Unboxing “Not Provided”

On October 2011, Google officially launched “secure search” in an effort to promote stronger security standards throughout the industry. Users logged into their Google Account will now have their searches encrypted, keeping their information protected – especially in “unsecured” public locations like parks and cafes. While consumers have something to celebrate, search marketers are faced with a monumental challenge: the loss of valuable data.

Keyword searches performed on Google by logged-in users will now be clumped into a catch-all category termed “not provided” – a sort of mystery box of search data. While it can still be discerned that the visitor used a search engine to find and navigate to the site, it is no longer clear what search term they originally used. Losing out on this data shrouds valuable insight into search behavior, impoverishing our ability to understand and target consumers using search engines.

As more users come to rely on a gamut of Google products from GMAIL to Google Plus and consequently, log into those services, more and more search data will split away. We are fast approaching a point when we may actually know less, rather than more, about our incoming audience. In a way, this works to undermine one of the distinct advantages of search as a marketing channel.

To soften the blow, Google has surfaced some of this lost data in Google Webmaster Tools – a platform that allows webmasters to monitor the health of their sites from a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective. Google Webmaster Tools now offers keyword level data for up to 1,000 organic search queries that drove traffic to your website over the past 30 days. However, there is no indication of how completely these keywords represent those contained in the mystery box of “not provided”. Moreover, for larger sites, which may receive traffic from well over 10,000 different search queries, this data is hardly fair compensation for the loss.

However, some data is still better than no data. And because we have two data sources in the form of the aforementioned Google Webmaster Tools and a given analytics platform (CoreMetrics, Google Analytics or Omniture), we can start filling in some gaps by simply placing the data side by side. At a high level, we are able to recognize that keywords reflected in Google Webmaster Tools that don’t appear in analytics are therefore part of “not provided”. However, we reach the limits of this approach rather quickly. For keywords that don’t appear in Google Webmaster Tools or Google Analytics, we cannot with confidence say whether or not they are a part of “not provided”.

Given the dearth of data available courtesy of Google Webmaster Tools, we can look to other outlets in order to reclaim some more organic search data. Luckily, we need look no further than our brother in arms: paid search.

Paid search data is currently unaffected by “secure search”, allowing us to retain keyword-level data for our paid search campaigns. As a result, paid search campaigns become a crucial support tool for organic search, allowing us to recover an understanding of the search consumer. It now becomes necessary to scale up paid search efforts in order to compensate for the loss of data with “not provided” in order to help us to fill in the keywords gaps in a highly responsive and timely manner. Conducting long-tail keyword ad tests can serve as an invaluable way to gain insights to guide organic search optimizations. By running paid search and organic campaigns simultaneously, we are can further identify keyword variations that will deliver performance.

Organic and paid search have always reinforced one another in bolstering overall search performance. In this, they have worked together to capture additional front-end real estate on the search engine results. With “secure search”, now is a critical time for the two to establish backend synergies in order to unbox “not provide” search data. In this, they have become more essential to one another than ever before. Paid search campaigns must now increasingly work to fill in the organic keyword gap represented by “not provided” in order to assure the continual success of both organic and paid search initiatives.