Google’s keyword data apocalypse: the experts’ view

Posted: September 29, 2013 in Artist Corner
Tags: , , , , , ,

Yesterday it emerged that Google is planning to encrypt even more organic search queries, thus removing even more search keyword data from sites. 

The already tricky task of measuring natural search data has been made even harder by this latest move.

I’ve been canvassing opinions of search marketing experts on the latest move from Google…

According to Google (via Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land):

We want to provide SSL protection to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can — we added non-signed-in Chrome omnibox searches earlier this year, and more recently other users who aren’t signed in.

We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users….The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.

Powerhouse Fitness has commemorated the occasion with a special new product:

What does the removal of (most of the) remaining keyword data mean for search marketers?

Rishi Lakhani, Search Strategist:

Depends on what type of a search marketer you are to be honest. Will it make reporting more difficult? Probably. Will our SEO get a little bit less smarter? Probably.

You have to remember that Google keyword tool and Google WMT are highly inaccurate when it comes to reporting keyword data – I have clients that get organic traffic much higher than reported for keyword traffic suggested by Google.

On the other hand, I have been an SEO from the days when we used Overture and the Google KW tool did not exist. I remember having to run logfile analytics as free analytics packages didn’t exist (anyone remember AWstats?). As search marketers, most of us are fairly resilient.

If we can’t report on keyword traffic we will find work-arounds, and maybe bring back rank reporting as an important metric.

So coming back to your question what it would mean to search marketers? It depends on what type of a search marketer you are. If you are resilient, you would take this in your stride. 

Andy Heaps, Operations Director at Epiphany:

First and foremost it means there is less data to analyse and use to inform the strategic and tactical focus of SEO campaigns.

A lack of keyword data makes it more difficult to identify low-hanging fruit (e.g. keywords that drive a relatively high amount of traffic from relatively low positions). Spotting trends in keyword data has also been made more difficult.

If organic traffic / conversions goes up but we can’t see what has driven the increase (was it brand or non-brand, was it one keyword or all keywords?), the ability to measure the impact of SEO work is significantly more difficult.

Dan Thornton, Founder at TheWayoftheWeb:

There are already various alternative ways and workarounds to get a reasonable idea of keyword data.

So it simply means more time and expense for search marketers, which may then be passed onto the business or clients.

Neil Yeomans, Head of SEO at Lakestar McCann:

Greater reliance on third party tools and rank tracking software to monitor success.  

People will still want a measure of non-brand growth, so we expect tools such as Google Webmaster Tools search query data, Searchmetrics and SEMRush to become much more important over the coming months.

Kevin Gibbons, UK MD at BlueGlass Interactive:

In terms of strategy, it will be more difficult to find hidden gems of referring traffic keywords and long-tail variations.

But being honest, we all saw this coming back in 2011 when Google started to roll out (not provided) and most have started to prepare for this. Whether we like it or not, Google make the rules – so there’s not too much we can do to challenge it.

That being said, there are alternatives: http://notprovidedkit.com by Dan Barker being just one example already and we’ve been using organic market share measurement for a long time now to measure SERP visibility, which I think will only increase in popularity since this move.

Why do you think Google is doing this?

Rishi Lakhani:

Frankly, who knows? However their idea of privacy is ridiculous to say the least. You cant offer privacy, but still SELL the data to AdWords advertisers. It’s the same user. It’s the same action.

So why should paying marketers get the data they need and organic not? Your privacy is only protected from people who refuse to pay Google. Period.

Andy Heaps:

Given that this only applies to referrals from organic search and not paid search, the argument about privacy doesn’t make sense.

The reason has to be commercial – if the only way to get accurate insight into what is working and what isn’t is via AdWords, marketers may be more inclined to invest more into paid search.

Dan Thornton:

The current speculation and vague reasons suggest the motivation is increasing privacy for users, particularly in light of recent NSA allegations, etc.

But I don’t believe that at all – in terms of governmental intrusions, it won’t make any difference as long as they have a server or business address on US soil.

Personally I believe it’s another attempt to shift the efforts of businesses away from search and increasingly towards paid advertising and Google+.

Neil Yeomans:

It will further muddy the waters for active SEO and position AdWords / Google Shopping as more transparent and accountable search marketing channels.

It also forces the hand of someone who wishes to analyse keyword performance e.g. conversion rate. To find out, people will need to invest in AdWords or trust Bing / Yahoo! data, which in itself is a drop in the ocean compared to Google’s reach.

Kevin Gibbons:

I do think privacy and Prism is a legitimate reason. However, what leaves a sour taste in the mouth is the fact that paid search remains intact while organic search has disappeared completely.

