“Not Provided” Search Growth Clouds Web Analytics

“Not provided” is now reaching dangerous levels – and it is set to grow even further. I base this assertion on having just updated an analysis of the growth of “not provided” organic search keyword search term data across fifteen websites. To the uninitiated “Not provided” is a class of search term brought about by Google’s decision to keep secret the organic search terms used by website users logged into a Google account. As a term it should not be confused with the “not set” clas of keyword search term. I explain the difference between “not provided” and “not set” at the end of this post.¬† The data I have used has been derived from fifteen different UK based websites. Six of the sites are primarily for B2B marketing purposes and nine for B2C marketing purposes.

Growth of "Not Provided" Google Search

Growth of “Not Provided” Google Search to August 2012

In my opinion, the “not provided” status of organic search is now growing to dangerous proportions. So much so that it risks devaluing much of the data extracted from web analytics. As at August 2012, the unweighted average of “not provided” search data across these fifteen websites is now 23.6%. This compares with just 12.6% in March 2012. A growth of 87% in just five months. There is an adage I use about website use that “Almost everything is trackable and measurable”.¬† If current trends continue, this will no longer be the case. Orthodox web analytics, at least when it comes to Google organic search, will be no better than a sampling tool.

My research indicates that across all these websites “not provided” now represents the largest or second largest keyword search term. Amongst the six B2B websites the problem is even more acute as 31.6% of Google search terms were “not provided”. As at August B2C websites have an average of 18.6% of search terms recorded as “not provided”. although lower than for B2B websites, the growth trajectory is much faster, up from 8.3% in March – a growth of 124% in just five months.

As mentioned the web analytics data has been taken from fifteen sites across a range of market categories and sizes. All use Google Analytics to track website visitors. Over the six months of measurement the average number of visits per month, per website, was in excess of 20,000. Having carried out the study I have gained some insight into reasons behind the variation in websites. These are summarised as follows:

  • B2B websites had a 67% higher level of “not provided” search, indicating that business people are more likely to be logged into one of Google’s services, perhaps Gmail, Google Docs or even Google Adwords, than their consumer equivalents.
  • The website with the lowest August “not provided ” figure of 12.7% was also the website with the highest level of use from mobile devices – predominately iPad – and therefore likely to operating behind an Apple controlled, rather than a Google controlled, log-in.
  • Based on this desktop search from commercial locations appears particularly vulnerable to the growth of “not provided” search data.
  • The site with the highest level of “not provided” was a B2B website that had a disproportionately high level of visitors from North America and Asia. This indicates that “not provided” search may be higher in these markets.
  • The B2C website with the lowest level of “not provided” search in March appeared to have a disproportionately high level of “not set” search in the early part of the six months. Much of this has disappeared to be replaced by “not provided” search over the following five months.
  • The lowest level of “not provided” growth was 54.5%.

The Implications of “Not Provided” Growth

I have alluded to one of the major implications. That namely we could enter a new period where it will no longer be the case that almost everything is trackable and measurable. This was always one of the key features that set online marketing apart from offline marketing. Near certainty becomes transformed into guesswork especially once, not if, “not provided” search surpasses 50% of all searches.

As paid search via Google will not be subject to a clarity restriction this puts organic SEO and SEO practitioners at a disadvantage vis-a-vis paid search and paid search practitioners. Particularly at budget setting time. PPC and Google Adwords will be able to prove their ROI much more clearly and easily. I will be following this post on further thoughts on the subject.

The Difference Between “Not Set” and “Not Provided”

“Not set” search has always been with us as users of Google Analytics. One key source was Google Adwords campaigns. Some because the Adwords and Analytics accounts were not integrated. At other times because there was a problem auto-tagging or other dynamic URL features. Essentially, “not set” is used to describe a search where Google is not sure of its provenance. “Not Provided” is strictly used to mask known keyword searches made from logged-in Google accounts.


3 Responses to ““Not Provided” Search Growth Clouds Web Analytics”

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  2. Sebasti√°n Lalaurette Says:
    October 11, 2012 at 1:18 am

    So, if I understand correctly, Google is now protecting our privacy and you are complaining about it?

    • Sebastian,
      We can still get access to information such as IP address and therefore location. What we can’t get is the search term. So much for the motivation being privacy.