Google Reviewing “Not Provided,” Withholding Keywords From Organic But Not Paid Search Clicks


When Google moved to secure search in October 2011, it was a blow to publishers, who began losing data about the search terms used to reach their sites. It also opened Google up to claims of hypocrisy, in that advertisers continued to receive the terms. Now, Google says it’s reexamining the issue and seeking a better solution.

Will clicks on non-paid listings go back to passing along search term data again? Will ad clicks have that withheld? Google didn’t say either way, and there could be other possibilities, as well.

Google Looking For Solution

The news came out of a keynote conversation with Google search chief Amit Singhal yesterday at our SMX West conference. I raised the issue of “not provided,” as it’s known as a short-hand term search marketers and many publishers in general.

I wasn’t really expecting much of an answer — in fact, I’ve written so much about the topic, with relatively little response from Google about the perceived inequities and hypocrisy, that I’ve felt like a broken record. I certainly got surprised. Singhal said:

Over a period of time, we [Google's search and ad sides] have been looking at this issue…. we’re also hearing from our users that they would want their searches to be secure … it’s really important to the users. We really like the way things have gone on the organic side of search.

I have nothing to announce right now, but in the coming weeks and months as [we] find the right solution, expect something to come out.

Here’s the complete segment. Note that references to “Sridhar” are about Sridhar Ramaswamy, who oversees Google’s ads.


Paid Clicks To Lose Terms? Organic Clicks To Get Them Back?

Google’s looking for a solution?” What’s that mean! After the talk, I saw people tweeting speculation that paid clicks might get terms withheld:

Or that organic clicks might get search terms back:


Pondering The Possibilities

Which way will it go? Google won’t say, and it could even be that it might go another way. Let’s look at the possibilities, then do some educated guessing. I see it as perhaps up to five things:

  • Google decides to make no change
  • Clicks may pass only to sites that run secure servers
  • Google makes all organic click data available through Google Webmaster Tools
  • Organic clicks have terms restored
  • Paid clicks have terms withheld

The first is easiest — Google might do a review of everything and decide, in the end, it’s happy with how things are going. I think that’s unlikely, but it is possible.

Clicks For Secure Servers?

Another solution would be that Google could restore search term data to publishers who run secure sites. Before Google’s change, when someone clicked on a listing at Google, information about the search term they used to find that listing passed “in the clear” and across the web to the publisher. The publisher would know exactly how they were located.

After Google’s change, terms on unpaid or “organic” listings were withheld. The chief reason for this was that Google seemed to worry that sending a stream of terms in the clear could cause someone to “eavesdrop” on a string of searches someone was doing, which could build a revealing profile about them.

Google continued to send terms in the clear for ad click and never really gave a reasonable explanation why. It also continued to allow actual search terms to be obtained by publishers, for up to 90 days, through its Google Webmaster Tools area.

To me, all this indicated that Google didn’t view individual searches on their own being exposed as much of a privacy issue. So securing ad clicks wasn’t so pressing, since relatively few people click on ads. It’s hard to get a profile just off that data (though over time, even that could be revealing). The Questions Google Refuses To Answer About Search Privacy is my story from last year that explores all this more.

But if the goal really was to prevent eavesdropping, then providing search term data only to sites that run secure servers is a great solution. It would restore the data flow to publishers, yet a third-party couldn’t easily eavesdrop on the stream of searches from a particular person. It would also have the side benefit of making the entire web more secure.

Another story I wrote last year explains all this more: How Google could have made the Web secure and failed — again. Maybe that’s a solution Google will go to, as it’s doing this review.

Make All Organic Terms Available In Webmaster Tools?

As mentioned, Google does allow publishers to see how people have reached their sites though its Google Webmaster Tools system. The problem is, that system shows a limited amount of data. You only get the top 2,000 terms (which is a lot, actually) and back for 90 days (which is a real problem, because historic trend data is lost).

Last September, Google announced that it would extend query data in Google Webmaster Tools from 90 days to one year. Since then, we’ve been waiting. This could be another solution — that Google finally delivers on its promise and perhaps goes even better, and makes all search term data it has available for any site available with no limitations.

Organic Terms Passed Via Clicks Again?

Google could also go back to the old system, where a click on an unpaid link once again transmits the search term in the clear to publishers. Personally, I think this is unlikely.

Go back to what Singhal said — Google users find it important to have their searches secure, and that likes how things have gone with the withholding of organic clicks. That doesn’t seem to indicate going back to the old system is likely.

A tweet from the head of Google’s web spam team Matt Cutts yesterday also seems to support this:

Paid Search Terms To Be Withheld

That leaves the last possibility — that clicks on paid links will have terms withheld, just like their unpaid counterparts.

That’s move that would help solve the hypocrisy problem, that Google’s fine with making searches secure except where it might impact its bottom line, something that’s been an issue since this all began. See also:

It also seems the most likely, again going off what Singhal said, that there are discussions with the ad side. There’s no reason to have discussions with the ad side unless you’re pondering a change that’s going to impact the ad clicks. Nor was that the only mention of talking with the ad side, as you can hear in the entire segment from the show.

Whether this indeed will happen remains to be seen. If it does happen, it’s super important to note that advertisers would continue to get search terms in the other way they always have, through the AdWords system itself. They wouldn’t go “blind,” though not receiving terms directly to their sites would pose challenges for them in other ways.

Google said to expect something in “weeks to months,” so stay tuned. Also, I’m still at our show and writing this fairly quickly during a break, so please forgive any typos. I’ll catch back up to correct any that may have slipped through.