Over the last few years, Google has taken a series of actions that limit SEO reporting for lead generation. In this article, I’d like to share important analytics insights we’ve made over this time — insights that indicate SEO data for lead generation is becoming increasingly unreliable.
The Critical Data We Need from Google
To properly report on SEO progress, we need four critical pieces of data from Google Analytics: keywords, rankings, traffic and leads. In each of these areas, we see several deficiencies.
1. Keyword Reporting
In 2011, Google started hiding keyword data from Google Analytics; specifically, what keyword query brought each organic search visitor to a website. A tracking website, (Not Provided) Count, uses tracking data from 60 websites indicating that more than 78 percent of keywords in Google Analytics are “not provided” as of this writing. Our client data shows a much higher percentage.
Google explains the limitation on SEO keyword reporting as a necessary step in providing more privacy to its users. This explanation, however, has been poorly received within the SEO community, since keyword reporting is still available for AdWords customers. It seems to many that protecting user privacy takes a back seat to revenue collection in Google’s business priorities.
In any event, speculation abounds as to how Google’s plans for keyword reporting will unfold. Some believe Google will eventually limit keyword reporting for paid search, while others believe Google will find a way to reverse course and again provide keyword data for SEO.
Our client data and research does not suggest any reversal in trend at this point:
- While we still see some organic keyword data come from Google’s referral URL, it is usually limited to rare instances of Android search apps and other search tools, which have yet to be updated to hide the keywords.
- While there are many blog posts and tools that claim to unlock or unhide your keyword data, they simply aren’t true. Google holds all of the cards in this game and when it chooses to move to keywords that aren’t provided, everyone is on the same playing field.
The next best thing to having keyword level data from Google Analytics is to understand your landing page behavior. Since you know what keywords you are optimizing your landing pages for, you can draw a relationship between your keyword strategy and landing page activity data.
2. Rankings Reporting
Several factors that go into Google ranking data cause results to be in continuous flux, including universal search, personalization based on search history, location, and other variables. We have written about these ranking issues at length elsewhere on the Lead Generation Insights blog. The bottom line is this: Due to the fundamental nature of Google’s search engine design, rankings are relative, and cannot be used as an absolute indicator of SEO campaign performance.
To make matters worse, we see several issues that make ranking reporting, which is imprecise to begin with, even more fuzzy:
- Google Search Console and Google Analytics provide average ranking position data. You would think getting ranking data strategy from Google would be the best source. However:
- You can only obtain a small percent of your targeted keywords. Say you have 1,000 keywords in your keyword strategy — you will be lucky to see 100 of them in these reports.
- All data is an average, due to the constant flux of result positions for different searchers.
- The data reported in Google Search Console is a sliding window of data over an undocumented data range; one day you could look at the report and see your keyword’s ranking data and the next day it could be gone.
- While rankings can still provide an early signal about increases or decreases on the SERPs, the data from Google is very spotty.
- Other tools like HubSpot, Moz and Authority Labs provide ranking data from scraped Google result pages. However, data from these tools can be inaccurate and also spotty. When comparing the results from these tools against Google’s ranking data, you will see discrepancies that are sometimes very large.
The only solution here is to use both data from Google and one of these providers, compare the results against the two (where possible), and look for a trending increase in rank.
3. Traffic Reporting
Like all analytics platforms, in order to properly report on Organic Search traffic, Google Analytics uses a default search engine list.
When a visitor lands on a website with a Google Analytics tracking code, the referral URL is examined. If the visitor came from a website whose domain is on this list, Google Analytics buckets that visitor under the organic search source. If the domain isn’t on the list, it is bucketed as a Referral source.
Here are a few ways that Google Analytics has flawed traffic tracking when it comes to SEO:
- If you examine Google’s default search engine list, you will see that it is very outdated (see the next point below) and even includes domains that redirect to other sites and domains that are no longer active Web search engines. Here are a few:
- There are hundreds of search engines across the world, and Google’s default search engine list has become very outdated over the years. Here is a huge list of search engines that we have collected over the years. For every visitor that comes from a search engine domain that Google doesn’t have on its list, all of this traffic will not count as Organic Search and instead be listed under the Referral source in Google Analytics.
One other strange issue that we have noticed in Google Analytics is that its default search engine list states “All Google Search domains (e.g. www.google.com, www.google.co.uk, etc).”
However, we see traffic from some international Google properties being bucketed under the Referral source in Google Analytics when they should be under organic search. This issue skews traffic data and reporting:
3. Leads Reporting
Google Analytics doesn’t have the ability to report on leads. Instead, it provides the ability to set up Goal Tracking, which only tracks form submissions and provides a simple count of how many forms were submitted. There is no way in Google Analytics to see the data from those form submissions or know if each form submission was a sales lead.
On top of this, Google Analytics provides no way to track leads that come in over the phone. The only way to get this data is through a third-party phone tracking vendor that integrates with Google Analytics. However, even if you have this setup, you are back to a simple count of phone calls and have no idea if each call was a true sales lead.
Furthermore, similar to the traffic tracking issues above, Google Analytics Goal Tracking runs off the same referral URL check against its default search engine list. Thus, if Google is missing a search engine on its list, the goal tracking will result in a Referral source instead of an Organic Search source.
Other Issues Affecting Tracking
Referred Traffic From Off-Site SEO ContentSince SEO campaigns create content that links to websites, there are auxiliary benefits of increased referral traffic from new sources. Being able to track the traffic and leads from these Referral sources can mean reporting some of these auxiliary benefits to clients.
The HTTP to HTTPS ShiftOne other major issue that is happening today is Google’s big push for the entire Internet to move to a secure site running on HTTPS instead of HTTP.
As more and more websites make this switch, traffic and goal data in Google Analytics will become increasingly inaccurate. Today, the huge majority of websites run on HTTP, but Google has started global initiatives to reward sites that move to HTTPS. As more sites move to HTTPS, we will start seeing more traffic and goals bucketed under the Direct source. Any site running on HTTPS that links to an HTTP site will result in that traffic showing as Direct in Google Analytics instead of Referral. Also, the website that sent the traffic will not be available. You can read more about this here.
Conclusion: Emphasize Lead Reporting
If Google reverses direction and adds clarity and completeness to its organic search reporting, Internet marketing companies will be able to provide clients with far more reliable and definitive data and analysis than what can be produced currently.
However, our view is that Google will not be able to reverse direction, or at least reverse it completely. Universal search and personalization are not going away. Privacy concerns figure to grow, not go away. Finally, let’s face facts: Google is a for-profit enterprise, and as such has a built-in incentive to reward advertisers and attract new ones by providing them with precise data and limiting data transparency for organic search purposes.
If this is the case, Internet marketing companies can compensate by putting greater emphasis on lead reporting. Leads, after all, are the primary goal of every lead generation campaign, and it has always been a reporting weakness to ignore, under report, or erroneously report lead generation data. In the end, clients will not particularly care about keywords, rankings and traffic — if they are satisfied their SEO investment is paying off in the form of sales leads.