Google’s recent move to remove all organic keyword data from all analytics reports has certainly garnered some attention. Countless posts have been written to highlight, debate, scorn and in some cases dismiss this final step in a long drawn-out process of removing keyword-specific referral metrics from a website’s data pool. Many search engine optimization (SEO) analysts and digital marketers panicked, dreading the inevitable client explanation for loss of data, as well as the impact on their capability to optimize and increase conversion through rich, organic search traffic. Solutions and workarounds were put forth, none of which were 100% accurate, but all of which combined to salvage a solid SEO metric and reporting amalgamation moving forward.
What hasn’t been given sufficient attention is how Google’s move affects the goal of SEO, and what this move means in the overall direction of search results, and where achieving top rankings in search results is headed. When viewing this move alongside other recent updates from Google affecting search results, it is clear that SEO has entered, and still is entering, a major paradigm shift. The traditional, tactical role of targeting keywords through on-page SEO elements (adding more keywords) and building anchor text-optimized links has been replaced with quality content marketing that provides utility, demonstrates topical relevance and earns popularity among social connections. In other words, a more personalized search is being introduced that won’t rank sites based on how relevant they are to specific keywords, but instead on how useful they are at answering queries to you and to your online community.
It all began on May 21, 2010, when Google introduced encrypted web search, removing certain referrer strings from the code and then announcing that all users logged-in to Google properties would not have their referrer keyword data reported. Over the next three and a half years, more and more users remained logged-in to Google while searching (now the norm) and top browsers (Firefox and Chrome) implemented SSL encryption, eliminating roughly 50% of keyword data worldwide. Then, on September 23 of this year, Google made all searches “secure”, cutting off all keyword data, and thus heralding the “data apocalypse.” Except, of course, from their paid search advertising meal ticket.
But not knowing which specific keywords are driving traffic to your site is not the end of SEO, as we know it. There are several workarounds that allow us to estimate with accuracy, such as measuring your site’s rankings in the search results for various keywords. Although this is only an indicator, if a ranking for your top referring keyword has improved to a top position, you can attribute any increase in volume, engagement and conversion to this change with a fair amount of certainty. Another solid method for inferring keyword data is by creating a custom segment within analytics to isolate all users coming in from the “(not provided)” source and then view which landing pages they are arriving on. From this, you should be able to establish which keyword, or at least which keyword theme, is driving traffic. The other two obvious methods would be to use Bing keyword data (depending on share of traffic) as a representative sample for overall organic search traffic or to derive insights from your paid search campaign results.
With this custom segment we can determine volumes around menu, delivery, and location keyword themes.
The most important takeaway from this move by Google is how it fits into the much larger puzzle of recent search updates that have completely re-shaped the practice of SEO. First off, the integration of all Google accounts along with the growing share of users that are always signed in while searching has led to a larger influence of Google+ within the search results. Websites that have been +1’d or content that has been shared by anyone in your network (or your network’s network) will have a significant advantage at ranking highly for relevant searches. For example, if you are searching for pizza delivery and someone in your Google+ circles has +1’d a place close-by, a website that would normally rank on the second or third page of results may now rank in the top three positions. Highly localized and personalized search means Google is clearly not finished trying to make Google+, and its seamless connectivity across all Google entities, a significant player.
The latest update to Google’s algorithm, known as Hummingbird, is an update designed to address the rise of more specific, long-winded and diverse searches such as “organic/vegetarian restaurants near the Air Canada Centre.” People are not simply searching for broad, general keywords anymore. In fact, 20% of searches every day are new and unique. The new Google algorithm – with its patented synonym identification based on co-occurring themes – allows it to parse full questions (as opposed to parsing searches keyword by keyword), and therefore allows it to identify and rank answers to those full questions within indexed content. In other words, Google is now understanding more conversational searches, as well as crawling sites in a more topical and contextual manner. While keywords are still important, more weight is being placed on how keywords interact to tell a full story, demonstrated by a recent SEO trend of over-investing in high-quality content from authoritative sources.
When you combine Google’s removal of keyword-specific data from site analytics, the recent rise of local and personalized search results and the shift in algorithm to focus more on topical relevance/authority, it’s clear that SEO will never be the same. Gone are the days of measuring keyword volumes and cheating the system through technicalities. Now that we’re all logged-in to Google most of the time, user tendencies, location and network all have an impact on search results. Furthermore, the Hummingbird algorithm update has broadened the scope of how Google crawls sites and understands content, setting the stage of more emphasis on high-quality, utilitarian content, in more conversational and topically relevant settings. So this “data apocalypse” and accompanying tweaks to what sites match our queries is actually an exciting and welcome development in the world of SEO. The lines between SEO and generally solid digital strategy are becoming increasingly blurred, as the focus is no longer on the keywords themselves, but on the audiences and their immediate needs. It is now near impossible to be lazy about creating and optimizing content – a welcome development from where we’re sitting.