The restriction of keyword referral data has had a major impact on SEO, with marketers seeing it as the second biggest obstacle to search success. 

An inability to see this data has prevented marketers from optimising their organic search campaigns as they had done in the past. 

Our UK Search Engine Marketing Benchmark Report 2014, produced in association with Latitude, has surveyed companies and agencies about their attitudes to the almost total loss of organic keyword data. 

A potted history of (not provided)

Let's recap briefly. Back in October 2011, Google announced that it was encrypting searches for logged in Google users (of which there are many), under the banner of making search more secure.

Understandably, this was met with consternation by search marketers and ecommerce professionals, as it made their jobs much more difficult.

The fact that such data was not restricted for those spending money on paid search naturally led to some cynicism. 

At that point, (not provided) traffic made up a smaller proportion of total organic referrals, perhaps 10 to 20% of traffic, but that has changed. 

Now, since the introduction on encrypted search for Firefox and Chrome users and finally, Google's decision to redirect all traffic to the HTTPS version of the search engine in September 2013, there is precious little keyword data left. 

For Econsultancy, 95% of all organic search data is encrypted, while puts the overall figure at 85.83%. 

In a nutshell, marketers now have so little keyword referral data that it has become almost pointless in attempting to learn anything from it. 

Consequences of (not provided)

Previously, keyword data could have been used to learn more about the traffic arriving at your site, and whether efforts at optimising certain keywords were effective or not. 

It could also have been used to optimise landing pages, and providing a better user experience for visitors. 

Now, half a year on from the almost complete removal of keyword data, marketers are seeing this as a major barrier to effective SEO, second only to lack of resource. 

32% of companies and 29% of agencies see the rise of (not provided) as a major problem. 

Which of the following are the biggest problems preventing you / your clients from being as successful at SEO as you would like?

Also, while 44% of companies said they are able to track ROI for paid search, only 31% are as confident in their ability to track ROI for SEO, possibly due to the ‘not provided’ issue. 

The data is gone for good, what next? 

While bemoaning the loss of keyword data is understandable, marketers now need to adjust to the new situation.

A smarter approach to organic search is needed, as Kevin Gibbons points out: 

I think it drives us more towards having an integrated digital strategy, where SEO is measured as a single channel of a wider marketing campaign. That will force people to move towards a more multichannel approach (if they haven't already), using clearer business metrics, which will make SEO far more measurable, rather than less.

As SEO has evolved a lot more towards a content-driven approach, one thing I have found increasingly useful is the ability to analyse organic performance per page, as opposed to keyword.

That way you can figure out what content is resonating with your audience best and being rewarded by Google as a result. I'd expect to see this shift continuing, as it's more actionable in the sense that you know what's working, so do more of it! 

A Moz survey from earlier this year looked at how marketers were adapting to (not provided)

Here’s how 3,700 industry people answered the question “how do you cope with (not provided)?”

  • 69% focus on conversion rate and performance metrics.
  • 66% focus on landing page traffic.
  • 58% rely more on Google Webmaster Tools data.
  • 41% try to estimate traffic based on other data.
  • 37% focus on social signals (tweets, likes, +1s).

One thing worth pointing out is that this is a level playing field. All brands in all sectors are facing the same challenge and it's a case of looking elsewhere to improve search performance. 

There are also a few alternatives and workarounds that can help improve understanding, such as using site search data, and keeping a close eye on Webmaster Tools. 

Or you could just demand keyword data from visitors with an intrusive pop-up. What could possibly go wrong? (thanks to @RavenJon). 

What do you think? Is (not provided) one of the biggest barriers to SEO? How are you dealing with this?  

Graham Charlton

Published 21 May, 2014 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (12)

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Martin Oddy

"SEO far more measurable, rather than less."

I disagree with Kevin on this. This is easy to say, but difficult to qualify.

The fact is, historically, the only 'true' and direct measurement of the effectiveness of an SEO campaign was an uplift in organic traffic from generic (non-branded) keyword sources and/or resultant leads/revenue. Every other metric or compound metric is simply too noisy.

It's now very difficult to get a comprehensive view of this. Webmaster Tools, even in its latest guise, can't fill this gap (yet, at least). And if we can't demonstrate directly attributable ROI, the whole thing becomes less convincing.

Google know this, and as with the removal of phrase and broad match search demand from the Keyword Tool and the aggressive use of penalties and manual action, it's Google actively combating the SEO industry.

It's not all doom and gloom - there's still plenty of value to SEO as an activity - but to say it's going to be far more measurable rather than less is demonstrably untrue.

about 4 years ago


Sagar Ganatra

Nice article but my question is as below.

1)Keyword is impotent in onsite seo?
2)Social Networking Site only Provide US No Follow Link then whey it matters?
3)Why Google removing organic search results data from 1st page
E.G :-If we Google "Web Design India Sgb"

We 'll see 4 Advertisement in past (2)

2 yelp result (In past not)

3 Places 6 Results (In past not)

4 they Organic Search Results website starts

Why Google Removing organic result for earn more money ????

