Why is Google hiding your keywords as (not provided)?

More and more business owners have started to recognize that Google is no longer providing all of the keyword data that it used to within Google Analytics. If you monitor your website analytics regularly, you may have noticed that your Keyword report is showing more (not provided) than other keywords. This has search engine marketers and business owners more than a little concerned! Why aren't these words being provided, and what can we do about it?

What's the big deal?

A large part of Internet marketing has to do with keywords. A keyword is a word or phrase that an individual types into a search to retrieve a set of results. As businesses, we want to identify what keywords our potential clients are using to find businesses like ours, and then perform actions to increase our chances of being ranked higher for each specific keyword. This is the cornerstone of search engine optimization.

For example, one of the keyword phrases that I target is "St Louis Internet Marketing Company" as I have determined that my target customers may use that phrase to find a business like mine.

That's fine that I think that's a good keyword phrase, but is it really? Will customers actually be looking for that and visit my site? This is where the Google Analytics Keyword report is so valuable because it will show you the keywords that actually drove someone to your site. If I find a lot of visits from my target keyword then I know I chose well. If not, it may be because either my site is not ranking well enough for that phrase, or there simply aren't enough people actually searching on that phrase - either way, I have some more work to do.

How do I see my keywords?

First, you must have a Google Analytics account and have connected it to your website already. If you haven't done that, stop now and get that taken care of, then come back in a week or two so that you'll have actual data to analyze.

Log into Google Analytics and if you have more than one site that you're monitoring, select the site you want to view. Next, in the left sidebar, click on Traffic Sources and select Overview. This will show you your website traffic, for the last month by default.

Google Analytics Traffic Sources Overview Report

Scroll down a little and look in the lower right corner for the "Keyword" section. This section shows you the keywords that visitors used to find your website.

Google Analytics Traffic Sources Overview - Keywords

If you're like me, and many others, (not provided) now constitutes the majority of your keyword traffic. Mine was 54% for the month of January!

This is a huge problem! I used to know how people were getting to my website and what they were searching for, and I could identify if they were using my targeted keywords or not. Now, over half of the search traffic to my site could have been using my keywords, or not, and I have no idea. It's now far more difficult for me to quickly see how my keywords are performing and make adjustments to my website and content accordingly.

Why does it say (not provided)?

This is a change that Google actually implemented some time ago, and it's been a growing problem ever since. According to Confluent Forms, it started in November of 2011 when Google began encrypting search information for users currently logged into a Google service. At the time, that mostly meant Gmail users, but Google added this service you might have heard of called Google+, and now over 350 million users are logged into Google while going about their day.

Just so we're clear: as Google+ grows and more and more people are using Google, you will see less and less relevant keyword information in your Google Analytics report.

When Google originally announced the change, they publicly estimated that it would only affect up to 10% of a website's search traffic and reports. Either they were understating things so as not to cause a panic, or they grossly underestimated the growth of Google services throughout 2012.

Why is Google doing this?

According to Google, this change was implemented to protect user privacy. If I'm logged into my Google account, that means that my identity is known and all of my activity can be traced to me personally, including what I search on. While this may not sound like anything new, most website data is by aggregate only, which means that the site recognizes individual visitors only by IP address and umps their activity in with every user. Certainly, as a Google Analytics user, I shouldn't be able to track the individuals who are visiting my site. So, Google implemented this as a measure to protect our privacy.

It should also be pointed out that Firefox has begun encrypting search data if you're using the Firefox search bar, as well as mobile Safari users.

While Google wants to help website owners to analyze and improve their websites (Google Analytics is a free product after all), the company obviously has a higher priority to the users who are driving the Google business by using Search and other products and clicking on ads.

What can I do about it?

First things first: Don't Panic!

While annoying, there is a technique noted by SEOmoz that I can share with you which will help mitigate the damage that Google is doing to our marketing analysis.

Go into your Search Overview report and note the Primary Dimension. Traffic Type is probably selected already, so you're going to want to change that to Keyword.

Next, click on Secondary Sources, select Traffic and click on Landing Pages. This will give you a report that looks something like this:

Google Analytics Traffic Sources by Keyword and Landing Page Report

Note the traffic to your home page "/" - much of this traffic is likely "branded" which means they were searching for your specific business name.

You can now see the traffic to specific pages of your site from (not provided) keyword searches. While you may not be able to tell specific keywords, you can extrapolate from the landing page what the visitor was looking for. In the example above, you can see that in the #8 spot, an article on Facebook EdgeRank received 4 visitors who were searching while logged into Google, so it's likely those 4 individuals were searching on Facebook EdgeRank.

If you work through a lot of keywords, the sheer amount of data will make this challenging and you will want to invest some time and research into some keyword tools. For most small businesses though, this at least will help understand where all that (not provided) traffic is going, which can clue you into what they were looking for in the first place. Understanding what your traffic is looking for is the key to making sure that you are providing the right content to convert your visitors into customers.

Have you noticed this trend in your own Google Analytics reports? How are you adapting to these changes from Google? Please leave your questions and comments below.