The Rise of "(not provided)"
Back on October 18th 2011, Google announced that the "SSL Search on https://www.google.com will become the default experience for signed in users on Google.com". In other words, Google began to encrypt search query data for those those users who have signed into Google's properties (Gmail, Google+, etc). The end result being that in Google Analytics (and other web analytics packages) we began to see a number of search queries replaced with "(not provided)" - i.e. we began to see less referring search queries than before, and began to have less of a sense of the success and relevance of our content (via search queries at least).
Just recently (May 7th 2012), Mozilla announced that Firefox's new public beta is going to configure HTTPS (i.e. secure) Google searches by default - so our visibility of successful search queries will in all likelihood decrease yet further.
It's easy to see how other browsers (IE, Safari, Opera, etc) may follow suit ....so at Brighton SEO I asked Pierre Far of Google whether Google had any plans for Google Chrome to rollout HTTPS as default. It was a bit late and I had had a beer, but his words were along the lines of "not at the moment". I don't know about you, but to me, if Firefox does it, Chrome feels kind of inevitable.
How Much Are We Currently Affected?
So, where's the data that tells us the reality of the current situation in the UK?
Just the other day, in a blog post, Distilled revealed that they're seeing 54% "(not provided"):
But these sites attract visitors who are very likely to be signed in. What about signed in behaviour amongst the wider general public? According to Experian Hitwise UK (who track Internet usage of around 8 million UK residents, quote obtained on March 15th ’12):
A lot of people have been asking about Google's secure search and how it will affect online analytics. The truth is that although the implementation of secure search will have an impact on all analytics tools, the effect is likely to be less significant than a lot of people have forecast. Certainly at Experian Hitwise we are currently seeing a much lower proportion of traffic coming to sites via secure search than reported by eConsultancy and other publications. The reality is that only a small proportion of Internet users have a Google account and the vast majority of searches on Google will still be captured in analytics tools. For example, less than 5% of UK visits to email providers each month go to Gmail, whereas Hotmail still has over 50% market share of email visits. This may change over time as people migrate to Google accounts, but for the near future secure search is not nearly as big an issue as many are predicting."
So, it's an issue, but perhaps not as bad for many organisations as Distilled and eConsultancy are seeing - at the moment. Clearly though it depends upon the nature of your visitors.
Is Google Analytics Premium Impacted by "Not Provided"? Yes
"(not provided)" is therefore a problem, but is it a problem in Google's expensive Google Analytics Premium? There's quite a bit of suspicion that Google Analytics Premium is not impacted by "(not provided)", thereby providing Google with a nice little income stream.
The answer is emphatically "yes" - not provided stems from changes at Google Search and impacts all web analytics vendors. It's a fundamental change by Google which blocks the keyword in the HTTP referrer headers. There's no way around it. Not even for GA Premium...
Caleb continued, pointing out that Google Analytics Premium does have benefits: (a) it provides 2 million unique rows of data, and (b) it provides unsampled extracts (unlike 'normal' Google Analytics).
At Brighton SEO I had also asked Pierre Far whether "(not provided)" affects Google Analytics Premium (he confirmed that it does) - so with two separate opinions we can be crystal clear - Google Analytics Premium *is* affected by "(not provided)".
Preparing for a Future With Less Search Referrals
So what does the future hold?
I think we can expect that web analytics will always report some search queries - there will always be some users not signed into Google properties - and even if all browsers enable https by default there will be some users (not many) who will manually choose to revert to http. However, as more people sign up to Google+ and other Google properties, and as more browsers enable HTTPS by default, the number of search queries lost to "not provided" will just keep on increasing.
Google Webmaster Tools will probably continue to provide some method of extracting some search queries, but it simply won't be anywhere near the same level we used to be able to extract from web analytics.
So I think we need to just get over it, get used to what's coming, and build new tools, approaches and processes that enable us to work out the relevance of our digital properties.
- The percentage of "(not provided)" search queries will surely increase over time.
- Other browsers may well follow suit (in encrypting queries), most likely starting with Chrome.
- The percentage impact depends upon your users.
- Google Analytics Premium IS impacted by "(not provided)".
- We need to get used to it, and build alternative tools and approaches for measuring relevance.