.

"Not provided" is a term that SEOs have been familiar with for the past couple of years now. For those unfamiliar with "not provided," this is how a referral keyword is listed in Google Analytics as a result of an encrypted search. "Not provided" started in October 2011, when Google decided to change its privacy policy to protect users who were logged into their Google accounts. These logged-in users performing a query through Google would then have their keywords suppressed from Web analytics tools. These keywords showed as "not provided" in Google Analytics, as "keyword unavailable" in Omniture and as "search phrase not provided" in WebTrends.

Over the years, the amount of traffic from "not provided" referrals grew. This was evident on many websites I worked on during this time. This was not only due to an increasing number of users logged into their Google accounts, but also, back in the middle of 2012, Firefox 14 included secure search in its search bar. This was shortly followed by Safari on iOS6. Then earlier this year, Chrome started encrypting search performed through its address bar. All of this contributed to progressively growing "not provided" referral traffic.

In September, something drastic occurred. Something that seemed to confirm "not provided" was going to be 100 percent across the board. The chart in the media player at right illustrates the trend of organic referral traffic to a website from "not provided" keywords dating back to August 2011. October 2011 was when "not provided" first appeared in Google Analytics, and since then there has been linear growth over time. Some of this was due to an increase in overall organic search traffic, but also the various browser updates mentioned above. In September 2013, at the tail end of the chart there is a sudden spike of "not provided" traffic. That is basically when Google started turning off the switch on organic keyword referrals.

What does this mean for us marketers? How should you now adjust to make sure your sites are still found effectively in search?

This move has angered many SEO marketers, and it really does change a lot for everyone moving forward. Efforts to focus on keywords at the page level will be that much more difficult. Where data was available to show SEO marketers which keywords to target, now it's almost a guessing game. Google Webmaster Tools provide some degree of organic keyword referral data, but it has limitations. Some argue that this is merely sampled data and therefore incomplete. In addition, it only shows the top 2,000 keywords, and no data older than three months will be available. Google says it is working on extending the backdate to a year, but this still means SEO marketers will have to download keyword data on a monthly basis. Otherwise there will be no way to make year-over-year comparisons.

 

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