The SEO world has been shaken. Something strange, something…unknown is creeping into the reporting and has this month, in the UK, experienced something of an epidemic.
(Not provided) is the SEO equivalent of a withheld telephone number, or a potential customer contacting you on the basis of a referral, but refusing to tell you who recommended you. Except it’s not the customer that’s keeping the information from you, it’s Google.
A few months ago Google changed some of their “privacy” settings, so that when users are signed in to Google (their email, Google+ etc), the terms that they search for are hidden. They’re not revealed in Google Analytics so when looking at your stats you don’t know what people searched for to reach your site.
This was introduced last year and was in place in the UK when people used Google.com or chose to go the https address instead of http, however now it’s also the default on Google.co.uk. This change has been rolled out throughout March, creating a sharp rise for some people in the number of “not provided” searches coming through in their analytics.
Isn’t this just Google protecting people’s privacy?
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But two counter arguments exist to this.
1) They don’t hide the data for PPC, so if someone clicks on one of the paid ads after they’ve searched, the search terms they Googled are passed on to those companies. Those companies who paid money to Google.
2) In analytics, your search terms aren’t connected to anything about you. It’s just numbers and stats.
Now, there’s some debate in the SEO community about how much they’ve really gone up. Some experts warn that it is actually surprisingly easy to mis-read the analytics and overstate the occurences of (not provided).
However others, who are experts in these things, have reported rises up to 50%. Google estimated that around 10% of traffic would be classed as (not provided). For one of our clients, (not provided) rose from 3% to 18% around March 13th, coinciding with the UK rollout.
This is obviously irritating, as less data means less knowledge means less basis for future actions. You can make educated guesses by looking at the percentage split of keywords, and also at the landing pages that the (not provided)s visited. But educated guesses don’t really help agencies reporting on work, achievements, trends and activity and basing future plans on previous results.
The key, for agencies and clients, is to focus on what you do know, rather than what you don’t. Ignore (not provided) and have more appreciation for the 80% of visitors for whom you do have search data.