keyword_tapNear the begin­ning of this month, Google qui­etly expanded its encryp­tion of search activ­ity to all organic search results, not just users who are signed into their Google account. Almost two years ago in Octo­ber 2011, Google announced it would encrypt searches for any­one who was logged into their Google account. By hid­ing the search queries being per­formed by indi­vid­ual users, Google posi­tioned this major change as a way of pro­tect­ing online pri­vacy. The same encryp­tion wasn’t extended to paid search key­words as Google said its adver­tis­ers needed the abil­ity to improve the effec­tive­ness of their Adwords campaigns.

This search change in 2011 meant that Google would no longer pass organic search key­words into Adobe Ana­lyt­ics or any other web ana­lyt­ics tool, includ­ing even Google Ana­lyt­ics. In aggre­gate you could still dis­cern how much nat­ural search traf­fic you were receiv­ing from Google, but you started to lose insight into what the actual search queries were.

Adobe had to cre­ate a new line item, Key­words Unavail­able, in the Search Key­words report to rec­on­cile this secure-search-related traf­fic from Google where the search terms were sim­ply not pro­vided. For many orga­ni­za­tions, Key­words Unavail­able quickly became the top item in their Search Key­words reports (All & Nat­ural) to the ire of many mar­keters and analysts.

Now with this expan­sion of encrypted search by Google, you will see no nat­ural search key­words from the lead­ing search engine and a sig­nif­i­cant increase in Key­words Unavail­able within your Search Key­words reports. Key­words that are asso­ci­ated with paid search ads on Google will remain unaf­fected and will still appear in your reports. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sul­li­van obtained the fol­low­ing state­ment from Google on this change to its search business:

“We want to pro­vide SSL pro­tec­tion to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can — we added non-signed-in Chrome omni­box searches ear­lier this year, and more recently other users who aren’t signed in. We’re going to con­tinue expand­ing our use of SSL in our ser­vices because we believe it’s a good thing for users…The moti­va­tion here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.”

Is there a tech­ni­cal workaround? No, not really.

The first ques­tion many clients will have to this news is whether there is a tech­ni­cal workaround to this lat­est Google Search update. The short answer is no—not really. In web ana­lyt­ics, there are often many roads to Rome or, in other words, to the essen­tial data we need. We’ve become accus­tomed to hav­ing var­i­ous options for col­lect­ing data. If one road is blocked, we’ll just take another one. Our nat­ural ten­dency is to think there must be another way to get this same information.

Before get­ting into any alter­nate routes or short­cuts, it’s help­ful to under­stand how web ana­lyt­ics tools cap­ture key­word data from search engines to fully under­stand the chal­lenge. The key­word data is typ­i­cally vis­i­ble in the HTTP refer­rer field of the page request. For an organic search for “ana­lyt­ics hero” on Google​.com, the refer­rer field in the HTTP request used to look like this:


For com­par­i­son pur­poses, here’s what the refer­rer field still looks like for both Bing and Yahoo today:


The key­word is embed­ded within the referrer’s URL and can be eas­ily extracted for key­word report­ing. If you were to look at the refer­rer field today for all organic searches from Google, this is what you’ll see:


Ugggh. You’ll notice the q= key-value pair is miss­ing the value for search terms. As a result, Adobe Ana­lyt­ics has no idea what key­words were used prior to some­one arriv­ing on your site. There is no way to retrieve these terms if they are being hid­den or encrypted by the search engine before vis­i­tors land on your web­site. Unfor­tu­nately, there is no back­door, and only Google can pro­vide this data.

Through Google’s Web­mas­ter Tools you can obtain an aggre­gated list of the top 2,000 search queries that drove traf­fic to your site for the past 90 days. This might sound like a sat­is­fac­tory workaround until you real­ize it is sim­ply a raw count of the most pop­u­lar search key­words with no con­nec­tion to your engage­ment or con­ver­sion met­rics (or vis­i­tors). While you might be able to extrap­o­late insights from your paid search key­words, it’s going to be much more chal­leng­ing to opti­mize your SEO efforts for Google with­out mean­ing­ful data on spe­cific nat­ural search keywords.

What are the repercussions?

