What Is Secure Search: The Google “Not Provided” Update

Tommy Griffth
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Mar 6, 2022
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3 min. read
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Since 2011, Google started hiding search information and implemented what was called “Secure Search”, which drastically changed the SEO industry.

Since 2011, Google and other search engines started hiding search information and implemented what was called “Secure Search”, which drastically changed the SEO industry and made “not provided” a common phrase among SEO people.

If you want to nerd out and learn more about this, check out our quick lesson on Google’s Secure Search.

I want to talk about a Google update that changed the game for a lot of people. This was the Google’s Secure Search update, also known as “not provided.”

We’ll start with a little of the history.

In 2011, Google changed the game and said:

Okay. We’re no longer going to give you your referring keywords, your referring keywords in all situations.

Prior to 2011, any time someone did a query on Google and came to your site, that information was passed to your analytics account, so any keywords that users were inputting to come to your site, you could optimize for. You knew, generally, what the volume was or had a way to back into it and reverse engineer it. Life was generally good and things were a little bit easier.

Google changed the rules for a number of reasons.

The first was…they claimed it was a privacy concern. However, most of the industry consensus was that wasn’t why Google really did it. It was sort of a “stated reason”, but it was more related to making their AdSense product more competitive.

Some of Google’s competitors were using the referring keyword data and offering relevant ads to publishers and publisher traffic, and Google essentially made all of Adsense’s competitors less competitive overnight by blocking the keyword data from being passed to analytic platforms.

So, the basic idea here is, prior to 2011, we got all of our keywords in Google Analytics, and after 2011, we didn’t.

It wasn’t a hard stop, like suddenly overnight. Google started by introducing the idea; Matt Cutts, head of the web spam team at Google, was on stage at a conference and said that they didn’t imagine “not provided on Google Analytics would ever get higher than single digits, right, 8 or 9%.

However, as you can see here with over just a week on one of my sites, we are at 98% not provided.

The basic idea is that, from an organic search perspective, we’re flying blind in terms of our keywords and our analytics.

Now, you might be thinking that we get this in Search Console, right? We now have it in Search Console.

But the implications, nevertheless, are huge. Search Console is a third-party tool that is helpful, it’s good to see, it’s actionable, but we can’t actually drive this back to our analytics and to our conversion data.

There are some gymnastics that you can do, and it sort of depends on your site. For example, you can isolate conversions to a page, and then try to understand all the keywords that go to that page, but it’s very, very case-by-case and it really depends on your business. Not everyone is capable of this.

We had an incredibly difficult time with this at Airbnb because making a distinction between brand and non-brand keywords is huge. That’s everything in the SEO world, and it’s very difficult to do if your brand traffic is increasing more and more and more every day.

The point here is that we no longer have complete organically referred data in our analytics. We do have it in Search Console, and within Analytics, you can actually set up your account to include Search Console data, but you’ll still see “not provided.”

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