Google’s offi­cial announce­ment con­firmed the end of shar­ing paid search query data with web ana­lyt­ics tools such as Adobe Ana­lyt­ics. After Google removed organic search query data last Sep­tem­ber for secu­rity rea­sons, most dig­i­tal mar­keters knew the other shoe—the block­ing of paid search terms—would drop at some point. To be hon­est, Google looked hyp­o­crit­i­cal when it only stripped search query data for organic searches and not for paid searches. How­ever, the pop­u­lar search engine prob­a­bly moved faster than many of us expected (or hoped) when it announced the removal of paid search terms this month, espe­cially as many dig­i­tal mar­keters were still strug­gling to come to terms with the dis­ap­pear­ance of their organic search keywords.

To clar­ify what this means, Google will strip the search query infor­ma­tion from the “q=” (q=search+query) para­me­ter in its refer­rer string. The search query terms are used by dig­i­tal ana­lyt­ics tools to pop­u­late their search key­word reports (yes, even Google Ana­lyt­ics). For exam­ple, if some­one clicked on a paid search ad for the search term “ana­lyt­ics hero”, pre­vi­ously the refer­rer string would look like this (I’ve sim­pli­fied it):

http://​www​.google​.com/​url?q=analytics+hero

Now, the refer­rer string will look like this:
http://​www​.google​.com/​url?q=

Google’s Paul Feng stated that adver­tis­ers will “con­tinue to have access to use­ful data to opti­mize and improve their cam­paigns and land­ing pages,” but now you can only get the search query data from Google through either its AdWords search terms report or the Google Web­mas­ter Tools Search Queries report. If you want to tie your paid search terms to a con­ver­sion met­ric, your only option now is to imple­ment Google’s AdWords Con­ver­sion Track­ing pixel (with a frac­tion of the rich insights you pre­vi­ously received from your dig­i­tal ana­lyt­ics tool). Hmmm. Are you see­ing a pat­tern emerg­ing here?

It’s begin­ning to feel like you’re play­ing bas­ket­ball against another team that calls all the fouls and time­outs, con­trols the score­board, and always forces you to play skins (I always hated play­ing shirt­less in gym class).

What does it mean for my Adobe Ana­lyt­ics reports?

Regard­less of whether you believe Google’s deci­sion was really about pro­vid­ing more secure search to its users or a savvy busi­ness move to expand its AdWords busi­ness, it will impact your Adobe Ana­lyt­ics data in the fol­low­ing ways:

  • An increase in Key­words Unavail­able in both Search Key­words reports (All and Paid).
  • Paid Search Key­words report will only fea­ture key­words from other search engines that still pro­vide paid key­words such as Bing.
  • Seg­men­ta­tion and break­downs by paid search key­words will be less effec­tive as they only rep­re­sent non-Google search traffic.
  • In the Mar­ket­ing Chan­nels reports, the details break­down for the Paid Search chan­nel will be less use­ful due to hav­ing a greatly reduced amount of key­word data.

With the elim­i­na­tion of paid search terms from Google, it’s going to be more chal­leng­ing to per­form key­word expan­sion and refine­ments for your AdWords cam­paigns (such as iden­ti­fy­ing cost-saving neg­a­tive key­words) with­out rely­ing on Google. You will still have search query data from other non-Google search engines to off­set the loss of Google’s search query data. Based on data from Adobe’s Dig­i­tal Index last year, in the US Google gen­er­ated 80% of the search traf­fic fol­lowed by Bing (9.5%) and Yahoo (7%). Regret­tably, other search engines have shown a ten­dency to fol­low Google’s lead rather than defy the search giant and march to a dif­fer­ent beat. Most likely all search query data will even­tu­ally dry up as other search engines repli­cate what Google is doing with its search encryption.

Due to Google’s dom­i­nance in the search engine space, los­ing its data rep­re­sents a trou­bling blind spot for dig­i­tal mar­keters. If you’re wor­ried about your Google search traf­fic specif­i­cally, going for­ward it will mean more guess­work and greater depen­dence on Google for its search query infor­ma­tion. I’ve seen some peo­ple state this change is a non-issue as Google will still pro­vide its search queries report in AdWords. Obvi­ously, they are ignor­ing the rich insights that dig­i­tal ana­lyt­ics tools give adver­tis­ers if they want to bet­ter under­stand seg­ment attrib­utes, pathing behav­iors, micro con­ver­sions, etc. Cameron Cowan, Prod­uct Man­ager for Adobe’s Media Opti­mizer solu­tion, noted that search mar­keters will lose valu­able data from their dig­i­tal ana­lyt­ics tools such as geog­ra­phy, lan­guage, time-of-day, device types, oper­at­ing sys­tems, prod­ucts browsed, and a host of other impor­tant dimen­sions that could pre­vi­ously be used in cam­paign struc­ture and tar­get­ing decisions.

