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Google: Less Datalicious, More Nutritious?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

It’s been just over five months since Google announced that it would withhold referrer data for signed-in users who click on organic search results. The result of that decision is that marketers who look at analytics (Google Analytics or otherwise) won’t be able to see what keywords were searched to generate a certain percentage of organic search traffic. At the time, Google’s Matt Cutts declared pretty emphatically that this would impact only a single digit percentage of organic traffic. That assertion was called into question right away, and there have been all kinds of anecdotal reports that show the percentage to be well into the double digits.

Now, Firefox has announced that it will make this “secure” form of search on Google the default in its browser. This means that pretty much every search from a Firefox browser (unless people go in and change the default setting) will show up as “not provided” in analytics. The numbers vary a bit, but Firefox certainly enjoys market share of at least 20% today. Just to be clear, that would be a double digit number.

To get an idea of what has happened over the past five months, we decided to take a look at the impact of the “not provided” traffic on our top client programs during that time period. Here’s what the total percentage of “not provided” organic traffic looks like:

This is obviously just a sampling, but the number of organic visits being measured here is well north of  six figures. As you can see, the impact on these programs was in the double digits right from the start, and it’s contribution as a percentage of total organic traffic has grown more than 20% in five months.

There are a number of things driving this growth. Google+ is most certainly part of it. Despite how much people are really using it as a social network, Google+ has grown to more than 60 million users, which means that more people are likely signed into Google accounts when they’re searching. Couple that with the Firefox announcement, and it’s not hard to imagine the growth accelerating over the next few months.

So why would Google want to do this? The official answer has to do with privacy concerns. If search referrer data is encrypted, it’s pretty much impossible to tie back a specific search to an individual user. Privacy advocates have been pushing for this level of security for a while, and Firefox has long been the choice of users with security concerns, so it makes sense that they would make this kind of feature the default.

However, it has certainly raised a few eyebrows that all referring data is still available on paid search traffic. In other words, this keyword-level analytics data is available if your’e a paying Google customer. To me, that significantly weakens the privacy argument here, but I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that Google would incentivize marketers to buy from them.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the fact is that these trends will most likely continue. The question becomes how do search marketers best evaluate performance and value from the organic search channel in light of this granular data being increasingly unavailable.

The first important step is to continue to shift the focus away from individual keyword ranking. Personalized search initiatives like Google Search Plus Your World have already made these ranking metrics far less relevant. Like so many other trends in the world of SEO, this all points us to the importance of good content. Techi aptly points out that you can still break that “not provided” traffic down into what landing pages searchers hit when they came in through an organic search result. Digging into one of the programs that feeds into the data in the graph above, you can see that the thousands of “not provided” visits correspond to nearly a thousand different landing pages over that same period. Analyzing this data will give really good insight into what content is working and where you might be experiencing gaps.

The bigger thing to keep in mind is that overall program performance should still be the goal. Organic search is just one contributing channel in a properly integrated online marketing program. The bigger things to look at are conversion rates and overall program yield against stated objectives.

Despite organic search data being more and more limited, you should still be able to tell if your search programs are focused on delivering relevant results from all channels, and intersecting search activity with high quality content will almost always provide the results you want.

Contact us today to find out more!

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