The (Not Provided) Outlook
Since October 2011, organic keyword data from logged-in Google users is not visible in Google Analytics . Google explained its new policy as an effort to protect privacy, but as keyword data continues to be available to Google advertisers, one is left to wonder whether privacy or profit is behind the move.
Whatever the reason, this lack of keyword data presents real problems for the SEO industry. Since October, most firms have seen the percentage of (not provided) data grow, currently averaging around 23% according to some estimates .
Making tactical decisions 23% in the dark is hard enough, but things are going to get worse. Firefox, with a hefty 35% market share  of browser usage, recently announced that it would default to HTTPS Google search . Whether other browsers follow suit remains to be seen, but browsing privacy would seem to be an area where Firefox competitors fight for the high ground. Google, too, is making strong moves to encourage people to log in, most noticeably its rapid expansion and integration of the Google+ social network.
Branded vs. Non-Branded Traffic
Strategically, one of the biggest (not provided) problems for SEO is differentiating branded and unbranded search traffic. Estimates can be made based on percentages of branded and non-branded traffic that are reported over a given date range. For instance, if 60% of a site’s reported organic traffic is non-branded, then one could assume that 60% of the (not provided) site traffic is non-branded.
One difficulty with this approach is that one must assume the search patterns of logged in users are identical to those of non-logged in users. While it may be a safe assumption, there is no way to really know for sure.
Another difficulty is that the landing page distribution of (not provided) traffic can have a big impact on the branded/non-branded mix. While it’s possible to drill down to the page level in Google Analytics for a closer look, estimates still must make assumptions such as most home page traffic is branded and most product page traffic is non-branded.
Using estimates for comparing one period to another puts us on even shakier ground. First, inherent in the assumption that the branded/non-branded mix going forward is identical to what it was in the past, is the assumption that SEO is not demonstrating relative improvement over time – which is exactly what SEO programs are designed to do.
Second, these estimates do not take into account other marketing initiatives that affect branded and non-branded search traffic in a given time period. For instance, a widely anticipated product launch could set off a flurry of branded searches during the first few months of its release.
Third, these estimates cannot easily factor in traffic changes resulting from new site pages or new content added to existing pages. For instance, a new site section launched in support of the hypothetical new product mentioned above could have a substantial and perhaps long lasting impact on the branded/non-branded traffic mix.
In short, estimates of (not provided) traffic will have a hard time keeping up with real-world business changes. The severity of the problem will vary, in large part based on the nature of the business. For example, small business owners searching for a credit card processor like BluePay figure to be logged into Google to a greater degree than plant managers searching for a metal fabricator like NMF. But as mobile search mushrooms, even that assumption could fly out the window.
Whether or not data is visible, people are still conducting searches – 17.8 billion  in January 2011 to be exact. So abandoning or scaling back on SEO on account of an analytics setback would not be smart business. First and foremost, firms should press forward with activities that improve visibility:
- Ensuring that site content is easily crawl-able and properly interpreted by Google
- Creating high-quality, relevant and useful onsite and offsite content
- Promoting content through social media and other means to attract natural backlinks
While on the one hand Google is hiding data, on the other hand it is becoming more open about explaining its search algorithm. Whether or not you like the recent Panda and Penguin updates, they were pretty clear, as evidenced by this representative communication  from Google. By staying up to date on what to do – and not do – firms can outperform less attentive competitors and be reasonably confident that their SEO efforts are continuously improving.
This is a guest post by Brad Shorr , Director of Content & Social Media for Straight North, an agency providing SEO services in Chicago.
Image via Beatrice Murch .