The Google ‘Not Provided’ Problem Isn’t Getting Any Better

    September 8, 2013
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

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.

Do you think Google is doing this to increase its own revenue or is it really about privacy? Share your thoughts.

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.

As I write this, about 80% of our own real-time Google traffic is coming from keywords that are “not provided”.

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.

We talked about this here. 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. We recently looked at 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?

Have you noticed the “not provided” percentage increase for your own site? Has it affected your organic/paid search mix? Let us know in the comments.

Image: Google Analytics

  • http://www.eBizROI.com/ Rick Noel

    Nice post Chris. At the time of this comment, “Not provided” on our site is slightly North of 87% for our business website. We are an Digital Marketing agency so it makes sense that many of the searches driving traffic to our site would be from logged in users using at least one Google Services (e.g. gmail, google docs, YouTube, Google+). It does shift an online marketers reliance to other places such as Webmaster Tools and the Paid & Organic report for AdWords. The retiring of the external keyword tool last week was a sad day indeed. Have a great weekend.

  • http://articolisti.eu Articolisti

    Google is taking back his data. The less you know about your traffic, the higher chance google has that you’ll buy relevant keywords for your business on AdWords, and that’s a fact.
    Point is that Google just hates SEO in all his forms and every new update on whatever it’s related to the Google World is drammatically killing this profession. No good keyword research anymore, less data to analyize, link building nightmare, random updates on content quality that usually kills whatever you’ve done before that used to work and so on.
    It’s like the David Vs. Golia fight but a book told us how the story ends.

  • Sam Englehardt


  • http://www.thecollectorshub.com The Collectors Hub

    This isn’t about personal privacy. A corporation’s only goal is to make money…. Google is a corporation.

  • http://plasticsurgeonfrance.co.uk geoff lord

    Well we have been seeing more and more of the “not provided” on some of our clients sites. I have been saying since the first “penguin” appeared that Google’s intentions were to extract more revenue from search results. We have started to use Bing search more and more lately and from reports from some of our clients they are doing the same. Google may eventually manage to shoot themselves in the foot by continuing to annoy the SEO guys.

    Geoff Lord

  • Phil Perry

    You mean, is Google greedy?

    Ummmm… Ummmmm…. let me see…

  • http://www.purplecontracts.com Fredrick

    A very informative post for me. I had no idea why “Not Provided” was being mentioned by Google in Analytics. It’s clear to me that Google does want to raise revenue by forcing publishers into Adwords. How long would webmasters be dominated by Google? :(

  • https://you-hotels.com Andreas Maier

    I think you are using a completely wrong approach here. Google and other sites move away from Http and over to https to leverage SPDY, which is only provided under the Https protocol and has nothing to do with why or why not some data is shared with analytics or adsense.
    Secondly and referring to data collection. My personal opinion is that everyone can implement a replacement for Analytics, as Analytics in its free form is not very reliable. That is at least what the big players in the internet industry do.
    So the decision if, or if not you are willing to give your data away is purely yours. It is free, so you will have to oblige to their rules…



    • http://ivf-abroad.org/ Tim

      True, you’ve got the choice whether to share data with them, and whether to use their free tools, but if you use a free alternative such as piwik, then the data you get about googled search terms is still withheld unless you go down the Adwords route.

      Personally I think that using a self-hosted analytics software, free or not, is a far better idea than using Google tools that are subject to change, or may stop being free, and at any rate are used as one more way of data mining

      • RC

        Using alternative analytics AND tagging the URL will take care of the unknown issues for many clients when promoted client URL’s are used. If you want data like that, image tagging or URL tagging can help by using your own analytics.

        It is not fullproof which is what I believe G knows and exploits by providing a webmaster tools area where all webmasters GIVE UP freely all tracking data to G but they feel warm and fuzzy and won’t seek alternatives. Some webmasters, sorry to say, wouldn’t know how to setup an alternative.

        Truth is G, exploits the weaknesses of webmasters and business by providing easy access to tools that feed THEM [G] FREE Traffic DATA yet G is now not providing the full, [dare I say censored] analytical data back to the webmaster. Go figure and Keep using G tools and point at others if they use FREE analytics tools just like G tools if not in many ways better as if G tools are professional tools. I opt for MORE CONTROL not less and certainly not more intrusive.

