How to Overcome Google’s Paid Search Keyword (Not Provided) update

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Google is known to cause massive stir in the online world with its algorithmic updates. It strives hard to continue to keep its customers engaged and has been exceptionally successful in the process. Google has consistently launched new updates to secure its search environment and deter its critics.

If you could imagine managing the largest search engine in the world is not an easy task. Even harder are the updates and maintenance of the beast. There are mainly two types of changes made to the search algorithm, e.g. macro and micro. Micro updates are small updates to the algorithm made daily to continue optimal performance of Google search. Sometimes these updates could go as high as hundred minor changes if not thousands. Think about this as oil change, air filter change, and tire pressure fix for your car.

[Tool Tip: Mozcat.com, a popular free tool tracks the algorithmic temperature of Google’s search updates. It puts the update data into a neat bar chart and highlights major changes.]

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Source: Mozcast.com – Google algorithm update tracker

Macro updates are major changes to the algorithm and can directly or indirectly impact your online marketing efforts (mainly if Google search is one of your key marketing channels). In last few years, there have been several macro updates to Google’s search algorithm. You may recall Pandas and Penguins and how it changes the search landscape. Large majority of websites lost huge chunk of traffic due to these two updates. The key message was if your content quality is not good, then it’s not worth users time.

Another notable algorithmic change was the Google’s SSL search update. Google announced it will encrypt the search for users who are signed into any Google services, including popular Google docs and Gmail. SSL update protects Google’s customer privacy and provides them with a secure search environment. However, for a search engine optimization (SEO) manager or digital marketing manager this was a nightmare. The entire SEO industry started noticing “not provided” term instead of the actual keyword on their web analytics organic search traffic reports. Google’s SSL update prevented the passing of referral URL keyword string to web analytics tools when customers clicks the Google search links. Interestingly, this update only prevented the passage of keywords with the organic search click data and paid search clicks remained untouched.

This controversial update forced digital marketers to believe Google was driving paid search usage as paid search markers enjoyed full keyword data. After months of protests and worry digital marketers survived the storm by implementing tips and tricks to overcome the SSL search update. Currently, all the keyword data for the organic search is reported as “not provided” on the organic search reports of any web analytics tool.

Since it has been a couple of years since Google has launched this update, marketers were starting to forget about it. It was the business as usual until April 9th 2014, when Google announced they would secure the paid search experience as well. What it means is Google will prevent passing of keyword data to the third party with paid search clicks. With this change, Google has leveled the playing field for both organic search and paid search marketers. Fortunately, paid search marketers still have the upper hand, and we will discuss more on this later in this post. First, let’s examine the recent secure search update and what it exactly does from a technical standpoint.

Here is how the URL string looks like when someone clicks the paid search ad for keyword search “web analytics tools”:

http://www.google.com/aclk?sa=l&ai=Ce_27yoZWU7HyIoukzAG11YCoB9ijh9YEiODB43a-wLC2TggAEAMoA1D82NSL_f____8BYMnWjI3kpKwToAGY9cTUA8gBAaoEIE_QOGEaYGkG8SWWbgf6_tfzAAQK1gJlvw14Lg8d0VAOgAfQirsrkAcD&sig=AOD64_3h688SW68Nnad77iJz-nfpXsEvcA&rct=j&q=web+analytics+tools&ved=0CDsQ0Qw&adurl=https://www.ibm.com/services/forms/signup.do%3Fsource%3Dswg-smartercommerce-program%26S_PKG%3Dov7150%26cmp%3D101K8%26ct%3D101K83OW%26cr%3Dgoogle%26cm%3Dk%26csr%3D101513web_analytics_online_mktg-search%26ccy%3Dus%26ck%3D%2Bweb_%2Banalytics_%2Btools%26cs%3Dbroad%26S_TACT%3D101K83OW%26mkwid%3DsO0H4xEOB-dc_31860642632_43246d30503

Notice the actual searched keyword is provided in the query string “q” parameter. SSL search will prevent the passing of this query string data to third parties, including all web analytics providers. Some of the notable details are:

  • Third party tools, including web analytics applications will not receive the paid search query data
  • AdWords users will continue to have access to keyword data through the “search terms report”
  • AdWords API can be used for automated keywords reporting.

 

Workaround

There are multiple workarounds to the “not provided” challenge and there is no need to panic.

URL Tags: If you are using web analytics providers designated URL parameters to capture keyword data you have no reason to worry. URL tag parameters remain intact during the paid search clicks and are captured by the digital analytics tools.

a. IBM Digital Analytics : IBM Digital analytics uses CM_MMC parameter to capture campaign code clicks, including paid search. The CM_MMC parameter follows a VCPI (vendor, category, placement, item) model.

Here is how you can setup the VCPI tag for your paid search ads:

Headline: Web Analytics Tool

Description1: Industry leading Digital Analytics

Description2: Leader in Forrester Wave

Display URL: www.ibm.com/DigitalAnalytics

Destination URL: http://www-03.ibm.com/software/products/en/digital-analytics?cm_mmc=Google-_-nonbranded-_-broadmatch-_-web-analytics-tools

In this case,

Vendor (is search engine) = Google

Category (keyword type) = Non Branded

Placement (match type) = Broadmatch

Item (actual term) = web analytics tool

The captured keywords data will be displayed in the marketing campaigns report along with the chosen metrics in your IBM Digital Analytics interface.

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IBM Digital Analytics Marketing Campaigns report

b. Google Analytics: Google Analytics uses UTM parameter as a part of its URL builder tool to allow users to tag campaign codes. Similar to IBM’s VCPI parameter users can enter the paid search vendor and keywords details in campaign source, medium and term fields.

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Google URL builder tool

google url builder output

GA users can access the campaign codes report in GA under the Audience section.

c. Adobe Omniture Analytics: Adobe recommends using CMP codes for capturing user specific URL parameters, including paid search keywords. Users can also use any particular parameter name, as long as they populate the s.campaign with the correct parameter name.

Actual URL with the campaign code may look like:

http://www.adobe.com/analytics?cid=thisisyourcampaigncode

JavaScript call will be:

s.campaign=s.getQueryParam(‘cid’);

Adwords Search Terms report: Adwords users will continue to operate normally using Adwords keywords reports and search terms reports. Search terms report can be found by clicking “Details” drop down and then clicking “Search Terms: All”. “Search terms” report shows the actual keywords users searched before clicking the ad whereas the “Keywords” report shows the predefined keywords in the account.

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How to access Adwords Search Terms report

Adwords API: Paid search vendors such as Kenshoo, Marin or Wordstream will continue to receive search query data via Adwords API. Google may update the accessibility of data through API in future but so far there has not been any change.

Hope this helps you get back in the game with you paid search campaign management.

Update: This is the updated version of the blog post originally posted by me at the IBM Smarter Commerce Blog.

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