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It's reasonable that the average organic search engine marketer is feeling fairly embattled in recent times.
Not only are they under assault from the increasingly rapid pace of change within its algorithm, but it seems that Google is also making it ever more difficult to measure the real effect of SEO related changes.
The most obvious issue is the rise of the (not provided) keyphrase referrer in analytics. This was launched in a blaze of publicity in late 2011 for users signed into Google services, but the amount of traffic referred by (not provided) has been stealthily increasing ever since.
The decision of Firefox to configure HTTPS (secure) searches by default further added to the issue.
My own personal frustration at the fact that our own site analytics shows that over 50% of our organic traffic over the past month is now referrer (not provided) prompted me to look at the levels for our clients.
As an agency who have over 50 clients, we have access to the analytics of a diverse range of businesses and a look at some of these returned some interesting correlations.
It could be argued that our site attracts a primarily technical and marketing savvy audience, who are more likely to be signed into Google services,and are therefore likely to land on our site as (not provided) visitors.
This is seems to be borne out by looking at the data from other IT and technical clients that we work with.
Overall, our client base of different types seems to see;
- IT, marketing and technical: 50% (not provided).
- Community sites (social networks, forums etc), 40% (not provided).
- Mainstream ecommerce, 20% (not provided)
- Travel and Tourism, 15% (not provided)
- (It's around 40% of organic search traffic on Econsultancy - ed)
The rise of (not provided) on Econsultancy.
These numbers are averages of a relatively large range, but they do appear to give a general trend and one that can at least partially be explained by the propensity of the audiences for logging into Google services.
At the risk of making sweeping generalisations, it's probably fair to say that technical or marketing website managers are more likely to be logged into Google Analytics, AdWords or even Google+ as default, than travel and tourism business operators.
I'd be interested to know whether these numbers broadly fit with other peoples experiences.
It's certainly arguable that another contributing factor to all of this might be the rise in popularity of the Google+ platform - over 500m users now claimed by Google (although I'm personally hugely cycnical about the number of "active users in this number).
It's also important to note that this is not simply a Google Analytics related issue. Users of any other analytics platform, including the £90,000 per year Google Analytics Premium product, are equally affected.
Google of course justifies the situation by claiming that it protects the security of the user and their keyphrase searches now that they are signed in and therefore no longer anonymous, but this does seem somewhat debatable when you consider the fact that this data is readily available for paid Adwords traffic.
So, how do we circumvent this parlous state of affairs?
Well, the first thing to do is undoubtedly check your Google Webmaster Tools account, assuming that you have this configured.
GWT will provide average keyphrase position data for your site, which is useful so long as you bear in mind that this is average data rather than absolute, so should be used as a guide rather than a hard and fast truth.
Landing page analysis
There are also some useful things that you can do within Google Analytics that at least help retrieve some of the information that Google has removed from us. The primary weapon in your armoury here is the landing page analysis functionality in Google Analytics.
Select your (not provided) data and drill into "Landing Page" and you will see the most popular pages that (not provided) visitors landed on. This is not precise, but will give you a good feeling for what these people were looking for.
You may then wish to supplement this by setting up some custom reports in Analytics that enable you to analyse visit duration, bounce rate, conversion rate and any other metrics that will help you define how much your (not provided) data is contributing.
The battle is made yet harder by the fact that Google seems hell bent on placing other hurdles in the path of people wishing to measure their organic keyprase positioning in the search results.
There are undoubtedly numerous reasons why straightforward keyphrase monitoring is not a long term way to measure your organic search presence, but nonetheless, it's easily understandable, cost effective and still the preferred modus operandi for the majority of businesses.
That is, until Google decided to make it harder for keyphrase monitoring tools to scrape ranking data from the Google SERPS. The most widely publicised example of this is the Raven tools case, but there is no doubt that Google is actively and in some cases aggresively discouraging the vendors of this type of technology. (Raven were very open about the fact that they were given a choice by Google - continue scraping keyphrase position data or continue to receive access to the Adwords API. It opted very publicly for the latter approach).
All of this adds to the rapid evolution that SEOs are having to go through to keep pace with Google. The algorithm has forced us to update our approaches and techniques, but this issue has also forced us to be smarter in the way we measure the contribution of organic search to a business.
Google clearly wants to encourage us to look at ROI from SEO through routes other than concentrating on individual keyphrases and all of the above seems to be a contributor to this approach.