Unfor­tu­nately, when the dom­i­nant search engine decides to change the key­word infor­ma­tion it shares, every website—small and large—is impacted. Here’s a quick sum­mary of what you’ll see in Adobe Analytics:

  1. An increase in Key­words Unavail­able in both Search Key­words reports — All & Natural.
  2. Nat­ural Search Key­words report will only fea­ture key­words from other search engines that still pro­vide organic key­words such as Bing and Yahoo Search.
  3. Paid Search Key­words report will be unaffected.
  4. Seg­men­ta­tion and break­downs by nat­ural search key­words will be less effec­tive as they only rep­re­sent non-Google search traffic.
  5. In the Mar­ket­ing Chan­nels reports, the details break­down for the Nat­ural Search chan­nel will be less use­ful due to hav­ing a greatly reduced amount of key­word data.

Why do you still see organic key­words from Google?

Most of Google’s search changes roll out grad­u­ally across its infra­struc­ture. We saw this with the orig­i­nal change to secure search. If you trend Key­word Unavail­able over the last month or so you’ll prob­a­bly notice a grad­ual increase like I did. For my web­site in the graph below, you’ll see the change started to appear in August. We don’t know when Google will reach 100% roll­out, but it is going to hap­pen sooner rather than later.

Is there any­thing you can do about it? Yes.

When the going gets tough, action heroes don’t give up–they get mov­ing (sorry, couldn’t resist). While Google has lim­ited what you can do from a tech­nol­ogy per­spec­tive, you still have sev­eral analy­sis tech­niques at your dis­posal to soften the blow from Google’s search encryp­tion. Here are six ideas for your next key­word res­cue mission:

  1. Even though your other search sources may only rep­re­sent a small por­tion of organic search vol­ume, they can still be help­ful from a direc­tional per­spec­tive. The data will con­tinue to show you which key­words con­vert and which don’t. Opti­miz­ing based on the organic traf­fic from Bing or Yahoo should help you across the board.
  2. If you haven’t already been using the Web­mas­ter Tools’ Search Queries report, start exper­i­ment­ing with it today to see what inter­est­ing pat­terns and insights it can yield. It rarely matched up with search key­word report­ing before the change, but at least it could pro­vide some insight into sig­nif­i­cant shifts hap­pen­ing with your keywords.
  3. From your land­ing pages, you might be able to infer the intent of the visit or the type of organic key­words that brought some­one to the site, includ­ing branded and non-branded traf­fic. More than ever it is crit­i­cal that you have sep­a­rate land­ing pages for paid search traf­fic so that it doesn’t obscure your insights into your organic traffic.
  4. You can cre­ate a seg­ment for your nat­ural search vis­i­tors, and eval­u­ate what entry pages they’re using and where they’re going. Sim­i­larly, you might be able to deduce their intent and key­word usage.
  5. Pay atten­tion to pat­terns and spikes within your inter­nal search terms. Peo­ple who are unable to find what they’re look­ing for will turn to search for help, which may hap­pen more fre­quently as the con­tent can’t be as read­ily tai­lored to meet the needs of Google’s organic search visitors.
  6. Eval­u­ate site nav­i­ga­tion pat­terns once they’re on your site. A sim­ple tech­nique called des­ti­na­tion page analy­sis can help deter­mine where vis­i­tors are migrat­ing after they’ve entered your site.

While none of these tech­niques will replace your lost key­word data, I’m hope­ful some of these ideas will come in handy. Unfor­tu­nately, with a topic like this, I hate to be the har­bin­ger of dis­ap­point­ing news, espe­cially when there’s not a sim­ple or quick fix. How­ever, it’s impor­tant for you to be aware of this change and under­stand how it impacts your report­ing and analy­sis in Adobe Ana­lyt­ics. If you have fur­ther con­cerns that I have not addressed in this arti­cle, please let me know. If you have sug­ges­tions based on how your com­pany is han­dling this change, please share them with your peers and allies within the Adobe Ana­lyt­ics com­mu­nity. In a future blog post, I’ll share my own per­sonal per­spec­tive on what drove this key shift in the search mar­ket­ing space.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter @analyticshero.