Google analytics tip: ‘not set’ vs. ‘not provided’

WOW-10-kw-notKeywords are a great tool for diagnosing the health of your website traffic, regardless of whether those keywords are drawn from organic search, paid search, or even your own internal site search (for more information on analyzing internal search results, see our recent post, Google Analytics tip: taking a closer look at internal site search).

Google Analytics offers myriad ways to see which keywords are drawing which type of traffic. Keyword sections can be found under organic search and paid search, and the keyword variable can be applied as a secondary dimension to almost any report in Google Analytics!

If you’ve looked at your keyword list in the last year or so, you may have run across two unusual keywords: (not set) and (not provided). For many of you, these may even be your most popular keywords – by far.

If that seems odd to you, don’t worry. Despite what you may be thinking, your customers aren’t going to search engines and typing in the exact words “(not set)” or “(not provided),” parentheses and all! But what are they doing? How are these specific keywords sending visitors to your site when you’ve done nothing to attract them? Let’s take a closer look.

Not set

The ‘keyword’ (not set) simply identifies traffic that doesn’t arrive via a particular keyword and hence may not come via any search at all. This includes traffic coming from email, referral sites, or even things like Google Images. The latter might be confusing, but it helps to know that visitors coming from Google Images and Google Maps are classified under referrals with the source, not organic search. Because keywords are automatically set for search traffic, the (not set) keyword will never appear in your organic Search reports, so it is likely something you won’t have to worry about. Don’t consider this one in light of keyword performance!

Not provided

(Not provided), however, presents more of a conundrum. The keyword (not provided) describes organic searches that are being hidden from your view, to provide a measure of privacy for users. In 2011, Google began encrypting results from SSL searches (secure searches from users who are logged in to their Google Accounts or using the Firefox search bar). Their explanation for the change:

“As search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver…This change encrypts your search queries and Google’s results page. This is especially important when you’re using an unsecured Internet connection, such as a WiFi hotspot in an Internet café.”

What does this mean? Put simply, any keywords searched organically by users who are logged into their Google Accounts (Gmail, Calendar, Apps, etc) will show up in your Analytics reports as (not provided), since their content is being withheld by the search giant itself. The keyword’s Medium will still be accurately reported as ‘organic’ search, but the actual keyword text will no longer be visible to you. If this sounds big, it is. While Google initially predicted this change would only affect 10% of queries, some companies have reported seeing shifts of up to 50% or more!

While this doesn’t affect paid search efforts, losing half of your organic keyword data is a pretty substantial change, and one that many aren’t too thrilled about. From a marketing standpoint, the shift to (not provided) has made our jobs slightly trickier. However, marketers have come up with a few workarounds that can help, by analyzing things like landing page in conjunction with the (not provided) keywords that direct users there.

Regardless of whether or not you can ‘guess’ at the content of these keywords, however, your task is clear: now that we’ve lost the ability to report or react to the content of these keyword searches, it’s become all the more important to pay close attention to the keywords you are able to see.

The takeaways

We hope this helps clear up any questions you may have about the appearance of (not set) and (not provided) in your keyword lists! Since these won’t be disappearing any time soon, it’s helpful to know what you can and cannot discount in your analysis. Remember, if you want to remove these from the list so you can get a better look at the content of actual keywords, you can always exclude multiple keywords using Regular Expressions. Don’t discount these unidentified keywords in your traffic analyses, however – after all, you earned those visits fair and square!