I know what you are thinking – not another post about keywords being (not provided) in Google Analytics. Been there, done that. Or have you? Could it be that you don’t really understand what you are arguing?
Inspired by a conversation with a dear friend of mine, the Content Scientist, I have come to the realization that there is a lot of misinformation going around about how (not provided) works, why it exists and other conspiracy theories. My goal is to provide some more perspective about what is actually happening and why you should care a lot less about (not provided) than you currently do.
What is (not provided)?
First, a primer on what not (not provided) means. In October of 2011, Google made it so that when you search on their site while logged into your account, these pages are served as a secure (https) page and not a standard (http) page. This change resulted in a side effect that prevented referring data from being passed along to your website when visiting from Google.com.
What does that even mean? Well, the majority of the web traffic data you see in your web analytics tool is identified by information passed along to your website through your web browsers HTTP referrer property. Your web analytics tool is smart enough to know when a referrer is from a search engine domain like google.com, and can parse query terms out of the referrer string in order to determine the keyword that was entered into the search engine.
It’s actually an elegant solution that we take entirely for granted. It’s really just a hack that analytics tools have accepted and implemented to make your referring data more useful. We take it for granted because it works out of the box in modern analytics tools.
When an HTTPS page hyperlinks to a non HTTP page, the referrer data is not transmitted as part of the security protocol. With no referrer data, your web analytics tool can’t “hack” its way into determining the search query that was typed into the previous page, so the tool can only say that the keyword was not provided to them. Hence the term (not provided).
So far there should be no reason to don your tinfoil hat or think that this is a conspiracy. For myriad reasons, Google made a choice to make their core product (search) more secure and it resulted in a loss of functionality for a secondary product.
But You Can Get Keywords From AdWords if you PAY Them! How is That Not Evil?
The most common argument that is drummed up to claim that (not provided) is specifically slighting organic search is that you can still receive your keyword data from your paid search programs. Surely, this is meant to push people to pay for search results, right? Wrong.
You are comparing Apples to Apes. Paid search keywords are not determined in the same method as organic search keywords. They are determined in one of two ways:
- Automatically tagging your Google AdWords URL’s with a unique gclid that allows two Google products to talk to each other. By enabling auto-tagging and opting into data sharing between products, you are overriding the referrer data from a search results page and setting the keyword for your search engine reports automatically. The overriding piece is important to understand. Auto tagging automatically overrides the default tracking method for your campaigns with exact values that come out of AdWords.
- Manually tagging your paid search campaign (Google or Bing or others) destination URLs with campaign variables (aka utm variables in Google Analytics). By tagging your URL’s with these variables, you are overriding the referring source data with values that you are setting manually.
Why Can’t We Override Keywords for Organic Search?
Because Paid Search is a Product, Organic Search is Not
- It would undermine the purity of algorithmic search results gathering
- You cannot assume that everyone uses the same web analytics tool and tracking methods
- If you use more than one web analytics tool, would you expect that both of these are tagged?
- It is compromising organic search for the benefit of organic search
- The potential for abuse of adding your tracking parameters to a search result is tremendous
- Overriding URLs to have tracking variables in them would ultimately eat away at the simplicity of tracking websites using Google Analytics “out of the box”