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Google’s Keyword Devolution in SEO

Over the last two months, there has been a bit of a panic in the search community (SEOs specifically) around the shocking change in Google's keyword data. Or lack thereof.

You may remember, back in October 2011, Google changed the site mechanism around the search results pages (SERPs) that it served up. Ostensibly to address privacy concerns, Google's SERPs were served up in the secure http protocol (SSL) for users who were signed in through Google+. The result was that queries served up in this method showed up as "(not provided)" in analytics reports.

The numbers at the beginning were single digits. For a month or so, we chalked it up to a glitch with our analytics platform. The lack of knowledge was reflected in the platform response to our support tickets - we have no idea either. As we learned more, the numbers continued to grow, albeit slowly.

Then in August of this year, there was a steep rise in the % of "keyword not found." Google began serving up SSL SERPs by default in the top 4 browsers regardless of signing in through Google+. Current levels indicate ~80% of search traffic is passing no search query data, with the number expected to hit 100% before the end of November (as they turn on SSL-by-default for the remaining browsers).

The impact here for those of us in marketing and search in specific is that we experience a macular degeneration of our SEO vision. We can no longer see keywords, we’re limited to only peripheral awareness of organic search’s share of traffic.

The question "What now?" has to be asked by a wide variety of people: small business owners, search engine optimizers, channel marketers. For those that focused on keywords, there have been a few articles that provide some indirect workarounds, albeit with a much higher time investment (for my money, you can never go wrong with Avanish Kaushik's up-to-the-minute analysis). The irony for the SEO is that a more complicated workstream means there's even more job security than before, IF you can prove your worth.  Here's a short list of activities to re-focus your keyword awareness:

  • Use the Advanced Filter capabilities in Google Analytics to surface specific pages where "(not provided)" is driving traffic.
  • Leverage your Google AdWords account's Keyword Planner to analyze the pages in 1) as well as provide suggested search queries sorted by search volume.
  • Use the Google Webmaster Tools to see a limited list of queries driving traffic to your site. The list is generally limited to 2000 queries, so large traffic sites will lose a lot of their "long tail."
  • Bing still provides search query data. With caveats about skewing away from a huge audience segment, this should not be a primary point of search data, but can help triangulate against the above data points.

The real takeaway here is that SEOs and businesses focusing on organic search need to wean themselves off keywords as the primary indicator of relevance, and return to a more holistic approach to optimization - inbound links, page performance, and overall goal achievement as driven by traffic to our content. And agencies in specific need to think about how to structure their testing efforts to prove the value of organic search.

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