Sagar Ganatra

about 4 years ago


Adam Smith

Google changed a lot even still changing, the number one Brand in search engines, why not changed. If Google provide all the data in one Go its importance effect, it is same like you are using the vivid paid tools to analyze the ROI.
After all the free service provider earn to continue services with better ideas to all over the world.

about 4 years ago


Steve Masters, Services Director at Vertical Leap

The answer to the headline is no. It has had the opposite effect.

I have always been a big fan of Google Webmaster Tools. There is so much useful information about site quality and visibility in there - you are forced to focus on what matters.

The keyword data in GA simply encouraged people to focus on hero phrases, and therefore manipulating results around these.

Now, Google has forced us to think smart.

about 4 years ago


Matt Lovell, Head of Customer Data, Insight & Analytics at Eurostar International Ltd.

I'm not sure it could be suggested that SEO is more measurable but at the same time, it does bring back home the concept that ultimately SEO is about providing the most relevant content for users and hence receiving visibility of this content across search engines.

While keywords are no longer measurable, there is a lot that can be done to look at performance against keyword groups based on looking at a combination of page performance and keyword rankings (with an overlay of the data from Webmaster Tools. What this leads to is more of a focus on providing content around themes rather than targeting specific keywords for each individual page.

about 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Graham,

Thanks for posting - always interesting to hear the different views on how (not provided) has affected SEO.

Early last year i said that i expected marketers to focus more on landing page optimisation rather than keyword ranking. I'm seeing evidence of this as KPIs like conversion and revenue take precedent over keyword traffic volumes.

However, it's not either/or. As @Steve points out, WMT is a useful tool and not just for site performance. It has keyword impression data that is not available in GA. It's not accurate numbers but it's fine for trend comparisons. You can monitor keyword clusters and align with landing pages. It's not an exact science but it can give you insight into the types of keyword that are likely to be driving traffic. Then you can go back to traditional keyword research tools to fine tune on page optimisation.

So (not provided) is a pain in the backside but it's not the death knoll for page level optimisation or keyword analysis.


about 4 years ago


Steve Masters, Services Director at Vertical Leap

I agree with James about page optimisation. Using GA and GWT in combination, the landing page information (visibility, clicks and visits) gives you some real insight into a website's strengths and weaknesses.

about 4 years ago


Jonny Rose

Onsite tracking with content analytics will tell you far more about each person and how and why they landed on your site, than keyword data ever could.

Read more here:

about 4 years ago


Paul Simms

I think the biggest draw back from the introduction of (not provided) is the fact that it is now much more difficult to quickly identify where improvements can be made to keyword targeting as an SEO campaign progresses.

Previously it was pretty simple to recognise when traffic was coming from additional keywords and phrases that weren't necessarily a major focus and make improvements based on their ranking positions i.e. if a term was ranking at the middle/bottom of the first page but was still driving traffic we knew that it would be worth focusing attention here to push towards top of the first page.

Also knowing that a term was ranking 1st but actually isn't driving much traffic was equally as valuable. I think most people would arrange the keyword search volumes shown in the Keyword Planner can be questionable at times and keywords with supposed search volume sometimes don't actually deliver the results you would expect.

I don't think (not provided) is the worst thing to happen for SEOs, in some ways it has improved the way we do things. Google has been so active in penalising websites that set out to manipulate the search results that too much keyword focus can be dangerous. In reality if you are focusing on getting a web page to number one on Google for a particular keyword you are trying to manipulate the SERPs.

(not provided) has forced us to take a more holistic approach and look at the bigger picture which in turn means we should be safe from Google Algo updates and penalties and provide more longevity to organic traffic.

about 4 years ago


Peter Elleby

As Matt so rightly says, "there is a lot that can be done to look at performance against keyword groups based on looking at a combination of page performance and keyword rankings".

Most SEO campaigns are based around a small set of link-building keywords. However, the impact of an SEO campaign should be measured against a much broader set of search queries related to these link building keywords.

For every page on your site, you can calculate the set of keywords relevant to the page. This allows you to determine the set of pages relevant to a given set of keywords, and thus the set of pages for which you want to monitor the increase in traffic from you link building campaigns.

We have had the capability to do this with our SEO platform for quite a long time,

In practical terms, the biggest impact is that you are no longer able to effectively distinguish own brand from non-brand traffic.

In the case of Matt, there is no way of distinguishing between "Thomas Cook Last Minute Holidays" (Thomas Cook SEO rank of 2) from "Last Minute Holidays" (Thomas Cook SEO rank of 1), as the ranking page is the same in both cases.

It is certainly possible to estimate the ratio of brand to non-brand traffic, indeed we already do, but you will not really know unless you are ready to build out paid search campaigns for your brand terms.

about 4 years ago



I think people are still to hung up on keywords and positions - surely we should be creating great content that's relevant and useful for our readers/customers? We shouldn't be creating content/landing pages with keywords or search engines in mind, but with the people who will be landing on this page and what they'd want to see. If we do that, and get it right, writing naturally on the page, the rest will follow.

After all, content is king! :)


about 4 years ago


jack bolini

I sent the same picture of this post to one of my friends thru whatsapp
and I was surprise by his reply its funny but effective ;
his answer was:
use "inbxx"......!
so I figure out this new search engine , after I use it on my macbook
I was surprised how this search works its totally different than any
engine in the market
give it a try

about 4 years ago

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