There have been a lot of changes throughout 2012 which has affected the reporting of organic traffic in Google Analytics (and other stats tracking software). It’s becoming easier and easier to look at organic traffic reports and see declines or slowed growth; especially over the last quarter of 2012.
So, what’s causing this? Was it a poor year? Have your results gone down? Are less people searching for your top keywords?
Of course, these are all possibilities. However, we also have to consider how the tracking and reporting of organic search is changing. For those of you unaware of these changes, this post will act as a starting point to understanding what is happening.
First, a brief history of organic tracking
Before we delve into what exactly is changing and how this affects you, it’s first worthwhile to establish a little bit of history to add perspective to things.
Prior to the last quarter of 2011, organic search traffic was recorded unimpeded by most statistic programs. The way these programs track this information is simple, but fairly technical.
To put things simply, when you browse from page to page on the internet, your browser will pass some information across. This usually includes things like what browser you’re using, the last page you were on, etc.
This information is used by tracking programs to see where the visitor came from, what keywords they use, etc. In reality, it’s a little more complicated than this, but all we need to know is that this information exists and is used by programs like Google Analytics.
Starting at the end of 2011, Google decided that for privacy reasons, it would hide some of the information within this data for users who are logged in to a Google account when performing a search. At the time, it was predicted this would only affect a small percentage of search queries... however; this was not the case at all.
The rise of ‘not provided’ keywords
This was the first major change to how organic search traffic was being reported. Any search that was performed by a logged in user would appear as ‘not provided’ in Google Analytics (and perhaps something similar in any other stats program).
What this meant is that you cannot see which keyword the visitor used in search to find your site.
Originally, this change only applied when you performed a search while logged into a Google account. However, during 2012 other updates have occurred which have increased the likeliness of keywords not being recorded.
One of these changes is that the Firefox browser will now encrypt any search through Google automatically, as long as it’s performed using the built in search bar.
This has led to a surge in ‘not provided’ keywords. Unfortunately, there is yet more bad news for those of us who want to monitor search keywords: Google Chrome is set to encrypt search traffic by default too. This will likely propel ‘not provided’ numbers much higher.
Why are vendors suddenly doing this? Well, they claim it’s to protect the privacy of their users. Whether this is accurate is a whole different debate, so we won’t elaborate further in this post.
To visibly demonstrate the effects ‘not provided’ keywords are having, we have collated some data from a sample of the sites we work with below. This graph shows how the percentage of keywords being counted as ‘not provided’ has grown (by average) throughout 2012:
A huge jump in March and continued growth throughout the year has led to just under 25% of all organic traffic having their exact keyword masked in Analytics.
What does this mean for me?
In practical terms, this means that it’s much harder to see exactly what keywords are sending traffic. To illustrate this, let’s provide an example.
Say you have a set of 10 keywords you actively monitor because they’re important to your business. You want to compare the performance of Q4 2012 against Q4 2011 to see how these keywords have grown.
Because of the growth of ‘not provided’ you could potentially see a 20% decline in the visits your 10 monitored terms have sent, due to these being masked in Analytics.
While this is possible, in reality it’s unlikely your stats are going to be that black and white. However, it’s easy to see how the ‘not provided’ keywords can be affecting the monitoring of your organic traffic. If someone inexperienced is putting together these reports, it’s very easy to paint a black picture of your site’s performance during 2012.
What else is affecting organic traffic?
While the above will affect the figures for individual keywords, it won’t show a decline in overall search. So, if you had a better year for organic traffic in 2012 compared to 2011, you would be able to see this within your Analytics.
Well, that was true until a significant development occurred over the last quarter of 2012. Those who are unprepared for this development could be seeing some disastrous figures for their organic traffic!
Enter Apple and iOS 6
iOS6 was launched in September 2012 with the iPhone 5 and shortly thereafter filtered to older Apple devices. This update included a significant change to how the default Safari browser handled sending information that analytics programs rely on.
Remember the information that the browser keeps when you browse through pages? The one that Analytics programs use to determine the source of traffic? Well by default, Apple has completely encrypted this in iOS6.
That’s nice, but what does it mean? In simple terms, it means that any visit from a search performed through an Apple device using iOS6 will no longer be counted as a search visitor; it will instead be counted as a direct visitor.
If you’re unaware of this, it’s extremely easy to under report your search performance. For example, see below which is a chart of organic traffic per month for Q4 of 2012 compared to 2011 (this is actual data from one of our customers).
First, the yellow line represents organic traffic as reported in Google Analytics from Q4 2011.
The blue line represents the organic traffic as reported in Google Analytics from Q4 2012. These are the unedited total figures from the organic report and suggest there has been a drop year on year, especially in December and January.
The red line represents the Q4 2012 figures corrected with the inclusion of iOS6 devices. Once corrected, the organic traffic comparison looks much better and you can see a big improvement year on year.
As you can clearly see, if you’re only looking at the figures in the organic report in Analytics, you could be scratching your head wondering why your figures are down year on year.
Monitoring your organic traffic
Monitoring your organic search traffic is no longer as simple as checking the organic report in Analytics. You need to use real expertise to determine where the growth is and to get the full picture.
We’ve elaborated on two key factors that are changing how organic search reporting must be conducted. As we move into 2013, there is bound to be more changes and updates like this as search becomes increasingly more complex to track and monitor.
It will therefore become even more important for businesses and individuals to be aware of the search space and the changes occurring if they want accurate reporting, especially if you’re using this data to consider where to use your marketing budgets.
Spiderscope website optimisation
We are experts at website optimisation, specialising in a data analysis approach first. If you would like us to help you, including with understanding your stats and analytics, please don’t hesitate to contact us on 0800 081 1688.