The Day the Keyword Died

don mclean american pieBy Samuel Scott

Relax. Google’s recent move to eliminate most organic-keyword data in Google Analytics is not – as Moz CEO Rand Fishkin wrote on his personal blog – “the first truly existential threat our industry has faced.” But it is a threat to those companies and agencies that are still using outdated inbound marketing and SEO strategies.

If you have checked your keyword-based organic traffic in the past two weeks, you have probably seen what we had seen when we looked at the Google Analytics of a certain client (with the keywords blocked out for privacy):

google analytics not provided

Google no longer provides information on nearly all of the specific keywords that have sent organic-search traffic. The same is true when seeing which keywords sent organic traffic that converted (in the context of the analytics of a different B2B client that obtains leads from website traffic):

google conversions no keywords

With all due respect to American singer-songwriter Don McLean, a lot of SEOs have seen these numbers in their analytics and incorrectly dubbed this incident as (what I’ll call) “The Day the Keyword Died”:

They were singin’
“Bye, bye – analytics is lies
Told our clients that they’re OK, but we cannot ’splain why”
And SEO guys were drinking whisky and rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that we die”

And then both the song and the SEO industry will fade out.

My fellow SEOs, put down the whisky and rye – the situation is not dire if you adapt your strategy accordingly. More on that below.

So, what happened? Beginning in 2011, Google increasingly began to encrypt keyword data when people performed searches while being logged into their Google accounts. The percentage of encrypted data slowly increased until it jumped to essentially 100% “not provided” in late September. Here is Google’s official statement to Search Engine Land founding editor Danny Sullivan:

We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.

Of course, most online marketers are cynical about Google’s intentions. After the recent leaks of information about the U.S. government’s spying activities, Google was accused of giving private search data to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The recent 100% not-provided encryption might essentially be a form of public relations. Secondly, publishers can see keyword data if they are running paid Google AdWords campaigns. So, it looks – rightly or wrongly – like Google is simply trying to increase profits.

You be the judge. I’m just here to help to answer the question, “What do we do now?”

SEO After Google “Not Provided”

1. Determine keyword rankings as usual.

Numerous tools or manual search parameters can be used to estimate the non-personalized rankings of keywords and the associated ranking pages for a given location.

2. Focus on pages rather than keywords.

google webmaster tools click-through rate

In Google Webmaster Tools, it is easy to see the click-through rate (CTR) of a site’s targeted keywords (and thereby the associated pages) in search results. If a CTR is low, then conversion-optimization testing should be used to try different meta titles and meta descriptions – as well as schema mark-up – to see what text and related SERP information gets the most clicks (and thereby traffic).

google analytics page-level data

As we can see above (again, with a client’s pages blocked out for privacy), it is still possible to see organic traffic on a page-level basis. Go to a desired part of the Content section in Google Analytics’ menu and then select “non-paid search traffic” in the Advanced Segments menu at the top of the page.

organic page conversions google analytics

The image above shows how to see organic conversions on the page level by selecting both “non-paid search traffic” and “visits with conversions [or transactions]” in Advanced Segments.

As long as you are using an effective strategy so that each page targets a specific, different keyword (or keyword theme), it is still easy to see estimated rankings, traffic, and conversions – and thereby indirect, keyword-based data – by looking at page-level data.

The point is not to use an outdated keyword-based strategy but rather to focus on a page-level strategy beyond just the commonly-known tags and text:

  • Does the page have a good click-through rate in search results?
  • Does the page fulfill the user intent behind the keyword search?
  • Does the page have content on the keyword theme that is original and authoritative?
  • Does the page have quality links pointing towards it (possibly as a result of social-media marketing and online public relations)?
  • Does the page push social-media sharing?
  • Does the page have effective calls-to-action to get visitors to convert in the context of your business and marketing goals?

Remember: The goal is (usually) not keyword rankings and traffic – it is conversions.

3. Use Google Trends for Branded Keywords

the cline group search results

We at The Cline Group develop and execute integrated marketing strategies for clients that include disciplines such as PR, SEO, and social media because inbound marketing is a collection of best practices. My biggest worry with “Google Not Provided” personally has been whether I will still be able to analyze our clients’ analytics in useful ways for them. For example, we often track and report website visits and conversions based on the following general segments:

  • PR – branded search-term traffic + relevant referral traffic (not including social media)
  • SEO – non-branded search-term traffic
  • Social Media – social-media traffic

Today, it is now impossible to differentiate between traffic coming from branded and non-branded keywords. In response, I agree with the Rob Ousbey of Distilled:

A popular analysis of keyword data is to compare the amount of branded and non-branded traffic. It also offers insights into particular changes; for example, if organic traffic to a brand’s home page increases, it may be because they are continuing to rank better for non-branded terms, or it may simply be because people are searching for the branded terms more often.

An Inbound Marketer would argue that it doesn’t really matter what the breakdown is, as long as more people are arriving at the site. However, this might not satisfy either an SEO Director or a Brand Marketer who would both like to know how effective each of them have been.

The simplest solution here is to step up the funnel, and take a look at search volume for the terms you’re considering. The example below uses Google Insights, to show the volume of branded search for a particular company. In this case, the people responsible for brand building / marketing should be very proud!

For example, the image above shows the Google Trends result for “The Cline Group” (minus the quotes). The number of branded searches is increasing as a result of our press announcements of the company’s massive growth – 100 in 2010 to 304 in 2012 and 295 in 2013 so far – so our internal PR team (as well as all of my colleagues in general!) would get the credit. The same would apply to your company and website. It is not a perfect replacement, but it is still useful.

For more insight, I encourage you to watch Fishkin’s Moz Whiteboard Friday Tuesday on this important topic:

How are you going to adapt to a “not-provided” world? Just, please: Don’t write an eight-minute song about it.

Related: Google is Helping Online PR and SEO, Not Hurting It

Samuel Scott is Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader for The Cline Group. You see more of his thoughts on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Slideshare, and Quora. His personal website is here.

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