        I do analytics outside of G and I have page 1 ranks for myself and clients. I USE G and exploit what they give. They do give ways. You better find them and then NOT abuse them. They see that ohhh so easily. Play the game and USE G but you do not have to be PART OF G. Shhh..don’t let it out.

        For many years, marketers who used cloaked URLS were looked at as black sheep and cheaters for not clearly defining the destination URL.

        Now, all the major social platforms URL shorten. WHAT is that about??? AND it is acceptable. Even G does it and provides a way for YOU too. How nice of them. It destroys any analytics unless you pay the platform for their internal tagged ads. No conspiracy. It is just true. It destroys analytics when you URL encode or shorten URLs.
        It is Ok now and groovy for G and Big Social to do this and so can you too like it is a great thing.

        This is not just G doing this. All major platforms have a stranglehold on analytics for their own investors. Pay to play this SEO game is going to squash the little business ability to compete openly. That is what this is about make no mistake about it.

        $$$$$$$$$,,, Oooops we didn’t mean to be evil. It just was an extra bonus we hadn’t planned on. People that actually are buying that load from a BILLION(s) of dollar company really should re-think that notion when G now employs more ex-NASA physicists than any gov’t entity and it IS a definite part of the G Business Plan to dominate.

        Lastly, for all of the G Capitalist supporters, let’s have a fair playing field for all; meaning we all get fair access to the capitalist playing field to play on.

        Right now, we all are renting the G playing field to the point they actually can thumb their nose and say go elsewhere. G will say play by our rules on OUR field or go fns your own field. G OWNS 85% plus of the search market. You basically are putting yourself in Siberia by choice going elsewhere and G knows this but hey, don’t be evil.

        When MS tried this 10 years ago [people have no sense of history] with software, people cried foul they are taking over our internets. They cried that MS was a monopoly even when there were OTHER players then too [ie. APPLE, Linux] contrary to the actual definition of monopoly. MS was not the only player YET was slapped silly for not playing nicely in the sandbox and screwing with peoples’ privacy too and called too BIG of a KEY player. What the heck was that? That surely wasn’t very ahem, capitalistic now was it? BUT it was done and said to be done for the growth of businesses in the long term.

        Network Solutions did this with Internic but hey THEY WERE A MONOPOLY and did get broken up for good reason. Google that!

        Google has 85% plus of the market share in search and what % of the video market? AND G has been shown to pee in the sandbox with all of their algorithm dump the small guy tactics. EMD, No EMD….now WMDs .. and they are targeted and aimed to capitalize but hey they have some nice FREE tools so it is okey dokey. AND webmasters thinking they have a say here is ridiculous. It is about the money. If it wasn’t about the $$$, what webmaster would not want THEIR OLD keyword tool back RIGHT NOW? Did you complain? How’d that work for ya? DO you have a SAY? Oooops.

        Go ahead. They LUV you guys in that way. Yesssir may I have another as they bank on adwords for THEIR clients to dominate YOUR clients. This rant is not aimed at webmasters so don’t get PO’d but please stop defending G like they need help.

        Clearly they don’t need help and acting like intelligent people are against capitalism and just don’t get IT is laughable. Sorry, but I feel pretty intelligent. If someone doesn’t think I GET IT, that is just that person not getting me. We haven’t met. That is a poor assumption from someway possibly espousing that GREED – extreme capitalism, is Good for “everyone”. I disagree.

        G is now buying the electric utility companies to feed their own offices. G is huge and getting as trump would say HUGER …On and on………I hope we ALL have good long lasting batteries when they decide to turn off the lights.

        No the sky is not falling so don’t say that either as if I just don’t get It. I get it. I choose not to take IT.

  • Bob Rodriguez

    To make a very long story short YES! There is no doubt whatsoever that GOOGLE is doing everything that it can to steer advertisers to sponsored search.

    • https://you-hotels.com Andreas Maier

      It’s a corporation… isn’t it?

      • John D

        — Website contents belong to website owners and they can easily block G bot from scraping sites.

        • http://www.rentalresources-ms.com Connie B.

