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What Is 'Not Provided,' Its History, & What One Can Do About It

Introduction

Not provided. Those two words can cause more anger and bitterness to someone working in the search field than just about any other pair of words you could put together (except perhaps “algorithm update”). What began as a minor nuisance has blossomed into a major loss of actionable data, and while search marketers have adapted to the loss as best they can, it’s been a bitter pill. Since it’s become such a large part of the Google Analytics experience, we wanted to provide some context as to what this all means, how we got here, and where we’re going. This will be especially useful if clients ask about the how, why, or what this all means. Let’s start at the beginning.

What Is “Not Provided”?

A while back, Google switched its entire spate of search URLs (and eventually all of its sites in general) to HTTPS, which is a secure version of the base hypertext transfer protocol that’s the very basis for the web itself. Because users’ searches are now encrypted, the phrases they use to engage in searches aren’t shown to typical Google Analytics users. I say “typical” for a reason I’ll get to later in this article. When this information was filtered out, its numbers were dumped into a catch-all term called “Not Provided.” This is kind of a lie, since the data is provided, Google just doesn’t want to show it to us. We’ll talk about what can be done to get this data in a bit, but we also wanted to provide a bit of history...

When & Why Did Not Provided Become A Thing?

Back in 2010, Google launch its first stab at secure, encrypted, HTTPS-enabled web searching. This wasn’t the default method of search by any means, but it would foretell of a greater and greater reliance on secure searching, especially as more information on government surveillance would come to light. Regardless, when this was launched, it was no big thing.

Then, a year later, Google announced that it would be using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) to encrypt searches from users logged into Google’s services. This is, let’s face it, just about everyone. While SEO folks panicked a bit, Google said this would likely affect a single-digit percentage of Analytics data at the time. You can imagine how long that lasted. Early in 2012, Google announced that it would provide more personalized search results, entitled Search Plus Your World, which pushed Google’s reliance on secure searching even further.

Later in 2012, Firefox announced it was switching all of its searches to SSL-enabled searching via its browser. Chrome wasn’t far behind. Eventually, in late 2013, Google announced that it wasn’t far from seeing around 100% of search data encrypted, or Not Provided.

Since then, it hasn’t quite gotten to around 100%, as you can still see some keyword data in the basic version of Analytics, but in the last several years we’ve lost a lot of data. However, like any good SEO professional, one adapts...

What Can One Do About Not Provided, If Anything?

There are a few things you can do about Not Provided. The first, and easiest, is not to care. Seriously, there’s not a lot of options (there are options, but not a lot, and they’re not all awesome), so the easiest thing is not let it get to you. If you care about things like creating great content, engaging with users, and making your site as valuable as possible, you’ll get all the data you need from your users and other forms of data. You should, of course, use Analytics as one of the most versatile tools in your toolbox, but it should by no means be your only tool.

For example, if you want to know which pages bring in your highest traffic, you can see which in Analytics via your Landing Pages report (Behavior -> Site Content -> Landing Pages). You can then infer from this report which topics are most important to your users and create further content around those topics. While this doesn’t make up entirely for the loss of keyword data, it does at least help point you in the right direction, and likely the same direction having the keyword data would provide.

Another method is by using Search Console. Under Search Traffic -> Search Analytics, you can get a decent amount of keyword data, though not as much as Analytics would’ve provided. It’s better than nothing, but there have been rumblings that Google is removing this tool. While we hope that’s not the case, it wouldn’t be wholly surprising either.

One more method is by engaging in some paid search. The Not Provided issue primarily affects organic search, while paid search users still get access to a far greater wealth of data. AdWords especially is good about letting you see keyword data.

The final method, and the most expensive, is to enroll is Google’s premium Analytics package, recently rebranded Google Analytics 360 Suite. This new set of tools meant for enterprise-level users shows quite a bit more data than standard free accounts, so you definitely get what you pay for.

Conclusion

Not Provided has been something of a pariah in search engine optimization circles for a long time now, but it’s gone from outright panic-inducing to manageable in a few years. While our options for dealing with it are few, they do exist, and again, SEO professionals are excellent at adapting. Thank you for reading this, and we hope you got a lot out of it.

written by: Brian Rubin

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