Keyword data armageddon: a new era for SEO

Oct 13, 2013 by
Keyword data armageddon: a new era for SEO

Last month, we, along with all the rest of the SEO community, were rather surprised to find that Google has finally switched all searches to encrypted searches using HTTPS. In other words, query data will no longer be passed to site owners – something we have had available to us since the beginning of the web.

The ability to track which keywords people are using to reach your site has always been high valuable, whether it was for something as simple as seeing what proportion of your traffic comes from branded terms to designing content strategies. These days are now over and strategic rethink is in order.

The inevitable change

This change has been coming for a while; in October 2011, Google announced that encrypted searches would be implemented for users who were signed-in to Google. The company stated: “We recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver”, and added

Not Provided data as of 07 Oct 2013

“This change encrypts your search queries and Google’s results page. When you search from (note the extra “s”), sites you visit from our organic search listings will still know that you came from Google, but won’t receive information about each individual query.”

Thus – the decision almost two years later to encrypt searches from users who aren’t signed in to Google should come as no surprise. It should be noted that this change will not alter keyword practises from other search engines such as Bing – but given Google’s market dominance this doesn’t provide much solace to internet marketers and site owners.

Not provided

To demonstrate the rapid decline of keyword data over the past couple of months, Not Provided Count publishes a daily updated graph logging the rate at which the keyword “(not provided)” shows up in Google Analytics using data from 60 websites. As of October 07 2013, the keyword (not provided) has risen to 80.63%, a 100% increase from the first of august. Based on the current rate of growth, Not Provide Count predicts that (not provided) will account for 100% of all keyword data by 20th November 2013

Sales or privacy?

One of the hot debates currently raging in the world of internet marketing regards the reason why Google suddenly decided to strip away keyword search data. Many speculate that Google’s decision to encrypt searches was highly influenced by recent accusations that Google were participating in a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program known as PRISM and were actively feeding their users’ data to the National Security Agency (NSA). Google stated categorically that this was not the case, declaring that, “We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully.”

Google also filed for the right to declare the amount of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests they have undertaken on behalf of the US government in order to provide greater transparency to their users. Moving towards more stringent levels of keyword search encryption would certainly help Google combat accusations that they don’t take their user’s privacy seriously.

Another argument is as follows: if the move was truly motivated by security and protecting user’s personal information, then AdWords data would also be hidden? Publishers can still log-in to Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) to see the last 90 days of data, with up to 2,000 queries a day. However, to see the full data with unlimited queries beyond 90 days, an AdWords account is required. Some argue that Google are simply withholding valuable search term data in order to lure users towards AdWords with the goal of generating more revenue in the form of ad sales.

A new era

Whatever Google’s rationale for encrypting search data, the sooner we accept that the SEO landscape has irrevocably changed, the better. Of course, the other piece of this puzzle is Google’s recently-announced Hummingbird algorithm. We’ll be looking at how the two fit together soon.

Our own results

One of the main changes we’ll see in our own services is simply in our reporting. We used to report on branded and non-branded search traffic separately, as we felt that this was a very important differentiation in measuring the performance of a campaign. This is no longer possible. We also used to report on the number of unique search queries that a site had received, which is also no longer possible. This was a less important metric, however, so is less of a loss.

Some of our internal, keyword data-driven processes will also have to change. As noted above, GWT still does provide some information, but it’s not as detailed or accurate as real search data. One change will be from focussing on detailed on-page optimisation to overall indexation, especially for larger sites.

Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss these changes further.