Dead, Again: Is 100% ‘Not Provided’ the end of SEO as we know it?

SEO is dead. Again. Probably.

Image: File: St georges church graveyard Carrington Greater Manchester.jpg retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Here lies SEO: Some point in the 90’s – 2006; no, wait, 2008; hang on, 2011, erm…

Its killer is once again Google, yet death in this instance came not at the hand (or hoof) of an animal-themed update but something altogether more devastating – the words ‘not’ and ‘provided’.

‘Not provided’, in case you aren’t au fait with the complexities of SEO, is the term used in Google Analytics for searches conducted by users signed into Google and from those using secure searches; rather than receiving the exact search term these users utilised to find your site, you’re given ‘not provided’ and a traffic figure.

This caused quite the stir when first introduced, but ‘not provided’ generally accounted for a reasonably small amount of search traffic to a website. It was inconvenient, definitely, but not something that would stop an SEO going about their work.

Now, SEOs are facing the very real prospect of every single search that leads to their site being returned as ‘not provided’ (by mid-December, according to NotProvided.com). This is because Google has decided to provide secure search for all users, switching from a standard http:// address to https://. While apparently a move to protect the privacy of users, this has left SEOs up a certain infamous creek without a paddle.

The referrer data offered to SEOs through Google Analytics was utilised in many ways. It provided SEOs with data to inform keyword selection before a campaign and a way to focus their efforts rather than targeting all keywords blindly once a campaign was underway.

It also provided information on which keywords were driving the most traffic and converting, allowing SEOs to not only justify their efforts to clients and managers, but also to tailor their campaign towards the ‘big money’ keywords.

From a user experience perspective, it allowed webmasters to determine what kind of content people were looking for when clicking on a site and whether they were serving that need. If not, they could create some content that’ll satisfy users and thus improve the quality of the web – a quality web being all Google is apparently worried about.

Now, SEOs have very little keyword data to work with. Google has essentially pulled the rug from under SEO and left it sprawled on the floor, trying desperately to piece together what minor search information we have left.

But surely the privacy concerns of users outweigh the concerns of the SEO community? Well, yes. But this isn’t actually an issue of privacy. If it was, Google would have stopped serving search data to AdWords customers. With that considered, it’s hard not to think of this as a cynical ploy to drive more companies towards Google’s paid options while also providing a nice bit of PR for a company who are looking increasingly evil by the day.

Unfortunately, there is very little SEOs can do to halt Google’s relentless chasing of advertising money. That doesn’t mean SEO is dead, however; far from it. It just means it’s got that little bit harder.

I’m almost certain more advice on how to fill the void created by ‘not provided’ will emerge over the coming days and weeks but Rand Fishkin’s special Whiteboard Tuesday (which is  the SEO equivalent of a ‘we interrupt this broadcast…’ bulletin on TV) on Moz offers some useful advice including the utilisation of Webmaster Tools (along with a lot of intuition) and AdWords bidding.

Of all the options available to SEOs, Webmaster Tools probably represents the best option. While offering nowhere near the analytic data of Google Analytics, the data that WMT does provide is nonetheless useful; impressions, clicks, CTR and average ranking for certain queries can all be utilised to try and piece together data previously provided by Analytics, albeit not to the same level. Jayson Demers provides an excellent breakdown of WMT data, and how you can use it, in this Search Engine Watch post.

While most of the methods suggested will vastly increase the amount of time an SEO has to spend on keyword research, it’s at least something to work with for now.

‘100% not provided’ will present some major issues to the SEO community but fortunately, SEO is a community that has had to adapt to major changes in the past and has always emerged strongly. Hopefully, we’ll see some more innovative solutions to the not provided issue emerging soon.

Chris Smith
  • Written by on 24th September 2013 at 14:12
  • “Chris Smith is a copywriter and social media manager at Fluid Creativity.”
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  • http://inoperanteonline.com Inoperante

    Nice article, Chris. What I’m personally hoping happens is that the thousands of so-called ‘SEO experts’ who are currently fleecing companies for hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds by providing piss poor ‘audits’ and ongoing ‘support’ (in the form of hastily thrown together reports and no actual work) are suddenly left completely unable to justify their (lack of) efforts, forcing them off their computers, out of their bedrooms and into the job market proper.

    Bar-stewards.

  • http://inoperanteonline.com Inoperante

    Nice article, Chris. What I’m personally hoping happens is that the thousands of so-called ‘SEO experts’ who are currently fleecing companies for hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds by providing piss poor ‘audits’ and ongoing ‘support’ (in the form of hastily thrown together reports and no actual work) are suddenly left completely unable to justify their (lack of) efforts, forcing them off their computers, out of their bedrooms and into the job market proper.

    Bar-stewards.

  • http://www.aqueous-seo.co.uk/ Aqueous Digital

    Great article and great comment by Inoperante!

    As an add on to this, whilst not replacing the level of detail previously available Google has today changed the information in Analytics so you can get a great deal more detail under the ‘Acquisition’ heading. I suspect that this is however something of a red herring as it has a lot of focus on Social but we still know that Google ranks sites on the links it has not on your Facebook friends….

    Anyway, back to your article and as Inoperante says, with any luck it will rid the SEO profession of the ‘bedroom middle men’ and help people to realise that it is all about what it was always about – good Marketing.

    Best regards, Jonathan

  • http://www.aqueous-seo.co.uk/ Aqueous Digital

    Great article and great comment by Inoperante!

    As an add on to this, whilst not replacing the level of detail previously available Google has today changed the information in Analytics so you can get a great deal more detail under the ‘Acquisition’ heading. I suspect that this is however something of a red herring as it has a lot of focus on Social but we still know that Google ranks sites on the links it has not on your Facebook friends….

    Anyway, back to your article and as Inoperante says, with any luck it will rid the SEO profession of the ‘bedroom middle men’ and help people to realise that it is all about what it was always about – good Marketing.

    Best regards, Jonathan

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  • Spook SEO

    You have done well Chris, it is really an awesome post and I like the way of your presentation the whole topic here and your post is good for me and the strategies I am using. The SEO community has faced a lot of challenges and this is another one and the reason is http and https for the secure searches for the users.

  • Spook SEO

    You have done well Chris, it is really an awesome post and I like the way of your presentation the whole topic here and your post is good for me and the strategies I am using. The SEO community has faced a lot of challenges and this is another one and the reason is http and https for the secure searches for the users.