That’s the obvious reason as to why people are questioning Google’s intention behind this, privacy doesn’t appear to be affecting the part of their business that drives the most revenue.

I don’t think it will drive more people to paid search and I’m not sure that’s the intention.It’s probably more the fact that Google wants to be seen as doing its bit towards protecting privacy, and have chosen to remove the part that is least damaging to it.

This makes sense on Google’s part, but it is frustrating for the rest of us.

Could it be good for SEOs, in that it makes it harder for amateurs?

Rishi Lakhani:

Not really. With the loss of keyword data, ranking reports will take a larger share of reporting,and actually it’s easier to report on rankings than why a specific set of keywords lost their traffic.

Frankly nothing makes it hard to get into SEO. Anyone who ‘thinks’ they can do it will still get in the game.

Andy Heaps:

SEO has always been hard for amateurs! This will force SEOs to consider and analyse a greater breadth of data sources to understand how campaigns are performing.

There is a risk that the SEO industry will regress a few years and start to once again obsess about rankings but there is also an opportunity to get smarter about how results are reported, looking more at the wider role SEO plays in the overall marketing mix and how much of a role it plays as an enabler as well as a direct response channel.

Dan Thornton:

Not really. It won’t massively affect larger agencies and companies who can afford the additional time and cost.

But it will damage small businesses, including agencies, who now have an additional challenge to building their businesses, and I think eventually this will hurt both search results and indirectly impact on search usage, as the incumbents for any term become much more entrenched.

Neil Yeomans:

As with any major shakeup like this there are opportunities for more seasoned SEOs to react quickly, find an alternate way of looking at SEO metrics, and move away from the crowd.

Kevin Gibbons:

Potentially, although if anything I think it drives us more towards having an integrated digital strategy, where SEO is measured as a single channel of a wider marketing campaign.

That will force people to move towards a more multichannel approach (if they haven’t already), using clearer business metrics, which will make SEO far more measurable, rather than less.

As SEO has evolved a lot more towards a content-driven approach, one thing I have found increasingly useful is the ability to analyse organic performance per page, as opposed to keyword.

That way you can figure out what content is resonating with your audience best and being rewarded by Google as a result. I’d expect to see this shift continuing, as it’s more actionable in the sense that you know what’s working, so do more of it!

Is this positive for Bing/Yahoo? Will SEOs now pay more attention to referral data there?

Rishi Lakhani:

The same way we used to equate silly formulas such as Overture keyword data multiplied by 3.5 (because site traffic from Google was 3.5 of Yahoo’s) to work out keyword potential, is the same way we will start using arbitrary figures to report.

However, today’s search marketers are much smarter, and have many more tools at their disposal, which means that despite the fact that reporting this way may be inaccurate, it might still give you a decent and potentially truer “trend” that can be used to optimise sites.

But is it positive for Bing / Yahoo? Not really. Not unless Bing decides to create a public nightmare for Google by running a PR campaign telling users how their data is still available, for people who pay the price (i.e. AdWords).

SEOs dont make the search engines, users do.

Andy Heaps:

Bing data is going to be more useful now as it’s still providing the keyword data that Google now isn’t.

I doubt there’ll be any immediate benefit for Bing in terms of gaining market share from Google because the regular search engine user is oblivious to all this – and it isn’t going to have any immediate or direct impact on the quality of the SERPs.

Dan Thornton:

Hopefully. I’d certainly like to see more of a challenge to Google’s dominance, regardless whether it comes from Bing, Blekko, or DuckDuckGo. Certainly Bing seems more likely to continue improving its services and working with the SEO community, rather than pushing people away from them, as Google has done.

After all, most search improvements are aligned with usability and accessibility improvements, so a layer of good quality SEO advice and assistance only helps to improve the internet experience.

Neil Yeomans:

No, because people are still interested in Google rankings.

While Bing and Yahoo! might give some insights to the performance of non-brand keywords the volumes are tiny in comparison to Google, so is the depth of the long-tail, which is far greater than other search engines.

It will be very interesting to see if Bing and Yahoo end up following Google’s lead on this. I’m not sure they’ll benefit in terms of search market share at all, which is what’s important to them – so I wouldn’t be surprised if they follow suit, it’s just Google are taking the heat for this right now for being the first to move.

Kevin Gibbons:

Yahoo/Bing could provide useful data in the meantime, although I think most people will use a variation of tools and reports, such as Google’s new organic vs. paid search report.

Interestingly, the real winners are potentially the enterprise level SEO tool vendors, as SERP visibility and organic market share reports are likely to far more valuable now, given the lack of organic analytics data.

Graham Charlton is Editor in Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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