How is this dif­fer­ent from los­ing the organic search terms last September?

For­tu­nately, in the case of paid search, you’re not left com­pletely in the dark like you were with organic search terms. With organic search, you have no other means for cap­tur­ing or mea­sur­ing the actual search query data in Adobe Ana­lyt­ics.  If the search queries aren’t passed to your site by the refer­ring search engine (Google, Yahoo, etc.), you can’t mea­sure the search terms against your engage­ment and con­ver­sion metrics—end of story. In con­trast, with paid search, you at least have another method for mea­sur­ing your paid search efforts—campaign track­ing. If you use Adobe Ana­lyt­ics to track your paid search cam­paigns, you’ll still be able to under­stand how they per­form for your dig­i­tal KPIs.

Now most com­pa­nies are not mea­sur­ing their AdWords cam­paigns down to the key­word level in Adobe Ana­lyt­ics. To get insights at the more gran­u­lar key­word level, you would need a unique track­ing code for each exact match phrase, which isn’t fea­si­ble or rec­om­mended when com­pa­nies are bid­ding on hun­dreds of thou­sands or even mil­lions of key­words. While I don’t feel the sting is as painful as los­ing organic search terms last Sep­tem­ber, it still means mar­ket­ing orga­ni­za­tions can’t be as pre­cise or effi­cient with their paid search spend as they were in the past.

Note: If you’re an Adobe Media Opti­mizer (AMO) cus­tomer, you will still be able to access reports for key­words you’re bid­ding on within AdWords. A tar­geted key­word asso­ci­ated with a par­tic­u­lar paid search ad is dif­fer­ent than the actual search query term that an indi­vid­ual types into Google to trig­ger the AdWord ad. For exam­ple, some­one might search for “dog sham­poo” (search query term) and click on my paid search ad for “sham­poo” (tar­geted key­word). Only the search query terms reports (Search Key­words – Paid/All reports) will be affected by “Key­word Unavail­able”, not the tar­geted key­word reports from your AMO inte­gra­tion with Analytics.

A final eulogy for the Search Key­words Reports

As I reflect on the recent changes to search key­words track­ing, I feel as though we’ve lost an effec­tive tool in our dig­i­tal ana­lyt­ics tool­box. I’ll use a car anal­ogy to help explain how I feel. Back when I was a poor MBA stu­dent in busi­ness school, I pur­chased a used 1994 Honda Accord. It ended up being a great car and lasted many years beyond my MBA grad­u­a­tion. How­ever, one year it started hav­ing more and more seri­ous issues. I made the dif­fi­cult deci­sion to let it go. To this day, I still have fond mem­o­ries of that trusty sedan and the mileage it gave my family.

For the past sev­eral years as dig­i­tal ana­lysts, we have been dri­ving an equally reli­able vehi­cle that has given us lots of ana­lyt­ics mileage. Indeed, search key­word data has been a main­stay of web ana­lyt­ics report­ing and analy­sis since our industry’s incep­tion. It gave us deeper insights into the intent of our vis­i­tors so we could fig­ure out what they were look­ing for when they arrived on our web­sites. In most cases the key­word data was highly action­able as we could take quick action by adjust­ing our bid­ding strat­egy, ad con­tent, land­ing pages, and nav­i­ga­tion options.

In 2011, we expe­ri­enced our first hic­cup when Google announced it would hide search queries from indi­vid­u­als who were signed into Google. Even though Google assured us the impact would be lim­ited, many of us started to hear a sub­tle but irreg­u­lar tick­ing sound in the search key­word engine. It also gave us a scare as we sud­denly real­ized how depen­dent we were on search engines for their search query data. When Google stripped the organic search terms last year, it rep­re­sented the first major mal­func­tion in our search key­word reports as the dreaded Key­words Unavail­able became more pervasive.

