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What does (not provided) mean?

On 18th October 2011, Google announced some big news for website owners. Going forward, when a search is made on a secure Google webpage and the result clicked, the search term would no longer be passed to the destination website. Instead, these visits would simply be grouped together in Google Analytics under the keyword "(not provided)".

Why did Google do this?

On the surface, the official reason was that this was done in the name of privacy. Google is suggesting that those searching using a secure Google connection would not want their search term to be passed on to the destination site.

But wait... what about PPC?

Millions of businesses pay to advertise their site on Google results pages based entirely on the keywords a user has typed in. For example, if you search for "cheap laptops" and I sell cheap laptops, I might want to show an ad for my laptop website right in front of you. I only pay if you click on my ad so the only real way to prove that the ad was successful is to be able to marry up "cheap laptops" to the eventual purchase of a laptop on my site. But won't this keyword data vanish if the user is using secure search?

(Quick plug: Get PPC Power on your paid advertising campaign with a new offer from Click Consult).

Well actually, no. Google is seemingly willing to overlook privacy issues when it comes to paid ads, because sites using Google Adwords continue to receive full keyword data as they always have. Hypocrisy? As Danny Sullivan puts it, Google Has Put A Price On Privacy.

When is search secure?

Secure Google search pages are those where the URL begins httpS:// rather than http://. It means the information sent between your computer and the website is encrypted.

Normal (http://) Google search result:

Secure (https://) Google search result:

You could be on a secure Google page for a number of reasons:

  • You're signed into a Google account - that could be your Gmail, YouTube, Google Reader, Google Drive, Analytics, Adwords or Google+ account. Ok, maybe not that last one
  • You've just signed out of a Google account, as you will remain on secure pages
  • You're using Firefox 14 or above which now makes all Google searches over to secure
  • You simply opted to use secure search for your own reasons

There are some other theories about why Google might have implemented (not provided). Plenty of third-party retargeting/remarketing software relies on the keyword data it receives from Google, making it a potential business threat to Google's own products. Others have suggested Google could be withholding search terms so they can sell to those willing to pay $150k/year for Analytics Premium [PDF], though this has been confirmed false.

What can be done about (not provided)?

There are some excellent guides on how you can try to make sense of (not provided) and get back at least some actionable data about your organic visits:

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