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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.