The sky is falling! Today, there has been a torrent of information about Google search activity becoming completely secure, reducing the level of organic keyword data in Google Analytics to a trickle. According to Search Engine Journal, many sites have reported that the percentage of the “Not Provided” organic keyword referrals skyrocketed from 50-60% to 95-100% in the past 24 hours.
For those not familiar with ‘not provided’ data, these are search terms that are normally shared with publishers and advertisers after a user clicks on their link in the SERP that are now withheld. In the Google Analytics dashboard, publishers see the term “Not Provided” in place of search terms. This is a big change for SEOs and marketers who have relied on keyword-level data to inform their SEO strategy for many years.
It is purported that Google’s sudden decision to encrypt all search activity was meant to provide protection to searchers and block spy activity, however it may also be a push to increase ad sales. At this time, publishers can still see and archive the actual search terms individuals used through Google AdWords.
While Google’s ultimate motives may not be clear (although conspiracy theorists have no doubt as to their motives!), many SEOs have taken to the Internet to voice their concerns on the change.
Adding to these thoughts, we asked the SEO experts of The Search Agency for their opinions on what these changes mean to the industry, our clients and organic search itself:
Brandon Schakola – Senior Manager, Earned Media Strategy
URL Targeting has always been the apex of importance for search marketers. What this does is confirm what The Search Agency has long held as an internal belief in the strength of cross-channel campaign alignment. If searchers are looking for content to match their intentions (whether implicit or explicit – see voice search), having match-types and target URLs meet this need is the pinnacle of what can and should be done. Search is more than keywords, more than phrases now, it is also images, video, named entities, people, places, things!
It also means that your personas have little to do with keywords, and more to do with behaviors. If you aren’t mapping these out through the site and where they fall off the engagement ledge, you’ve missed the point. The increase in not-provided shows the keyword emperor had no clothes to begin with.
Pages convert, keywords do not.
David Carrillo: Manager, Earned Media & SEO
Oh, Google. I rarely agree with their methods (at least their publicly stated ones) but if we put down our conspiracy theorist hats for a moment this move makes total sense … if we’re willing to buy into their logic. Within the context of their stated goal of returning the most relevant search results, their major search decisions over the last few years align with one another quite well. Panda was an attempt to force marketers to drop low quality content habits. Penguin was an attempt to force marketers to drop low quality linking habits. Secure Search may be their attempt to force marketers to drop low quality KPIs. Heavy handed? Yes. Will it drive better marketing decisions? I think so.
When (not provided) first hit a couple years ago, keyword-focused reporting and goal setting became a less impactful way of doing business. Sure it still had its place as a directional measure and diagnosis tool, but aligning search strategy with your company’s business goals has always been the end game. If we stop worrying so much that keyword X fluctuated Y percent month over month, maybe we can better channel our activities to more worthwhile endeavors. Yes, Google is encouraging people to use AdWords, but that shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. And why is that a problem anyway? Study after study shows increased effectiveness when the two channels work together.
As Brandon pointed out, marketers need to think cross-channel and topic/URL focused, not single channel and keyword focused. Those who do will thrive, and those who don’t will spend most of their time complaining on Twitter about the data Google is “taking away” from them.
Grants David’s Rant Over
Grant Simmons: Director, SEO and Social Content
At The Search Agency we’ve been talking engagement for some time as a key indicator of success.
Google’s decision to ‘not provide’ moves analysis of traffic away from old keyword-based metrics to more click through, landing page and conversion engagement metrics that can matter a lot more to the bottom line than a pure keyword-based approach (such as anchor text targeting for linking, or one-keyword-one-page type tactics).
Per our h(SEO) “Search Anywhere Optimization”, “Intent to Content”, “Think Beyond the Link” and “Think Beyond the Click” mantras, SEO practitioners need to focus on building a relevant and authoritative digital footprint, creating engaging and link-worthy (and discussion-worthy) content and optimizing the onsite experience to drive users towards site goals. In these scenarios, keyword-level metrics aren’t necessarily the primary metrics of success.
In January I wrote an article entitled “Keywords are Dead, Long Live Intent” that looked at different methodologies of intent-based research for content development. It wasn’t driven by ‘not provided’ concerns, but it *was* to focus efforts away from pure search volume based research into more of a theme focused strategy which mitigates some of the effects of not having keyword level data.
I believe with this update that Google is “forcing” better marketing strategies onto the SEO industry, driving SEO toward leveraging themes, personas, topic-relevance and engagement strategies that will move our industry closer to other channel’s metrics that matter.
We will provide more information about this topic as we gather additional insights from our post-change analysis. Stay tuned!
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