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As you may have heard, Google is no longer passing on the keyword information for logged in users of google.com. 

This change has not been well received, particularly in the SEO industry. It will mean website owners have less information about where some of their organic search traffic comes from. 

But is this general air of doom and gloom warranted? How much data will actually be lost? We've been trying to estimate the impact of this change...

Privacy concerns are cited as reasons for the change, a motive questioned by many in the digital marketing industry since the keyword data is still available for paid search results. 

What percentage of users and searches will be affected?

In terms of actual numbers there are no official figures from Google available to say what percentage of traffic will be affected, but we can look at its userbase to get an idea:

Thinking about other major countries Google operates in and its market share per country, at the very most we estimate around 5% of the search engine's total userbase could be Google+ users.  

This is also supported by the John Battelle and Vic Gundotra discussion at the Web 2.0 Summit where they use the figure of 4% of Google’s userbase.

Enough estimates, how about some actual figures?

The only guru worth the name, Avinash Kaushik, has tweeted a custom report ready for Google Analytics you to start measuring the impact of this change. His custom report is available here (click when you are logged into your GA account).

If you don’t want to use that report, or are using another analytics package, then filtering for keywords with “(not provided)” from the 20th October 2011 to date (when the change looks to have been rolled out) will give you some figures.

Looking through Guava’s UK client’s analytics packages, across a variety of sectors, sizes of websites and locations, it looks as if the impact so far is, at best, negligible. The largest impact was just 0.4% of keywords.  

Bearing in mind that analytics traffic is never 100% accurate anyway, this looks like it can be totally ignored, for now at least. 

However, the HTTPS change is at present only for google.com and so websites with low US traffic will not be seeing a great effect, while the demographics of a website’s userbase will affect this figure. For example, a tech blog about Google can expect a lot more of its users logged into their accounts, and may see a larger impact.

(On Econsultancy, just 0.68% of searches came from logged-in Google users beween 20/10 and 26/10). 

Indeed, comparing our results with other fellow Google Analytics Certified Partners in the US, some are reporting the average percentage of searches currently coming in from logged in users at about 1.5%, as @JustinCutroni, Director of Digital Intelligence at Cardinal Path, tweeted soon after the change.

When asked via email on the effect of the https change on his US clients, Justin stated:

We've been looking at the volume of (not provided) over the last week and have seen it fluctuate between 0.5% and 1.5% of Google organic visits. We know this change is going to have an impact but we're still waiting for the rollout to complete.

We're cautiously optimistic that most sites will see no more than 3% of Google organic keywords bucketed as (not provided).

Taking these numbers into account, and considering that 4 to 5% of Google users are on Google+ and assuming that those users are logged in for about 50% of the time, then we can estimate that the percentage of searches impacted could be from 0% (where a website gets no traffic from G+ users) up to 2.5% when HTTPS for logged-in users is fully rolled out.

These figures will increase over time dependent on how successful Google is at increasing market share for its Google+ social product.  

Compare this with data loss expected from users who do not enable JavaScript (so rendering users invisible to tracking tags) of 3% in the US and 1.4% in the EU, not to mention data losses of accuracy from cookie loss etc.

Why is Google doing this?

  • The push towards HTTPS is not new and Google has been working on it since June 2010
  • Google says it is for user privacy which is a valid reason, if somewhat obscured by the fact the data is still available for users of paid search.   
  • It's also difficult to see how the present search can seriously be a privacy breach since they are not currently tied to a personal profile. Could this change be a precursor to a change in the way search results are presented for a logged in user? (i.e. within a Google+ profile?) 
  • The change directly affects other advertising networks and analytics systems because, even with secured connections, there was no requirement for Google to strip the referring keyphrase data. 
  • It also stops browsers and other search engines (BING) closely analysing the 'clickstream' data of users on Google, as it publicly accused Bing of in Feb 2011.

In conclusion, while the change does represent a disturbing direction for Google Analytics, at the moment it looks as if the impact will not be critical to your digital marketing strategy.

Mark Edmondson

Published 27 October, 2011 by Mark Edmondson

Mark Edmondson is Analytics/Social Manager at Guava and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

1 more post from this author

Comments (7)

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Simon Williams

Simon Williams, Group Search Manager at Carat Media

Its a detrimental approach for Google to take. Meetings with the IPA and various bodies have suggested that estimates for current % of people logged into Google accounts is anywhere up to 10% - I suspect it is a bit lower at present however as Google+ takes off, this will increase, we have already seen Google+ have a monumental rise over the likes of Twitter.

