Getting to the bottom of Unknown Keywords in Google Analytics

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You have done everything that you know to ensure that your website is optimized to rank well on search engines, inclusive of publishing new content and active marketing.  By now you have already analyzed your data on Google Analytics and the reports show that the bulk of your website visits are from organic traffic.  That’s good news right? There is just one glaring problem: your number one organic search query is ambiguous at best, and at worst, detrimental to your goals.

Unfortunately, if you want to analyze your search queries in Google Analytics, but most of them show up under “not provided”, then you are experiencing the headache like that of many Online Marketers, SEO Professionals and Analysts.  Welcome to the ever-changing and confusing world of Google Search.  

In October of 2011, Google began encrypting searches for people logged into a Google account.  That standard quietly changed in September of 2013 to encompass all search activity, regardless of whether or not someone was logged in.   This has, undoubtedly, had an impact on the availability of search data and being able to optimize content strategies. It also translates to a high percentage of your organic Google search data being reported as unknown in Google Analytics.    

Shedding Some Light

Google’s campaign to improve information security isn’t surprising.  The tech giant has been continually taking steps to ensure privacy and push back against hackers and possible censorship.  It may also be a larger effort to encourage stronger security standards for the entire industry.  

 

How does the security that Google implemented work?  


All search queries done through Google are now encrypted, meaning that an SSL layer has been added to the well known HTTP protocol.  The Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, establishes an encrypted link between a server and a client.  Without SSL, every server that your traffic flows through on the way to the website can access your data .  Users are notified when an SSL is being applied when a padlock is displayed in the browser.  

More security is great from a privacy viewpoint but can cause frustration for businesses that want to access their keyword data.  From an SEO perspective, this can make approaching a marketing strategy more problematic.  There is no way of knowing what the users were looking for when they found your site.  It also makes it more difficult to know what searches are creating conversions and which ones are contributing to your bounce rate.  

As you can see in the figure below, the keyword data is nearly 95% non-existent.

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A search engine needs to understand the content of your site to ensure that it will be relevant to the user.  Without the availability of keywords, it can make it difficult to make adjustments that will engage its audience.  There is an exception, however, and that is for Google Adword activity; data is not limited to those advertisers.  

Alternative Solutions

Not all hope is lost.  Most of the keyword data in Analytics might be, but there are still ways to retrieve or measure search data.

  • Use Google Webmaster Tools.  If you aren’t currently using this program, sign up for it.  Keyword data is still available in Google Webmaster Tools.  In the Dashboard click on Search Traffic > Search Analytics and mark queries to see the data from the encrypted Google searches.  
  • Keyword data is still available through other search engines that do not enforce SSL like Bing and Yahoo.  Although the data from these might not provide you with a full picture, it can still give you a snapshot of what keywords are useful or irrelevant.
  • If you use Google Adwords, link it to your Google Analytics account.  This will provide you keyword data that you can use to research and strategize.
  • Use a filter to change the data Google Analytics records.  Doing this doesn’t give you the missing keywords, but it will give you useful information like which page the visitor landed on. This hack is described in depth by Dan Barker.

Looking Ahead

Encrypted Google search is here to stay so what does this mean for you and how you track and analyze your data through organic search?   It could mean that the focus on keywords may need to take a backseat while you concentrate on a combination of great content that's relevant and setting your sights on business results.  Technology and the internet are always evolving and a large part of succeeding is being able to adapt, interpret, and make decisions based on the information you have.

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Ken Franzen

By Ken Franzen

President / Co-Founder of Neon Goldfish Marketing Solutions