5 min read

‘Not Provided’ .. Why have Google taken away our keyword data?

g-not-prov Google’s decision to remove all visible keyword data by moving completely to secure search has caused great unrest in our industry. Online marketers rightfully feel a little hard done by, especially when in May 2010, Matt Cutts was so quick to state: “.. even at full roll-out ‘Not Provided’ would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searches on Google.com.” This of course was never the case. Not Provided increased swiftly and steadily each month, accounting for more than 50% of organic search traffic within 12 months for most websites. So why have Google suddenly done this? Is it for the benefit of the Search Engine user or just another crafty way of pleasing their shareholders in the long term?  

Google does truly care about the privacy of its users

The ethical (and Google’s official) reason for the loss of keyword data is that Google cares about our privacy. Now as much as I’d like to believe this…. I don’t! When Search Engine Watch challenged Google for an official answer they received the following statement:  “We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year, we’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.” Surely incognito browsing already protects anyone truly worried about what they type into Google’s search bar? Is Google Suggest going to be removed from functionality as a result? Are those related searches that appear under our search results suddenly going to disappear? More importantly, if privacy is so important then why does hiding keyword data not apply to the machine that funds their global domination – Google Adwords? Of course this will never happen, remove keyword data from Google Adwords and paid search suddenly loses its appeal to advertisers. The appeal of PPC is simple – it’s arguably the most trackable form of marketing ever to exist. Bidding on keywords with no idea of which ones are actually performing doesn’t exactly shout “sound investment” to any business. This data definitely still exists and Google are clearly still using it for their paid advertising model. So is there a secondary motive?    

Not Provided Increases Paid Search Appeal

The Internet has matured and so have online marketing strategies. Early in my career I remember going to work for a blue chip retailer that had never even heard of SEO. By the time I left their SEO was by far their most profitable marketing channel and they had a whole team dedicated to it. Established brands have had time to establish their organic search presence and now rely less on Paid Search as their main source of traffic. There are also more marketing channels to fund and Google’s customers are allocating more of their marketing budget to accommodate a growing list of channels – SEO, Social, Email, Affiliates, Video, Display and Re-targeting to name a few. When times are tough and costs need to be reduced, PPC is now often the first channel to take a cut and convincing a Finance Director that Paid Search is a sound investment will often fall on deaf ears. Ask any accountant to give you £1million with a guarantee that you will drive up to 10x that amount and they will see it as a gamble, the safer option for their career path is to just reduce spend. Say they give you £1million for PPC and it goes well, is the CEO going to pat them on the back? Yet if it fails to produce a profitable ROI their head is on the line for giving you that money in the first place. Tracking SEO at keyword level is not in Google’s interest. Pausing a keyword in Adwords because it performs well affects the amount of competition for keywords, reduce that competition and suddenly CPCs drop. Take away that data and suddenly this type of tactic is a much bigger gamble, because there’s no longer any data to justify that decision. Suddenly SEO is much harder to measure, attributing brand and non-brand traffic for example, has turned into guesswork overnight. Brand bidding has always been debatable “sure the clicks are cheap but we’d get this traffic anyway wouldn’t we?” is a question that’s surely been raised at least once in any online marketing manager’s career. Making all Google searches ‘Not Provided’ removes any concrete method of measuring the growth of brand traffic – unless you bid on brand all the time of course. Measuring accurate demand, traffic and revenue at keyword level is now impossible without Paid Search data, so if you want to look at keyword performance you have no choice but to invest in Google Adwords.    

Not Provided Stops Over-Optimisation of Websites

In 2012, Google announced that they were going to ‘level the playing field’ and penalise websites that were over-optimised. The idea being that sites with great content would stand more chance of ranking above sites with average content that are heavily SEO’d. By removing the ability to monitor individual keywords Google are making a giant step in shifting SEO focus to page level rather than individual keywords.

“focus on landing page experience, not individual keywords”

A long term goal of Google’s  has been to persuade marketers to look at landing page performance, not keyword level performance. What happens when we start looking more at landing pages? We improve the content on them and with it the visitor experience. SEO is now difficult to categorise as a direct marketing channel. Tracking keyword performance for organic traffic not only made it a direct competitor of PPC but also affected how we optimise pages and the content we produce. Taking someone else’s content, re-writing it for Search Engines and ranking above that original page now loses focus. Instead creating uniqiue content and attracting social signals becomes the priority.  Something that recent algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin have also strived to achieve.    

Not Provided Makes Algorithm Updates Even More Effective

Penguin and Panda were both designed to stop bad SEO practice, reduce thin content and low quality links. Social signals (shares, comments and likes) are now the most important ranking factors, every move by Google is designed to make rankings more genuine and less prone to manipulation by optimisation techniques. Take away the visibility of which keywords are affected by algorithm updates and SEO experts have to be more careful in the techniques they use to avoid Google Penalties, focus more on best practice and most importantly improve the quality of their work (i.e. content creation and link building). Moving away from keyword focused anchor text and the increasing growth of “no follow” links are just two examples of how Google has moved to combat false link building. Link builders have had to completely change their techniques with low quality links and anchor text that shouts ‘target keyword’ becoming a negative factor to web page authority and ultimately the rankings they achieve. The safest SEO strategy is the same as it has always supposed to have been – Focus on producing quality content, that is linked to naturally and ensure your website provides your audience with a positive visitor experience.    

Not Provided will Increase Sales for Google Analytics Premium?

Now I haven’t researched the legal implications of whether this is even possible but I’m going to put it out there anyway… Are Google about to include keyword data in their paid version of Google Analytics – With the added bonus of keyword data for the license fee? Keyword level data almost certainly has a price to big budget sites because they can use it to drive more revenue, so why wouldn’t they pay for it? With a reported asking price in excess of £100k per year and the steep competition for advanced analytics solutions, this would suddenly give Google Analytics all the cards. Google’s competitors in this space (Omniture, CoreMetrics etc) would surely have no option but to pay Google the large license fees just to include keyword data in their own products.  

Not Provided ultimately affects the marketers, not the billions of people that use Google every day for it’s actual purpose.. Searching the internet! As painful as it is, we need Google more than Google needs us, so we have to play by their rules.

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