Recently, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, reported that Google is making the secure search the default for all Google users. Previously, HTTPS was forced on you if you were logged into a Google product (i.e. gmail, analytics, Google+ etc…), and users who were not logged in were able to use the non-https version.

This means that the “not provided” traffic that you see in your Google Analytics reports, will keep going up.

When Google rolled out searches over HTTPS in October 2011, the goal was to encrypt user’s searches and increase overall user privacy.  While that intent was commendable, marketers can still view all non-provided traffic to their own website, by purchasing Google Analytics premium for $150,000 (USD) annually.

Originally, “not provided” searches weren’t to exceed 1%.  Soon they were reported at 8%.  Lately, we were seeing an average of 30% for our clients.

The IOS 6, and Android 4 issues didn’t help things either.  Since September 2012, Google search traffic from IOS 6, and Android 4 was being flagged as “Direct”, and not correctly attributed as traffic from Organic search engines.

So what does this mean for marketers?

Reporting on keywords just got a little bit more difficult.  Consider this another separation of men from boys in the reporting world.

If an SEO/SEM company was simply regurgitating keyword data from GA, and reporting it to clients, they will now need to step up their game.  Over the years, I’ve had a chance to see some competitors reports, and almost all of them reprinted the 20+ pages of keyword visit data.  Those days are officially gone.

Understanding top landing pages, queries, and on-page engagement have to be a larger focus.  In theory, you can still get query data from GA (if you have it linked to your webmaster tools account), and you should be able to cross that with landing page activity.  Therefore, you can still get a relatively clear understanding of which pages are getting traffic, and how relevant that traffic is.

Where is the keyword data going?

The easy answer is “nowhere, it never arrived in the first place.”  Google has been manipulating the referral string for some time. A referral string is a bit of data that is picked up by your webserver, and can recognize where a visitor came from.  It’s like an automatic breadcrumb trail, that’s built into the internet.

Basically, Google has taken extra steps to make sure that trail is covered up.

Google’s first move was to show search results using AJAX.  This was done in order to deliver “instant results.”  Next, Google implemented a middle page which you are redirected to after clicking on a result, which then uses a meta-refresh to redirect you to the desired URL that you clicked on.

It’s the page with the meta-refresh that allows the referral string to be manipulated.

So what’s the bright side?

1.)    Google is not withholding any data from Adwords.  If someone clicks on your ad, you still get all the great info that you’re used to.

2.)    You can still get query data in Google Analytics, however it’s two days old.  You can use this data to establish the CTR of your ranking keywords, and get a clear idea of how effective your title and meta tags are.

3.)    Marketers will hopefully be forced to upgrade their reports and focus on such information as user experience, user engagement, website structure.

Website traffic comes from more than just keywords?

There’s a lot more to website traffic than just keywords searched for in Google. The change in “not provided” is forcing internet marketers to make a shift away from thinking on a keyword-by-keyword level, and begin thinking about the true relevance of a website in a target market.

Hopefully, this means less focus on external linking for gaming keywords, and more focus on engaging website visitors to increase retention, recency, and overall user experience.

While the withholding of data is always concerning, I do hope this forces marketers to step up their game, and rethink reporting strategies.