Small Business News

Google ‘Not Provided’ Referrals Growing

About two years ago, Google launched SSL Search on Google.com as the default for signed in users, as a measure to protect user privacy. This encrypted search meant not providing keyword search data through analytics to websites that these users visited. As a webmaster, you would see that you were getting this traffic from Google, but the keywords would be unknown, as Google would label this traffic “Not Provided”.

Yes, the dreaded “not provided” continues to this day to be a hot button issue in the SEO and online marketing community. It’s complicated by the fact that you can still see such data in AdWords. People have been accusing Google of doing this to increase its own revenue since the move was made that October of 2011.

Search industry vet Danny Sullivan has brought the discussion back to the forefront with an article about what he believes Google’s intentions to be, but what it looks like to everyone else.

It seems to pretty much an industry consensus that the “not provided” percentages are increasing. They had already increased significantly a month after Google made the changes. Initially, the percentage was supposedly around less than 1%, before jumping to something like 8% the following month. More recently, it’s looking like above 40% for some industries and over 50% for tech sites.

Sullivan reminds us that Google provides search terms to publishers through Webmaster Central, and of course to advertisers, and that Google recently announced the Paid & Organic report for AdWords.

This was aimed at helping businesses get more out of their paid and organic search campaigns by offering new comparison options.

“Previously, most search reports showed paid and organic performance separately, without any insights on user behavior when they overlap,” says AdWords product manager Dan Friedman. “The new paid & organic report is the first to let you see and compare your performance for a query when you have either an ad, an organic listing, or both appearing on the search results page.”

Google suggests using the report to discover potential keywords to add to your AdWords accounts.

“You’ll see your top terms, sortable by clicks, queries and other ways,” Sullivan writes. “The good news is that you don’t have to be a paying AdWords customer to do this. You just need an AdWords account. The bad news is that feels wrong that Google is forcing publishers into its ad interface to get information about their ‘non-paid’ listings. It also suggests an attempt to upsell people on the idea of buying AdWords, if they aren’t already.”

“I don’t believe things were orchestrated this way, with terms being withheld to push AdWords. I really don’t,” he adds. “I think the search team that wanted to encrypt and strip referrer information had the best intentions, that it really did believe sensitive information could be in referrer data (and it can) and sought to protect this. I think AdWords continued to transmit it because ultimately, the search team couldn’t veto that department’s decision. But regardless of the intentions, the end result looks bad.”

It does look bad, and a lot of webmasters are not buying it. If they weren’t buying it in the first place, they’re certainly not buying it at this point as the “not provided” percentages have increased, and Google has made it harder and harder for webmasters to use keyword data to their advantage. They recently killed the Keyword Tool, which was also a disappointment to many.

If this has all been about increasing Google’s revenue, it might be working. There was recently a MarketLive report finding that its merchants saw “significant changes” in the mix of paid/organic traffic. Paid search visits made up about a third of total search engine visits (up from 26% the previous year). Search visit growth slowed in the first six months of the year, but paid was up 30% while organic was down 3%.

We know that Google is clearly trying to move further away from keywords in terms of how it delivers its results, and more and more of what Google is showing users is coming from its own results (Knowledge Graph, Maps, etc.).

Matt Cutts recently had some interesting things to say about Google trying to extract the “gist” of queries. He was specifically responding to a question about voice search, but Google clearly wants to get to the root of what people are searching for regardless of what input method they’re using, and that means exact keywords will continue to decrease in significance, at least for certain types of queries.

As Sullivan notes, some fear we’re headed for a “100% not provided” future, but as Google itself moves away from keyword dependence, how much will it matter in the long run?

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