Understanding “Not Set,” “Not Provided,” and “Content Targeting” in Google Analytics

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work with customers interpreting Google Analytics (GA) data. A frequent confusion surrounds the appearance of “not set,” “not provided,” and “content targeting” in the list of keywords provided by GA. Especially with recent GA changes, these keywords often show up for a very significant percentage of visits.

Some Terminology

  • Keyword: The search terms used to locate content on a search engine.
  • Organic Search: A “normal” Google search in which the user clicks on non-paid search results relevant to his or her keywords.
  • Paid Search: A Google search in which a user clicks on a keyword-targeted ad which is paid for by a Google AdWords campaign.
  • Analytics: Google Analytics (GA), website statistics and metrics.
  • AdWords: Google AdWords (AW), pay-per-click advertising.

“Not Provided”

This phrase will show up in GA results if Google is “hiding” the keywords used in an organic search. This happens when a user is logged into his or her Google account while performing a search. Google claims to hide the keywords for the privacy of the user.

Example: If I’m logged into my Google account and search “atomic object spin” to locate and visit Atomic’s blog, none of these organic search keywords will be passed to our GA account. My visit will show up with the “Not Provided” keyword.

If a visit comes not from organic search, but paid search, then the keyword will be displayed, even if the user is logged into his or her Google account.

Example: If I’m logged into my Google account, search for “atomic object spin,” and click on an AdWords ad (not an organic search result) created as part of an AdWords campaign, my visit will show up in GA with the actual keywords “atomic object spin.”

“Not Set”

This phrase will show up for three different reasons:

  1. If the visit is a case of “direct traffic”: the user clicks on no links, and just types in (or copies and pastes) a URL.

Example: I just type in “spin.atomicobject.com” in my browser’s address bar.

  1. If the visit is a case of “referral traffic”: the user clicks on a link on another site (such as a blog, forum, or aggregator), but not from a search engine.

Example: I click on a link to a “spin.atomicobject.com” post on Twitter.

  1. If the visit is a case of paid traffic for a Google AdWords account that is not linked to the current GA account.

Example: I search for “atomic object spin” on Google, and click on an AdWords ad. However, my current GA account is not linked to the Google AdWords account which manages the ad’s campaign.

This situation happens most often when an organization has multiple AdWords accounts that all create campaigns for the same website. A GA account can only be associated with a single Google AdWords account. If a campaign that generates the visit belongs to an AdWords account which isn’t linked to the given GA account, the visit will show up with the keyword “not set”.

Example: An organization has one GA account (“corporate”), and two Google AdWords accounts (“corporate” and “branch”). The “corporate” Analytics and AdWords accounts are linked, but the “branch” AdWords account is not. However, both “corporate” and “branch” AdWords accounts are used to create ads for the website. If an ad belonging to a campaign from the “branch” AdWords account is clicked from a search, the visit will show up in the “corporate” Analytics account as “not set”.

“Content Targeting”

This keyword will show up for visits generated by ads that are not related to a user search, but which appear on Google’s Display Network. These are the ads which you will often see when visiting other websites, on your mobile phone, or in online videos. They are associated with the Google AdWords account that owns the campaign, but do not rely on any specific user search.

Example: If I visit Facebook, and click on one of the numerous “linux hosting” ads which show up on the right-side of my screen, my visit to that particular website would list a keyword of “content targeting” in their GA account.

So when do real keywords show up?

With all of these meta-keywords, it’s helpful to review under what conditions real keywords do show up:

  1. Organic search visits when a user is _not_ logged into his or her Google account.
  2. Organic search visits from other search engines.
  3. Visits from paid search when the AdWords campaign owning the clicked ad is linked to the Analytics account being used.


  • Caitlin says:

    Very helpful piece, thanks so much.

  • thanks for clearing that up. very helpful!

  • Liam O'Dowd says:

    I’ve been in digital marketing for years now and I’ve never come across the content targeting until recently on a new client account I’ve just inherited!

    Thanks for this blog post, very clear and helpful.

  • Kicki says:

    Very clarifying on “not set” – thanks!

  • Neha says:

    But then , how do I see “(content targeting)” under my Paid keywords? I am not running any Display Ads .


    • Trish says:

      Neha, text ads can serve text ads in areas other than search results and in spaces usually required for image ads. There is some truth to the idea that text ads in these image spaces can be effective.

  • ok this is the most clearly written examples of the three mysterious phrases , I checked the meaning on google website and failed to understand the actual meaning, but your examples nailed it

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