It's fair to say Google's Amit Singhal shocked the audience at SMX West last week when he told Danny Sullivan a solution to the not-provided keywords issue will be announced "in the coming weeks or months."
— Larry Kim (@larrykim) March 12, 2014
Google hasn't given an inch on the keyword data lost to site owners and marketers when secure search was fully implemented in September 2013. It was a change two years in the making; SEOs and site owners saw keyword data gradually disappearing to the "not provided" dark side from September 2011 on. Throughout, panic ensued as site owners were no longer able to track users by the keywords that brought them to the site in the first place. It's pretty difficult to optimize your site for users when you don't know why they're visiting you.
It's great news for businesses and SEOs that Google is planning to address the issue, but what are they planning? My prediction is that Google will once again make organic keyword data available, but in a far less open way.
Why Google Webmaster Tools as a Solution for Keyword Not Provided Sucks
You can still see search query for your data in Webmaster Tools (WMT), but it's a fraction of what it was in our keyword glory days. WMT cuts out third parties (like competing ad networks and web analytics solutions) from accessing the data, and doesn't provide complete visibility into what people are doing on your site, but it's something.
Some have defended the value of keyword data in WMT, while others have called it flat out useless. I’m in the nearly useless camp, as my own internal research leads me to believe that I’m missing around 89% of the organic search queries that I used to get. Furthermore, the click data for the few keywords Google is providing me appears to be off by a factor of +/- 400% due to how data is being estimated/rounded. Finally, you can only go back for 3 months, so it’s clearly not ideal.
What's Next for Secured Search and Keyword Not Provided?
If Google stays true to form, we won't know until the day it launches. However, I can say with almost 100% certainty that we won't be going back to the days when website owners were able to track everything about an organic search user's site visit – when they arrived, how long they stayed, what content they browsed, what actions they took, etc. (But you can see all of this in AdWords!)
There's the polar opposite possibility, of course: that Google will turn off search query data in AdWords, making all search data truly secure. This was one of the possibilities Danny Sullivan raised in his coverage of Google's announcement. Doing this would make Google less of a hypocrite on the online privacy issue. But I say no way: Google made $40 billion from AdWords last year; it's their golden goose. I can't in a million years imagine Google stripping data away from advertisers, who demand to know what they're spending their money on.
The answer is going to be somewhere in between. It is possible for Google to provide more keyword data to site owners while protecting the anonymity of searchers.
At this point, I believe the easiest workaround for Google will be to make the keyword data available in Webmaster Tools more granular and accurate – and they will provide more of it.
Improving the way WMT handles keyword data isn't going to be an exciting, sexy solution, but it's the most likely. It would somewhat quell the unhappiness on the part of site owners, while allowing Google to keep the majority of data to themselves and enabling searchers to hold on to the warm, fuzzy safe feeling they get from using secured search.