Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Google Secure Search, [not provided], and You

Back in May of 2010, Google announced that it would enable a feature known as “encrypted search” to prevent search terms from being included in the referral information to all web analytics programs.1  This was eventually modified to “secure search” and stretched to those who were logged into Google accounts.2  Then Firefox included it for all Google searches, as did iOS 6.3,4  And when version 25 of Google Chrome officially releases, it will even enable secure search for users searching directly from the address bar; they don’t even need to be on www.google.com.5

So, what does this “secure search” mean for analysts and online firms?  When secure search is enabled, any website clicked through Google is shown in web analytics programs as “www.google.com” and the search terms used to find that referral link are shown as [not provided].  Here is a snapshot of the search terms used for The Cultural Hall Podcast website when accessed through Google Analytics:



As you can see, over 36% of the search terms are disguised due to secure search.  To make matters worse, all mobile iOS 6 referrers don’t just leave out the search terms, but neglect to track the referral link at all.  Consequently, all traffic from these sources is being recorded as direct traffic.

It doesn’t seem that this trend is going anywhere any time soon.  Web optimization company Nine By Blue took a sample of several sites from different industries with different audiences, and looked at how searches resulting in [not provided] have changed over a one-year period.



Obviously this shrouded data is troubling for sites.  When search terms are mislabeled or misappropriated, it can make it more difficult to modify marketing campaigns and SEO practices.  But there is a solution.

Vanessa Fox,6 Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land and former Google employee, recently outlined a workaround to this new problem: Google Webmaster Tools.7  While Google does hide search terms that are sent through referrals to analytics programs, it still tracks those terms through its Webmaster Tools.  Not only that, but it also shows impression data, ranking, and click through rate for each separate term – information that your web analytics program likely is not giving you (at least not in the same format).

In addition to Google Webmaster Tools, it is important to note that search data is still available through paid search, such as Google Adwords.  Secure search is also Google-specific, so all referrals from Bing, Yahoo! and other search engines are still arriving unfiltered and uncompromised.

While the increasing trend of [not provided] data is worrisome, Fox notes that focusing on the problem is not the answer.  Companies need to start adapting now, analyzing and modifying their processes to try and glean the same insights they would from search terms using different methods, such as Webmaster Tools or implementing paid search.


1. Roseman, Evan. "Search more securely with encrypted Google web search." Google Blog. Google, 21 May 2010. 12 Feb. 2013.
2. Sullivan, Danny. "Google To Begin Encrypting Searches & Outbound Clicks By Default With SSL Search." Search Engine Land. Search Engine Land, 18 Oct. 2011. 12 Feb. 2013.
3. Sullivan, Danny. "Firefox 14 Now Encrypts Google Searches, But Search Terms Still Will “Leak” Out." Search Engine Land. Search Engine Land, 17 July 2012. 12 Feb. 2013.
4. Sullivan, Danny. "How An iOS 6 Change Makes It Seem Like Google Traffic From Safari Has Disappeared." Search Engine Land. Search Engine Land, 1 Oct. 2012. 12 Feb. 2013.
5. Langley, Adam. "Google Search in Chrome gets more secure." The Chromium Blog. Google, 18 Jan. 2013. 12 Feb. 2013.
6. Search Engine Land. "Search Engine Land Contributors - Vanessa Fox." Search Engine Lane. Search Engine Land, 2013. 12 Feb. 2013.
7. Fox, Vanessa. "Will [Not Provided] Ever Reach 100% In Web Analytics?." Search Engine Lane. Search Engine Land, 18 Jan. 2013. 12 Feb. 2013.