Providing Metrics in a (Not Provided) World

I am sure that you’re not only familiar with Google’s trend toward SSL search encryption and the vanishing organic search traffic data that marketers are seeing as a result, but you are also frustrated by it, as we all are.

Instead of valuable search keywords showing up in our analytics, we have “not provided” accounting for upwards of 50% of search traffic in some cases.

This started in late 2011, when Google stopped passing keyword query data through its referrer string for logged in users. And the bad news is that the hidden data will only increase as Google begins encrypting all Chrome searches–whether users are logged in to Google or not.

For those who rely on organic traffic data for search engine optimization, this trend is serious cause for concern.

Or even worse, if you’re targeting low-volume phrases, tracking the channel of every website conversion or reporting to a client demanding results will become a steep challenge as the (Not Provided) tag can swallow up all “proof” of results.

The keyword data for these queries still exists—and those using AdWords will note that all search keywords are magically provided in their reports, but for organic search, we’re losing a significant piece of the picture.

I know it’s tempting to get angry and theorize about Google’s PPC-minded motivations, but I think that a better use of our efforts would be on preserving and maximizing the search data we still have:

Start Saving the Query Impressions Data

One way to view your site’s performance with high value keywords is to use the Query report in Google Analytics (image below).Query Report in Google Analytics

To pull this report, go to Traffic Sources > SEO > Queries and choose your desired date range. Keep in mind that Google only stores this data for two full months at a time, so be sure to save these reports for historical comparison data.

This report shows you the search query, your (ballpark) impressions, clicks generated, average search position and click-through-rate.

It’s not as granular as seeing all keywords from your search traffic, but it is a tool that can be used to measure traffic and gauge improvement for targeted keywords.

This report can also be accessed in Webmaster Tools in Traffic > Search Queries.

Analyze Landing Page Reports

Just because you can’t see the search keywords of your “not provided” visitors, that doesn’t mean you can’t see the behavior of these visitors on your site.

You can isolate these visits and mine your analytics to determine on which landing page the “not provided” visitors entered the website—which gives some insight into which keyword groups may have been used in the search.Landing pages GA report

To use this method, first you need to create a custom advanced segment for “not provided” traffic.Not provided Google Analytics segment

Then, in standard reports, pull up the landing page report and apply this advanced segment. Now you can see that X number entered through the homepage, Y number entered through service page, and so on.

From here, you can segment your “not provided traffic” by landing page, creating a more nuanced understanding of your mystery traffic. Naturally, this will be more useful for some websites than others.

Focus Your Reporting on Relevant Landing Pages

It’s likely that not every page of your website is designed to target organic traffic.

Think about pages like careers, contact us, testimonials, employee bios, and, in some cases, blogs. Even if these are also a component of your organic strategy, it’s likely that they drive a type of traffic you would want to report on separately.

Therefore, to get a closer look at the data that’s really important from an SEO standpoint, create a custom report that excludes these pages.

While this won’t eliminate your encrypted search data problem, it will allow you to analyze and report
on a more focused, relevant portion of your site.

Exclude Branded Terms from your Impressions Report to get a Better Idea of your Targeted Keyword Progress

Apply the same terms you filter organic “provided” traffic to your Impressions report. While highly generic, this can give you a reportable “visibility” metric. This is also useful for reporting SERP progress instead of the traditional keyword page ranking. As Google continues to customize its “first page” results, this can be a useful number to quantify the website’s real presence in search results.

Do a Little Math

In the end, to decompose the structure of your “not provided” traffic, requires a little math:

  • As discussed above, take your organic traffic and remove the less-relevant landing pages (blog, careers, etc)
  • Look at your keyword volumes and calculate the proportion of Branded vs Targeted keywords
  • Apply the same proportions to your “not provided” volume of keywords and determine the rough volume of “not provided” visitors using targeted keywords.

Unfortunately, there is no secret hack that will unlock Google’s encrypted search traffic (and if someone is claiming otherwise, be wary). That said, we still have a good amount of keyword data to work with between our analytics, Webmaster Tools, and other sources like the AdWords Keyword Tool.

What tactics have you used to combat your “not provided” traffic problem? Let us know in the comments section!

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

  • http://twitter.com/Ravenjeremy Jeremy Rivera

    When “applying a little math” there’s no level of certainty that not provided doesn’t obscure more traffic some some types of queries or intents is there?

    • Charlie Nadler

      Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide 100% certainty as to which “not provided” visits are branded and which are targeted. It does give a rational basis for calculating estimates, which for many will be a better option than arbitrary estimates (or no estimates). Thanks Jeremy

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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    We like to recommend you use Google Webmaster Tools. Webmaster tools provides visitor data for specific keywords, so you can view which web pages are ranking for a particular keyword. You can then export this data and compare it to your analytics to see if there is a correlation or a trend. I agree that “doing some math” isn’t a guarantee, but it at least gives you a better sense of where some of your traffic is coming from.

  • Alan Myers

    “What tactics have you used to combat your “not provided” traffic problem? ”
    It’s not too difficult to figure out what the “not provided” keyword is from the query impressions data.

  • Don Leske

    As a webmaster since 1995.., let me assure you that “It’s ALWAYS about the money!” Do not think for a minute that free generic listings on google or any other search engine will even be available in the future. We will all be forced to PAY …..to play their game. This is no joke. Small businesses will simply not be found, oh yes….and Big Brother will tax EVERYTHING. Just hide and watch.