No More Referring Keyword Data in Google Analytics

By Melanie Phung, PBS Digital Director of New Media

Google recently made an announcement that they will no longer pass any keyword referral information, via browsers, for organic search traffic.  As a result, you will no longer see organic keyword referrer information from Google in your analytics reports.

This expands on the decision Google made two years ago to stop passing referrer information for logged in users, which now affects all organic traffic from this source. Keyword information will still be available from other search engines and your paid search (PPC) campaigns, but these sources are likely a negligible portion of your search traffic. Because these other sources are such a small driver of search traffic, you can't extrapolate any meaningful insights from the remaining data.

What This Means
  • You will no longer be able to do keyword-specific analysis of your traffic.
  • You can't track "non-branded keyword referrers" as a KPI. You'll want to define a different KPI to evaluate how well you're driving incremental organic search traffic.

What This Does NOT Mean
  • … that search engine traffic is no longer important.
  • … that you can stop thinking about how to make your content relevant to search engine users.
  • … that you need to switch analytics providers. The issue is with how Google Search passes data, not how any individual analytics program works.

What To Do Now

Shift the analytics focus: Instead of looking at what terms are driving traffic, look at your landing pages. Use information about what content people are finding from their searches to inform your SEO strategy.
Revise your KPIs to include things that are still trackable: I recommend revising the "non-branded keywords" KPI to look at landing page performance in a way that gets at the same thing (e.g., how well are we doing at driving organic traffic to specific pieces of non-branded content). For example: "# of pages driving >X amount of visits" or "# of landing page visits that went to priority content sections". Focus your improvements on increasing the visibility of pages with a lot of traffic/strategic potential and decreasing your bounce rates.

Use other reporting tools: You can still find and download limited keyword data in Google Webmaster Tools. By combining info from GWT about keyword impressions, average rank position, and click-through rates, you can still identify and prioritize opportunities for improving your traffic. Continue to use keyword research tools to identify opportunities for matching your content to pockets of strong search demand.
Use landing page reports, landing page performance, custom segments and/or path analysis in Google Analytics to see what content resonates well with users who come from organic search and optimize accordingly.

Internal site search query data hasn't gone away, so you should continue to look at what your visitors search for once they've hit your site. Use that information to inform your keyword strategy. If you know that your users are looking for particular content on your site, it makes sense to try to gain more visibility in general search engines for those same topics.

Stay the course: As mentioned previously, this change in how keyword data is reported does not negate the need for optimizing your content. Continue conducting keyword research, thinking about how to align your copy with the search phrases most likely to drive impressions and click-throughs, and optimizing your pages and sites accordingly.

More resources
Producer Exchange, November 2011: Google Stops Passing Referrers for Logged-In Searches… What "(not provided)" Means
(This post is from 2011 when (not provided) was a smaller percentage of traffic, but the same lessons apply.)
RKG: A World Without Search Query Data in Web Analytics  Whiteboard Tuesday - What Should Marketers Do About (Not Provided)
TopRank Blog: What Google's Omission of Organic Keyword Data Means for Online Marketers
Econsultancy: Eight Alternatives and Workarounds for missing (not provided) data
If you have any questions about this change or SEO in general, please do not hesitate to reach out to your program manager or me.