News sites increasingly kept in the dark as Google hides incoming search terms


A sizable percentage of inbound search terms are hidden from publishers now that Google encrypts searches by default when users are logged in to and Firefox and Chrome use encrypted search in their toolbars.

When Google announced the change in October, the company predicted that the change would affect less than 10 percent of searchers. Adtrak writes that the figure is much higher:

Figures reiterated quite often on blogs, forums and in tweets suggest that some 20% of their keyword traffic is hidden behind secure search (when a person is signed into their Google account and searching the web).

I checked’s analytics: Keywords were hidden in 29 percent of searches in April. That’s up from 22.5 percent in November, shortly after the change was made. Now “(not provided)” makes up the largest category of search terms, dwarfing the second place term: Poynter. Overall, 6 percent of inbound traffic now comes from a black box.

Besides Google, Firefox and Chrome now default to secure search in their toolbars. When you combine Google’s share of the search market with Firefox and Chrome’s share of the browser market, about 26 percent of searches will be encrypted, not including those logged in to Google, according to Practical eCommerce.

Adtrak’s take:

The question is, could your business afford to not know what 20% – 40% were searching for, when they use the world’s most popular search engine to find a product, or a service?

This poses challenges for people trying to assess whether their content is in sync with potential readers, but it also can hide potential story leads. Laura Amico of Homicide Watch D.C., uses incoming search terms as clues for recent murders. She described in a Knight News Challenge proposal how this enables her to beat the competition:

When people land on, we see their search terms in our site analytics. When we see a name we don’t recognize, we run it through Twitter and Facebook searches, where we usually find a profile filling up with RIP messages. We follow these sources and report the story out of the information they are sharing. This means we often have an ID long before police put out an official statement. When other news organizations are rewriting that press release, we have a rich profile with comments from friends and family.

Amico and her husband Chris sought funding to build software to enable searching and filtering of search terms, but the proposal didn’t make it to the second round.

Chris Amico told me by email that “(not provided)” is the second-highest search query for the website in the last month. He said encrypted searches probably affect Laura’s reporting, “but it’s hard to say, because ‘(not provided)’ is a black box. … At the very least, it’s frustrating because we don’t know what we’re missing.” || Related:2011: The Year Google & Bing Took Away From SEOs & Publishers (Search Engine Land) |
Google “Search Plus Your World” To Launch Beyond US? Likely, As Secure Search Set To Expand (Search Engine Land)

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  • Dan Thornton

    I’m not as convinced it’s a good thing – personally I would prefer to be able to tell what’s happening on a page level as then I can improve those pages, rather than site wide guesswork.
    But all we can do is work with what we get…

  • Joseph Sanchez

    seeing 50% of search “not provided” from organic 

  • Thilak Rao

     Exactly, and now you also have the ability to pull Google Webmaster Tools Search Query Data into Google Analytics. Encrypted search is a good thing, I don’t see a reason why we online marketers should worry!

  • Dan Thornton

      It is possible to still get search terms via Google Webmaster Tools for a set period of days, which should still show those people coming via encrypted https search. The only difference is that you’ll only see what brought people to the site as a whole, rather than all terms for a specific page, which should make much difference in this particular case.

  • Ryan Burnsworth

    It is very disappointing when we look through our analytics for insights into what brough visitors to our sites, and we get (not provided) or (not set).  Urrrggghhh. 
    This is a great post with some awesome stats.
    Thanks for the info.