A Hidden Evil of Google Plus

In July of 2011, Google, the search behemoth, decided to launch a social media platform called Google Plus. This was not the first attempt on Google’s part to join the social media fray. Google Wave and Google Buzz had created some interest for a brief while, but they fizzled out just as quickly. Google Plus launched in a different manner. Google handed out special invites to technology elites who also had a lot of pull in the online world. Those people liked what they say, and by the time Google Plus opened to anyone who wanted to start an account, there was already a lot of momentum behind the platform.

One of the issues that people immediately verbalized was the privacy concerns that platforms like Facebook have encountered. Because Google is using Google Plus as a centralized location that can integrate with a user’s Gmail account, YouTube account, and other Google services, privacy was top of mind for many people weighing the pros and cons of the new platform. To help stave off these concerns, Google created a way to protest your browsing history while you are logged in to Google Plus. You do get a warning that keeping your browsing history allows for better search – Google can track what kinds of results you like and deliver better, customized results faster. Of course, this also enables Google to deliver more targeted ads to you, which is the real point. But you can also opt to turn your browsing history off in Google so that your searches are kept private. You can see this part of the account options in the screen capture below.

If you’re interested in at least maintaining the illusion that Google doesn’t know everything about you, this option can seem comforting. However, if you are a business person, there’s something else you need to know about this seemingly unimportant little tweak in Google account settings.

The Analytics Factor

One of the most important reports Google Analytics provides for website owners is what keywords drove traffic to the website. The ramifications of that information can be far-reaching. You can review whether words that you are optimizing as part of your SEO strategy are also showing up as people look for you. You can get clues as to what words you should use more throughout your site and what words you feel are important but that your visitors never use. You can even look through the keywords report to see if a trend in word usage can be tied to an offline tactic like a news release or a print advertisement.

Unfortunately, the new Google Plus privacy setting has had a negative impact on Google Analytics and the keyword report. The screen capture below is of my personal blog analytics keyword report.

What does “not provided” mean? It means that 840 people reached that website while logged into their Google account, and it means they have their browsing history protected behind that privacy option. While Google can tell you that people came to your website, therefore, Google cannot tell you what word or words people searched for in order to reach your website. It’s worth mentioning that “not provided” represents almost 27% of the keyword traffic I can track.

The repercussions for a business website are not hard to draw out from this personal blog example. If 27% of the keywords driving traffic to your site can’t be identified (and that number is likely to grow) you are no longer going to have access to what was once a valuable part of the Google Analytics report.

What can be done?

As of now, we don’t have any good fixes for this problem other than to say that the remainder of the keyword information Google Analytics provides could probably be extrapolated to include the “not provided” results. Your brand name(s) will always be among the most commonly used keywords, so you can still bank on that. For now, we recommend keeping an eye on your Analytics reporting. Monitor whether the “not provided” category continues to increase. Keep an eye on your landing page traffic as that can offer clues as to how people are searching for and finding you. Keep your search engine optimization strategy up-to-date and make sure that you show up on the first page of Google as much as possible for words or phrases that are important to you. Even if you can’t see that those keywords are driving traffic to your site, you can feel confident they are being seen.

Check out your Google Analytics report and tell us what you see. Are you getting a lot of “not provided” results already? We’d like to hear about it!

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lenore-m/2599969114/ via Creative Commons


5 comments on “A Hidden Evil of Google Plus

  1. Data is (not provided) by Google for any logged-in user — http://analytics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/making-search-more-secure-accessing.html. So as I understand it, if you are logged into Gmail or any other Google product, your search data will be hidden. G+ is certainly intended as a platform to suck users into staying logged into Google, but even if G+ ceased to exist, the (not provided) issue would remain as a big obstacle to understanding how people are finding your site. It’s quite a serious problem!

    • Hi Brad!

      Someone posted a similar comment on Facebook – I became familiar with the privacy settings via my G+ account and it seems like Google started promoting the idea of hiding your web history as a response to concerns about G+ in particular. Regardless, as you say, the fact that this information is no longer available to the same extent it was a year is a serious problem.

  2. I believe that @bradshorr is right – people who are logged into Google products have their search data hidden. But in that case, Google is playing two groups of important constituents against each other: users of search and users of analytics (some of whom overlap).

    It’s theoretically a privacy benefit to users to have their search data hidden, and therefore can be a selling point for Google to encourage people to log into its products, but this has a major negative impact on analytics data and the people who use it. Meanwhile, if the analytics data is hamstrung, what is anyone’s impetus to use it?

    • Hi Jessica –

      Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Someone on Facebook hypothesized that this will pave the way to Google introducing a more premium version of Analytics where you can dig deeper into the “not provided” category. I’m not sure that will go over well, however. Part of the appeal of Google Analytics has always been its price 🙂

  3. […] article originally appeared on Marketing Wisdom for the 21st Century and has been republished with […]

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