More so than ever this pushes clients towards accountability – At a recent Google event I attended, there were hints at tracking & accountability as a key focus for this year, by making SEO that little bit more 'mysterious' – it pushes the non savvy client and FD to an accountable revenue / profit source which is now more than ever, Paid Search.

The ‘safety first’ approach has potential value and could be used on some sets of terms where there is a relative confidence that the traffic received would convert, but we’d still be left with the lack in visibility on some of the longer tail or more broader related terms that we sometimes target in order to justify continued investment.

Analytics and Adwords have changed drastically to become even more reliable as sources, and with SSL – SEO seems more unreliable in the eyes of the client, whilst everyone will agree SEO is fundamental to search the split of investment between channel will naturally shift if all goes to Google’s plan.

In my Personal opinion – it looks like Google is trying to shift the spend away from the SEO product which they make clearly no revenue from, and placing more emphasis on the paid search element which of course = more Profit for Google.

It all fits neatly into the relevance model of search but tied up in revenue for Google. As the algorithm changed the other week in PPC - now paying emphasis and a ranking on quality for landing pages - it seems Google have become more focused on dragging the quality factor that SEO plays 'on site' into the CPC model.

If Content is King, then context really is the crown from here on in.

about 5 years ago

Mark Edmondson

Mark Edmondson, Senior SEO/Analytics Consultant at Guava|Netbooster

Whilst less data is always bad, there are at least a few silver linings - we now have a way to tell how many users are logged in to Google when visiting your website that wasn't availabe before. As you say, estimates of 10% (which I think sounnds a little high given the Google statements linked in the blog post) are given, but now you can know for sure. Also, using multi-touch funnels, you could now possibly see the effect of a social media campaign in increasing your appearance in personalised search.

I think non-paid quality search results are what Google's reputation is built upon so there will always be a need for SEO, but the nature of it with personalisation, localisation etc. may make it less recognisable in the near future. The reasons given on privacy don't really hold since its not possible really to identify users purely from SEO keywords - what if this will be possible in the future though? (search from Google plus profile?)

Whilst the keywords are lost, the medium and source are preserved, so SEO will still be accoutable as a revenue source, just less idea on what keywords are working. (brand keywords being attributed to SEO efforts, for example) This complication, as every one does to the "art" of SEO, should favour the professional SEO industry as it becomes harder for an amateur to practice.

about 5 years ago


Sushant Ajmani

Is it simply a strategy for driving more and more advertisers towards Paid Search or, forcing the existing advertisers to increase their PPC Budget?

Should we expect higher CPCs/keyword for the competitive terms or, long tail terms becoming more competitive and making marketers more efficient?

about 5 years ago


Peter Young

Nice post Mark - think you've explained the potential impact of the SSL framework very well, however describing the impact of its launch as 'not a lot' is in my opinion quite naive if one takes into consideration previous Google rollouts. There is little doubt to many in the industry that this will rollout further afield than just Google.com and with Google on a real push to get people using logged in accounts, I think we can safely assume that the volume of logged in accounts is likely to increase as well in the coming months.

So (as one would expect) your volume of traffic impacted by the current changes is very small to the say least, the fact that I would suggest much of your client base is UK centric would explain much of this lack of impact.

At present I would agree with much of what you;ve said. I am just of the opinion this isn't its limits, we will see this roll out to more geographic markets - of which the UK is normally next in line.

To me that is a real shame as the limitations caused by this lack of data means real accountable data for clients is far more difficult to obtain (and compare against other channels more important - GWT please !!!!). I for one am hoping we see a half way house from Google rolled out at some point soon

about 5 years ago


Ian Lockwood

I think you are playing this down far too much. Why are you focusing on G+ users? This applies to ALL logged in users, i.e. GMail, AdWords, presumably YouTube etc.

How long before it is rolled out to all users - Google has a tradition of soft launching to registered users (first on .com) followed by global application. You are going to lose all of your keyword referrer data from Google and I think you should start planning for that now.

about 5 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

I'd be interested to see if your opinion's changed on this now that it seems the percentage is creeping up & up.

Avinash Kaushik - who you referenced - posted showing 18% of his search keywords are now eaten up by 'not provided'.

I really don't like this - I think it's very sad.

almost 5 years ago

Mike Wood

Mike Wood, Portal Business Manager at PharmiWeb SolutionsSmall Business

I've noticed that 23% of my Organic search is suddenly is keyword "Not Set" This started on November 1st. This is about 3K visitors per week.

I also note that "Not provided" appeared to start in anger on 1st November, and accounts for about 3% of traffic. (about 350/wk)

almost 5 years ago

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