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Google Hiding Keyword Data? No Problem!

Written on January 21st, 2014 by

Google threw SEOs and online marketers a curve ball late in 2013 when they suddenly stopped passing keyword data through Google Analytics.

To those that depend on organic traffic for their businesses, it may have felt more like a fastball to the skull!

The knee-jerk reaction was for bloggers and so-called “experts” to once again announce that SEO is dead or that Big Bad Google was out to get the little guy. While sensational claims like these make for great headlines and get lots of clicks, they are far from the truth.

Yes, Google’s changes make things a little more difficult for marketers and businesses to get their keyword data, but it’s not the end of the world. There’s no need to run for the hills screaming in terror about the “Keyword-Pocalypse.”

Take a deep breath and we’ll get through this together!

Hiding Keywords: A Brief History

Google holding back keyword data is nothing new. Back in October of 2011, they started encrypting searches for anyone that was logged into any Google product (Gmail, YouTube, etc.).

A logged-in user would be redirected through the https:// version of Google and the keyword they searched for would not be passed along to Google Analytics. Instead, the keyword would show as “Not Provided” when you looked at it in GA. However, Google still collected all other data, including time spent on site, landing pages, sources, and so on. 

And it wasn’t just Google’s search and analytics products that did this. 

The Incognito browsing feature on Chrome allowed users to search without their data being recorded and passed on. In January 2013, Chrome also started using encrypted search for all users. Also, over the last two years Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari browsers started doing the same.

While the number of “not provided” keyword searches steadily increased, they did not represent a major percentage of keyword data. That all changed on September 4th, 2013.

Starting on that date, Google flipped a switch and started blocking all keyword data.

Spying and Ad Sales

As soon as this policy kicked in, theories started flying about why Google made such a massive and sudden change.

Some people were certain that the move was meant to push back against the NSA for their online spying through the government’s PRISM program. Earlier that year, Google had been accused of giving the spy agency direct access to user’s searches. While this didn’t hurt business dramatically, Google took a PR beating.

Since then, Google has waged a very public campaign to be able to be more transparent about the numbers and details of requests it gets from the NSA and other agencies. They have also worked to encrypt the data that travels between their data centers.

I guess no one likes to be spied on. Not even Google.

The other theory out there is that they made the changes to increase Adwords paid advertising. 

The reason that this theory gained so much traction is because Adwords advertisers still have access to all of the search data. If you’re buying ads, you can still see what keywords your users are searching for.

That’s right: Only the free SEO data is kept secret. 

Put Away the Tin Foil Hats

Yes, both the NSA and Adwords issues could factor into Google’s move to block keyword search data, but that doesn’t mean there is some grand conspiracy against SEOs or website owners that get a lot of business from organic traffic.

All signs point to the fact that Google had been building to this point for quite some time. The switch to blocking all keyword data couldn’t really be done any other way than all at once.

For years, Google and many other companies have openly said they want to protect the privacy of their users. So it’s not as though there was a sudden change in corporate philosophies and goals.

Furthermore, the main way Google makes money is by selling ads. If you were no longer able to tap into their keyword data as a PPC advertiser, you’d be flying blind. If you pay for ads, you have to be able to see what people are searching for, as well as click-through rates and conversions.

And just because you’re not getting keyword data anymore doesn’t mean you have to run out and start spending money on PPC ads if your business was based on organic traffic.

Keyword Data Work-Arounds

There’s no need to cry about the “death of SEO” or curse the corporate giants that supposedly hatch evil plans while twisting their mustaches.

There are still plenty of ways to find the keywords that users are searching for when they find your site:

Webmaster Tools

Google is still passing and giving you access to keyword data through their suite of Webmaster Tools.

As we discussed in our post on the basics of WMT, you can access your search data by simply clicking on the Search Traffic menu and looking at the search queries.

It gives encrypted and non-encrypted keywords and also includes other filters such as mobile vs. desktop traffic. You also get the amount of impressions compared with the click data, which is something Google Analytics never did.

The major limitation is that data only goes back 90 days. Make it a point to download the info every 30 days and store it independently of the WMT system and you’ll be swimming in keyword data, just like the old days.

Other Search Engines

Take a look at traffic coming from Bing or other search engines that are late to the encrypted search party.

While the volume won’t be the same and may not paint as complete a picture, you can still gain some valuable insights from non-Google keyword data.

On-Site Searches

Make sure you are recording and analyzing the data from any search done on your site directly. If you’re not sure how to do that, check out this post from Crazy Egg.

Traffic Travis

If you’re used to mining your Google Analytics data for keywords you should focus on, then Traffic Travis is a perfect fit.

Gather your Webmaster Tools data or even your historical Analytics data and then use TT’s rank checker feature to see where you currently stand. Then use the search volume and competition modules to strategically attack your next keyword targets.

Don’t Sweat Hidden Keywords

No matter what you think about Google and their motivation for hiding keywords through Google Analytics, this is the reality we have to deal with now.

The data is still out there. You just have to work a tad bit harder to get it. Things change in this industry faster than most. The marketers who adapt and change along with it are the ones who will be left standing.

Up your game now! Try out Traffic Travis for free and see why so many successful SEOs and Internet marketers consider it an invaluable tool.