          I’ve been getting calls from a Google affiliate for several months now. Finally took their call after I noticed that my first page listing had been bumped to the fourth page. They were trying to sell me an expensive listing on the front page (guaranteeing it). So, from my perspective, it IS all about the money. And they say they want to protect peoples’ privacy? Just follow the news.

  • http://www.miamiprestigerealty.com Miami homes for sale

    Google is trying to kill seo and make more money selling sponsored links…

  • http://www.pinguinpark.de Gerd

    As author of my website, I make efforts to meet the interest of my visitors. Knowing what they searched for is the least I should do. It does not impact any privacy because I don’t know the names of my visitors. 13 years ago with Altavista, Lycos, Yahoo, Infoseek and even Google I got the information for each single visit. Example: “http://google.yahoo.com/bin/query_de?p=sound recording&z=2&hc=0&hs=0:”

  • http://www.elijahclark.com/seo-orlando-company.html D.Manco

    (not provided)is always a bummer; yet Google was sued over privacy issues, and protecting its best interest [http://analytics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/making-search-more-secure-accessing.html]. One thing though that cannot remain private is data received from tagged URLs. I posit that we will continue to see increases due to users being signed in across various devices; however, there are enough of users still that don’t sign in who are not desiring to share their data with Google, Y!, or Bing.

  • eggsonthesmile

    Chris Crum wears polka dot undies but Chris but he is not a growling onion, I am! I fart while smiling warmly and carefully!

  • http://www.twocentsgroup.com.au Simon Dell

    Totally agree. Not provided is over 50% of our search traffic. Very frustrating.

  • Tired of the Google…

    The only reason the Google does anything is for increased revenue.


  • http://mckeenmedia.com Mike McKeen

    I don’t see what Google is doing as a problem. Mainly because they are providing a search service that exceeds any others in my opinion, and they have every right to make a profit. If we are playing the Capitalist Game, they should indeed be making their service as they like it, and making money how they want to within that service. It’s smart business, doesn’t mean we all have to like it.

    • http://invenio-solutions.com/ Marie

      Quite agree with you Mike….. It is frustrating to no longer see all the keywords but I guess if we are running our optimisation correctly and to good practices shouldn’t really have an issue.

      Where would we be without google – but that’s another blog post though!

  • http://bippermedia.com Bipper Media

    I find Webmaster keyword data to be much more relevant anyway – I can actually see click thru rates on these keywords. And as far as Adwords goes, for my clients the visitor flow at the keyword level is exponentially more important to me to raw keyword data.

  • http://www.plaquesandpatches.com Daryl Clark

    Google is Google focused not customer centric focused. Frankly I believe very little of what Google says. If they were customer focused they would have gotten rid of not provided a long time ago. Give me an example of where Google ever listened to their users or customers. I will be shocked if anyone can provide one.

  • Dave

    This has about as much to do with privacy as Panda & all the other updates do with so called “quality”. A private company should not control something as important as the internet to the global economy. Period. All the Google lovers may feel different when the Internet is full of nothing but huge brands.

  • http://intersog.com/ Victoria

    I think it just shows that Google wants everyone ot buy their ads and not be able to get search traffic – at least easily. And the killing of the keyword tool and the “not provided” are the steps to make more people use Adwords

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/blog/ Nick Stamoulis of Brick Marketing

    “But regardless of the intentions, the end result looks bad.”

    I think that hits the nail on the head. Regardless of what they say they meant, Google’s actions look very suspicious. I understand them wanting to protect user privacy, but why does AdWords still get the same data? Either the data needs to be locked down entirely or opened up entirely.

  • http://miamibeachfitness.net Miami Beach Fitness

    I have noticed that even good websites that used to rank very high, they dropped significantly and now they have to pay Google for Banners and Adwords just to keep same traffic they used to have.

  • wolfvision3

    Not provided is a issue that maybe gets fixed, but as I see it, Google has every right to do what they want as a Corp. they own it. So people get over it and if you do not like it change channels so to speak. Google provides great jobs and working environment to allot of people. Why not allow them to make a profit, so Google can be there for us to use freely. Who else offers us great free worldly info that works. So I say keep it up and people stop crying.