Some call it ‘SEO bullying’. Others believe this was truly a measurement of privacy by Google, which is what the official statement said. Fact is that ‘Not provided’ has had a big impact on search, mainly on how SEO’s work, in the past few years.
What is it?
In the ‘old days’ life was good for an SEO when using an analytics tool like Google Analytics. After all, you could go in to your analytics, look for the search section and there was a list of keywords there which helped you understand how people got to your site using Google. The keywords showed what people searched for in Google before reaching your website. Combined with ranking data this helped improve the website and SEO.
Back in 2011 Google started to ‘cut back’ on the keywords provided in Google Analytics and to other analytics tools. Now you could see that people came from search, but the keywords would be highlighted as ‘not provided’.
Originally Google claimed this was for ‘privacy reasons’, however the SEO community has never really trusted this statement. There are still SEO’s who believe the reasons behind this were either because Google will be selling the data in the future or Google doesn’t want to ‘help’ SEO’s anymore by giving them free data.
When Google rolled this out it claimed it would only be a small percentage of keywords that would become ‘not provided’. However these days the ‘not provided’ keywords goes up to 98% and is expected to reach 100% in the next year.
The response of the Experts
When asked about changes in search in the past years SEO’s all mention the ‘not provided’ as one of the major changes. There also seems to be some sort of ‘acceptance’ around it. SEO’s know it’s not going to change and have to live with it.
That doesn’t mean they like it though. Bastian Grimm thinks it’s a sad move by Google:
“Just sad and still a massive pain to not have them, completely the wrong direction in a sense of “SEO is not a blackbox” – in fact that didn’t help at all.”
Andre Alpar believes the change was given in by money and business reasons:
“The denial of search queries aka “not provided” was definitely not introduced to improve the user experience but rather to defend the market position IMHO. Nonetheless for SEO it amplified the importance of informational and site structure.“
The suggestion that Google one day might be selling the data becomes less likely as time passes by. After all, what are they waiting for if they want to sell it? Or do they just want to move people to the Adwords tools, and thus advertising, by this measurement? Arianne Donoghue doesn’t seem to believe that. She thinks it’s on all Google levels:
“[not provided] – has massively changed how SEOs do their job and this has then filtered through into other areas, e.g. now in PPC.“
With the keywords gone, what is it that SEO’s do now? Are there alternatives? Of course they still have ‘some’ data to work with, but slowly they are losing that as well. So now SEO’s are looking into other sources to understand the search results better:
Google Adwords data: of course there is the Google Adwords data. Google still (for now) provides information on what people search for. Combined with rankings and visits that can give you some idea of what people are searching for to reach your website.
Pages instead of keywords: instead of looking at the keywords, SEO’s are much more looking at the landing pages: what pages do people land on after search and where do those pages rank on? Based on external data from different type tools, like Semrush for example, you can get close to the actual search terms.
Google Webmaster tools: there is still data available in Google Webmastertools on the keywords that people use to reach your website. You’ll have to do some math in combination with your analytics, but it is still useful. For however long it lasts…