(not provided) Search Traffic Shows No Signs of Slowing

The buzz in the SEO community for the past week has been about Google’s move toward totally encrypted Organic Search. Secure search (also known as “Dark Google”) has been around since October 2011 when Google said there would be a single digit impact on keyword data in Analytics programs.  The reason for this move to secure search, straight from Google is:

“As search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver. As a result, we’re enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users.”

This essentially meant that Organic Search marketers began to see their referring keyword data disappearing under the (not provided) field in Google Analytics, Keyword Unavailable in Omniture, etc.  Many of our own clients have seen their percentage of (not provided) keyword data grow up to 60% of all organic traffic and higher – so much for the single digit impact.

What does encrypted Organic Search change for SEO practitioners and clients? 

The “black hole” of (not provided) keyword data is going to keep growing.  It will present challenges to traditional SEO reporting and strategies including in the following ways:

Parsing out branded vs. non-branded traffic:   this measure of SEO campaign performance  has been a good indicator of success – especially in growing non-branded traffic.  Now the few keywords that will trickle into Analytics programs via non-encrypted searches will likely make up <10% of all organic traffic making a real measure of unbranded vs. branded organic traffic virtually impossible.

Identifying high conversion/high conversion potential keywords:  what keywords are driving the actions that really matter on a website?  This is a critical piece of information in SEO strategy creation.  Throwing resources and energy into keyword optimizations for terms with a low likelihood of conversion is a waste of time for everyone.  Conversely, using converting keyword data to inform keyword/content strategies has been a solid tactic for years.

Measuring types of user engagement:  visits from organic searchers entering a site on unbranded terms do tend to look a bit different than organic visits from searchers entering on branded terms.  Branded searchers know what they’re looking for (in most cases) and tend to have better engagement metrics – time on site, pages/visit, bounce rate, etc.  There are, however, those organic searches that produce “a- ha” moments for SEOs  – oftentimes long tail terms that indicate a visitor knows very, very well what they’re looking for, and are as ready to convert as a “branded” visitor.  These terms have also proven very useful in keyword and content strategies, historically.

So, what can we do to understand Organic Search behavior and results on our site?

Our Organic Search team has been strategizing about presenting secure search data for almost 2 years now.  We’ve come up with various ways of presenting this data and of optimizing toward it.  Among our solutions are:

  • (not provided) top landing page analysis – page topic gives an idea of what kinds of terms visitors are likely searching with.
  • user behavior stats – again, branded and non-branded visits often look very different.  It’s interesting to measure (not provided) visits against these stats to see which side they lean toward.
  • Google Webmaster Tools data – while this doesn’t provide the whole picture that we had gotten accustomed to, free data on clicks, impressions, etc. is still available from Webmaster Tools.
  • AdWords – many search marketers speculate that this whole issue arose from Google hoping to nudge marketers into paid advertising in exchange for data.  We have always thought that paid search/AdWords is a viable way to both quickly and long-term test keyword performance.

These are just a few of the ways we are thinking about new ways to understand Organic Search performance for our clients.  It’s a whole new world, but one we’ve been approaching for some time.  SEOs tend to be a creative bunch, always up for a challenge – so viva SEO!