Why Is Google Holding Our Keywords Hostage?

Before you read this post do me a small favor – open up your Google Analytics account, select your website profile, under Traffic Sources click the Overview link, and on the bottom right in the Keywords section click view full report.

Google Analytics Keyword Report

Google Analytics Keyword Report

Do you see (not provided) on that list? Read on my friend…

What (not provided) Means

In October of 2011, Google announced that people signed in to any Google product will automatically use an SSL connection. On the surface this seems great – you have a secure connection to all of the Google services. However this was a huge blow for every website owner.

“Today, a web site accessed through organic search results on (non-SSL) can see both that the user came from and their search query. (Technically speaking, the user’s browser passes this information via the HTTP referrer field.) However, for organic search results on SSL search, a web site will only know that the user came from”

What that means is that if someone is signed in to any Google product and does a search on that leads them to your website, you won’t know what keywords they used to get there! It's these folks coming to your website that produce the (not provided) keyword in Google Analytics.

This a major issue for any business using SEO, which is still the #1 method of client attraction being used online.

Google Said It Wouldn’t Have Much Impact

Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s web spam team. He’s the go-to-guy for the SEO community, explaining just what’s going on to the rest of us. When he was asked about the impact of this update by Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, he said they estimated the impact would be in the single-digit percentages.

And They Were Very Wrong

Now I don’t know about you, but 44.58% deosn't look like a “single-digit” percentage to me! And as of April 2012, (not provided) is my #1 keyword. Here’s a chart of its progression up the keyword food chain:

Dempsey Marketing Not Provided Percentages

The red line is a trendline. Unlike a profitability chart, the upward direction of this line isn’t a good thing.

But is this just me, or is it happening to my clients as well? Let’s go to the charts!

Saltar Solutions Not Provided Percentages

Saltar Solutions - Not Provided Percentages

SagePresence Not Provided Percentages

SagePresence - Not Provided Percentages

Communit Not Provided Percentages

Communit - Not Provided Percentages

So no, it isn’t just me.

Is this happening to you too?

Why Google Is Doing This

Google makes a lot of awesome technology. Google itself is a modern marvel, along with Android, and most recently an autonomous car. How Google makes money however, is advertising.

Here is a typical page of results looks like on Google:

Google Ad Locations

Google Ad Locations

I’ve outlined the ad areas in red and the content area in orange.

What's wrong with this picture?

The Google page looks as it has for many years, with the one exception that I notice the ads are closer to the search results whereas before they were farther off to the side.

I’m so used to the ads being in these spots I no longer pay attention. The Law of Familiarity is now in effect – I no longer see the ads because I’m used to them being there. The marketing term for this is “banner blindness”, and is a problem for advertisers.

Now here’s what I see when I log into Facebook:

Facebook Ad Locations

Facebook Ad Locations

That’s a very different picture. Notice how the ads are in the same area as important information such as the birthdays of my friends.

I will tell you from experience that for the price, Facebook ads are showing a much better return on investment for the campaigns I’m running. Google knows this. Google also knows that people spend more time on social networks than on Google, one reason for Google+!

But let’s get to brass tacks here. Google will show you the keywords people use to get to your site under two conditions:

  1. The person is NOT logged in to any Google product
  2. You are paying for AdWords

I’ll leave it to you to form your own opinion on whether or not you think that’s pretty heavy-handed.

How Awesome This Is For You

Now, you might be thinking that I as a marketer, am worried about this. Perhaps you’ve read to this point and have a few choice words to send to Google. But before you do let me tell you – this is an awesome opportunity for small businesses.

Just think about it for a second…

How many large companies do you absolutely hate dealing with? My list is fairly long with banks, credit card companies, phone and cable companies right there at the top, in bold. Now how many large businesses do you know that communicate well on Twitter, or Facebook, or Google+?

The best part about this for a small business is you can take advantage of this trend because you’re already equipped to! As an entrepreneur and small business owner you know how to talk with people. You get business based on relationships, both online and offline. And at the end of the day, how sure are you that keywords are the right metric of success for your website?


My Advice Is This

Ramp up your relationship building efforts. Be proactive not reactive. It's great to be able to listen for your clients, and that's something you absolutely must do, but don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them, talk with them, bond with them. Discover if you can provide for their needs. And then deliver like nobody else can.

Do that and keep doing that, and keywords begin to matter less and less.


  1. tripeakprod says:

    If life gives you lemons (Google) make lemonade 

  2. So if I have an Ad Words campaign, I’ll get results for ALL keywords? Or just the ones I target in the campaign??

  3. Someone should tell Google that plastering a webpage with ads, especially above the fold, is a big no-no. Wait, Google is like politicians, they set their own rules and follow them at their own will if they feel like.
    Google isn’t simply scared by FB, it’s already under panic because they see AdWords death coming soon, followed by the rest of their empire. No money=nobusiness. And I’m happy for that given how G nuked my website. Might it be because I don’t use AdWords and G+?
    Their only chance is Zuck who is the worst enemy of himself.
    Well, isn’t this what happened to Yahoo and Myspace?
    Very interesting post Robert. Happy weekend! 🙂

    •  @Andrea T. H. W. haha great point Andrea. A taste of it’s own medicine eh?
      From my conversations with others “panic” is a great way to look at it. And yes, even multi-billion dollar companies can freak out and act accordingly. After all, it’s run by people.

  4. I think Google is trying to keep their information proprietary.  I do miss having the complete search information as it keeps me informed about what my visitors are looking for when they come to my site.  Also, I use that information to optimize my old posts and this is just another impediment to that.

  5. LauriFlaquer says:

    Great post Robert. Thank you for once again shedding light on things that affect us but we might not be aware of.
    I’ve noticed the “Not Provided” term move from the bottom of my Keyword list to the top. Now it sits firmly at #1. Thank you very little Google!
    So what is it that we should and can do about this. I’m building my relationships, shaking hands and kissing babies, but I would like to have the info of how those people I don’t know are finding me. Is there anything I can do, short of paying them, to stop this trend?

    •  @LauriFlaquer there’s nothing we can do about the keywords not being provided as that’s completely up to Google. In my opinion it’s time to adapt. Surveys work great to capture more of the voice of your visitor. That would be your next step.

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