What Does Google’s “Not Provided” Mean for Small Business SEO

October 11, 2013 | By Paul Mackenzie Ross | Filed in: business, Internet, marketing, SEO.

Not Provided organic search terms courtesy of GoogleIf you look at your stats in Google Analytics on a daily basis as I do, then you can’t have helped notice an increase in the “not provided” phrase at the top of your organic traffic results.

What is this “not provided” in Google Analytics?

A couple of years ago Google decided that they were going to use HTTPS for users who logged in to their services. HTTPS ensures a secure connection between your browser and Google’s search on a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) if you’re interested. It means that your requests to Google and the results it returns to you are encrypted, but as a user you don’t notice the difference (Other than https at the beginning of the address bar)

The importance of using HTTPS is that it secures your traffic, which is especially useful over an unsecured connection, like using the WiFi in your local coffee shop, for instance. Using a secure connection prevents what are called “man in the middle” attacks, where your connection could be “tapped” and then you risk giving exposing all manner of data over that connection – usernames, passwords, URLs etc.

For users of the Firefox browser there was the “HTTPS Everywhere” plugin which forced websites to use a secure connection if they had one, and Firefox later made this a standard feature from version 14 if I recall correctly.

So, in the interests of security and privacy, HTTPS is a good thing.

However, this new-found privacy meant that Google stopped sending search terms from secured connections to statistical software, hence the rise of “not provided” in the organic search stats.

At first, it wasn’t too much of an issue – around 20% of traffic was from “not provided”. But, two years later, that figure has risen dramatically and now in excess of 81% of organic keywords are “not provided”, mainly due to Google forcing ALL queries to be secure, regardless of whether a Google search user is logged in or not. (The image at the beginning of this post shows a snippet of organic traffic results for a website I currently monitor and it shows “not provided” at 77%)

So what does this all mean for small business SEO?

This means, very obviously, that there is less keyword data; far less keyword data. Small businesses will not be able to tell, as accurately as they once did, how users are finding their sites in the search. Efforts to improve website traffic will need to be done without that one key metric.

There are, however, ways around this.

Using Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) still exposes some of the most popular key terms that drive traffic to SME websites. Navigating GWT to Search Traffic > Search Queries does allow you to see which search terms have worked along with those other nuggets such how many times you showed up in the SERPs, your average rankings and Click Through Rates (CTR). GWT does however limit going back in time to 90 days of data.

The other way around the issue is to try and forget keywords.

Keywords have been the holy grail of search for the last decade and longer, with SEO practitioners at all levels of experience climbing over eachother to show how they can get you to rank #1 for this phrase, top ten for that phrase and to many small businesses that’s what SEO has been all about.

The truth of the matter is that, as frustrating as this loss of valuable data is, especially since we give Google access to the inner workings of our websites in return for the valuable insights that are now exclusively for their eyes only, there’s not a lot we can do about it. We can go to other search engines, but Bing and Yahoo are the same now, and when was the last time you used Dogpile, HotBot or Excite?

Failing a mass exodus from Google search, even a mass uprising and a change of heart from the search giant, it’s unlikely that the behemoth will change course [Prepares hat, knife and fork for the day flying pigs are sighted]. Google has its own reasons (agenda) and no amount of small businesses banging on about losing their valuable organic keywords is likely to affect Big G’s decision.

We’ve got the symantic web, a Hummingbird update and now a Penguin 2.1 rollout to deal with. We should all be looking at creating great websites for our audience, new and existing readers, and, whilst easier said than done, it forces us to look at new ways.

So, what are you doing to increase the organic traffic at your small business and what do you think about the “not provided” issue?


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