Although Google’s most recent move doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean the end of ana­lyz­ing search key­word data, it does mark the end of an era. Whereas pre­vi­ously you might have relied on key­word data for dif­fer­ent seg­ments or analy­ses on a reg­u­lar basis, it will now be rel­e­gated to occa­sional usage—more based out of hope than actual util­ity (espe­cially when more search engines sim­ply repli­cate what Google is doing). With a grow­ing abun­dance of dig­i­tal data to ana­lyze, it’s a shame to see some­thing use­ful like key­word data removed from our ana­lyst toolbox.

No eulogy is com­plete with­out a humor­ous story or mem­ory. When I was an MBA intern at Lands’ End in 2003, I remem­ber encoun­ter­ing some inter­est­ing paid search phrases as I was ana­lyz­ing AdWords cam­paigns for its B2B cloth­ing divi­sion. For instance, “school uni­forms” had a decent con­ver­sion rate but in con­trast “sexy school uni­form” didn’t con­vert very well. I found it fas­ci­nat­ing how just one addi­tional word could com­pletely change the intent or pur­pose of the visitor.

Over the years, I would esti­mate that keyword-related analy­ses (like my sim­ple exam­ple) across our Adobe Ana­lyt­ics cus­tomer base have led to mil­lions of dol­lars in cost sav­ings and incre­men­tal rev­enue. On behalf of all dig­i­tal ana­lysts and data-driven mar­keters, I’d like to salute search key­words for your many years of ser­vice. Although you’ll be sorely missed, I’m con­fi­dent we in the dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing com­mu­nity will find cre­ative and inno­v­a­tive ways to over­come your loss. In lov­ing mem­ory, Brent Dykes.

Feel free to share your favorite key­word mem­o­ries in the com­ments sec­tion below.

13 comments
jromanrock
jromanrock

I could be being silly here but can you not still configure an integration that would solve this using Classifications and sFTP? 


I have not done this personally just thought that it might be possible using CID as the key to link the data.

lojmann
lojmann

I completely agrees with Morten Busk, Adobe must add the integration allowing all clients, AMO or not, to see paid search keywords in reports.

mannbarry2
mannbarry2

So we have SQ (search query) and KW (bid term). Lets say you are bidding on "CBT" in the UK. That can mean "Cognitive Behavioural Therapy" or "Compulsory Basic Training" (for Junior Motorbikes). You bid (broad matched) on "CBT". SQ's are "CBT Spiders" ; "CBT Agrophobia" and "CBT Motorbike". All 3 show inventory. You set s.campaign by key value pair to "g_cbt_b" (google, cbt, broad match). KW is "CBT". If you stopped broad matching and went for keyword matching only g_cbt%spiders_p (phrase), you would get all the SQ back by arrangement. However this is impractical and does not make sense. Despite this, it is what an increasing panoply of companies in the ecosystem can to be suggesting, and my Linked in is non-stop.


Question: are SQ's available via the Adwords API ? 

AbhijeetKotwal
AbhijeetKotwal

Marketers and Brands shouldn't dance to the tunes of any 'giant' search engine! One should have a independent content strategy, brand promise, usability, accessibility of the content and other such parameters while developing their digital assets and campaigns. 

mannbarry2
mannbarry2

@JasonEgan I agree completely. Now trafficking standards  and marketing accounting roles are even more important. Its the broadmatch keywords that are most affected.

JasonEgan
JasonEgan

Well, at least we get to still use query parameters in the URL. Maybe this will force a lot of people to adhere to better standards for their tracking codes in the future.

jglaysher
jglaysher

Will this apply to Google Analytics Premium (GAP)?

jstans
jstans

The query will be hidden, but utm parameters won't be affected. Copying utm_term into an evar won't give you the specific query, but will give you the keyword that they query matched at least.

jaredww
jaredww

My belief is that Google is inherently evil.  Says the guy with the Gmail account.

analyticshero
analyticshero

@jstans Correct. Campaign code parameters are a part of the landing page URL and aren't stripped out by Google. But it is important to note that the targeted keyword associated with a paid ad can be very different than the actual search query term. For example, even though I'm targeting the keyword "popcorn" I could get various search queries for that keyword (e.g., "popcorn sucks", "popcorn popper", "how to remove popcorn kernel from teeth") with very different conversion rates. (sigh)