Will Search Engine Optimization Survive the Google (not provided) Keyword Blackout? (Part 1 of 2)

Mark McLaren is Senior Search Marketing Strategist at Analytics Pros. In this two-part series he unpacks the Google (not provided) keyword blackout and gives advice on how to keep your SEO efforts afloat.

A typical keyword report for Google organic search shows over 95% of keywords are blocked, appearing only as (not provided)
A typical keyword report for Google organic search shows over 95% of keywords are blocked, appearing only as (not provided)

Search engine giant Google is now blocking 100% of the organic keyword referrer information it used to let webmasters, marketers and search engine optimization practitioners (SEOs) pull into web analytics tools like Google Analytics, Adobe Site Catalyst and all the others. Rather than keywords, Google shows the label “(not provided).” This has left many in the industry wondering if the traditional practice of keyword-focused search engine optimization (SEO) will survive the change.

The short answer is no. But there are many reasons that a new kind of search optimization, which ought to be called “marketing optimization,” will grow and prosper.

Two of the main reasons marketing optimization will succeed are (1) SEOs are already figuring out ways to compensate for the loss of keyword data using research and analysis workarounds, and (2) many SEOs have been following Google’s advice for a long time by using broader user experience-based digital strategies, rather than a narrow, keyword-oriented approach. In many respects, Google’s keyword blackout has little to no impact on this approach.

Visits on this site show the increase in (not provided) traffic as Google organic traffic grows. By the week of October 6, 2013, (not provided) keywords constituted 96% of Google organic traffic.
Visits on this site show the increase in (not provided) traffic as Google organic traffic grows. By the week of October 6, 2013, (not provided) keywords constituted 96% of Google organic traffic.

 (not provided) Background

In 2011, Google started encrypting a small percentage of the keywords that people were using to search on Google. This only happened when a user was logged into a Google account. Over time, that small percentage increased. On some sites, the increase was dramatic. Up to 70% of keywords were hidden from analytics programs like Google Analytics and the rest. Analytics users could no longer see the connection between organic keyword searches and site visitor behavior. They only knew that those visits came from organic search.

Last month, Google said it would begin encrypting all keywords used in their search engine, not just the keywords used by people logged into a Google account. Because 70% – 80% of all searches on the Internet use Google, this amounts to a near complete blackout of keyword data.

Search Engine Optimization Practitioners Cry Foul!

Since the 1990s, even before Google existed, it has been standard practice for search engines to pass on keywords people used to find a website. Analytics users could see every keyword visitors searched to find their site, and they could use various techniques to increase traffic for the keywords they wanted to target. They knew their techniques worked because they could see more visitors arriving via those keywords.

With keyword data as its primary source of validation, search engine optimization grew into a profession of sorts. Some businesses used SEO to make hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. In those days, it was easy to game the system. Unlike today, search engines had much less information to go on in order to rank web pages. If an SEO knew how to add keywords to a web page and create external links to that page, top ranking was almost guaranteed.

Until a few weeks ago, keyword data was basically the foundation of SEO. Although external links were a more powerful ranking factor than using keywords on a page, keyword data was one of the best ways to validate the success of those links. From this perspective, by blocking keyword data, Google has completely undermined SEO. Many SEOs are crying out: How can they do their job?

Google Wants to Change the Way SEO Works

Is Google’s keyword blackout a crisis? For some SEOs and for the software industry and tools that have grown up around their methodologies, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Many SEOs are surprised and upset by Google’s decision. Some see a profit motive. Google appears to be forcing businesses to use their for-fee AdWords service, and there’s skepticism about their claim that the blackout protects users’ privacy; there is still easy access to keyword data in AdWords.

One Obvious Solution: Keyword (not provided) Workarounds

SEOs are resourceful. Regardless of the reasons for the blackout, many are proposing workarounds. Here are ideas from some of the best in the SEO business.

Since the beginning, SEO has been centered on keyword data. These experts will readily acknowledge that most of these techniques are a way to continue targeting and learning from keywords. With keyword data gone, Fishkin asks, “How can we uncover new keyword opportunities to target?”

But in a real sense, keywords are dead. SEO experts on a recent Search Marketing Expo panel called “What’s Needed For SEO Success In 2013 & Beyond?” said things like:

“Do NOT focus on keywords. Focus on the landing page experience.” (Annie Cushing)

“Stop looking at [keyword] ranking. Think holistically about usability. You are a marketer first and an SEO second.” (Janet Driscol Miller)

On the same panel, Google’s Matt Cutts (who is arguably the most authoritative public-facing source of information on the Google search algorithm) said, “Succeeding in SEO will be the same as it’s always been if you’re doing it right – give the users a great experience. Think about what your audiences want and build a site for them.” http://www.brafton.com/news/seo-success-in-2013-beyond-matt-cutts-insights-at-smx

Good SEOs have been saying this for years. Of course, the traditional SEO response is, “I discover what my audience wants by studying keyword data.”

Is the Keyword Blackout a Surprise?

Despite the outcry, Google’s move to 100% keywords (not provided) isn’t surprising. They have been testing it for two years, gradually increasing its scope. The policy is historically consistent with changes Google has been making to their algorithm all along the way. And it is consistent with what they have been telling marketers and SEOs for a long time, essentially what Cutts says above.

Major Changes in the Google Algorithm Over Time

At one point or another, all of the ranking factors below were influential, but things have changed. Their status today is in parentheses.

  • Number of external links (Still a factor, but highly scrutinized)
  • Keyword meta tag (now ignored)
  • Hidden keywords (now banned and penalized)
  • Stuffing excessive numbers of keywords into a page (now penalized)
  • Using exact match keywords in external links (now heavily filtered – overuse is penalized)
  • Buying links (now banned and heavily penalized)

Prototyping to Replace Keyword-based Methodologies

Rather than use keyword data to discover marketing opportunities, Google recommends prototyping. Start small. Launch an ad or a campaign using social media like YouTube and Facebook. Gauge you audience’s reaction, which is easy to do given social media’s system of shares, likes and +1s. Modify based on this feedback and try again. Once you have a winner, broaden your campaign’s scope to more forms of media, including AdWords and traditional media.

Does the Focus on Keywords Provide the Best User Experience?

Laser focus on keyword optimization is still part of getting a page to rank well. These organic landing pages basically target only one query, and it works. (Admittedly, these pages have been at #1 for many years and have a solid track record of success, so Google is reluctant to replace them.) But are these landing pages giving users the best experience possible?

For years, many SEOs have been saying that great writing and great content outweighs brute force keyword targeting. Even with AdWords, you may have killer technical capabilities fueling your keyword bidding decisions, but if you can’t deliver a great user experience, you are not going to win.

Successful marketers create rich, detailed content around topics and themes that align with business goals. Losing Google keyword data doesn’t change this.

Click to read the second half of this article:
How You Can Survive the Google (not provided) Keyword Blackout.

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