Why Omitting Keyword Data Is NOT the End of SEO

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:: By Richie Lauridsen, SEOHaus ::

This week, Google quietly made some small adjustments to their user protocol that has had massive implications on the way in which data is being reported, ultimately setting the blogosphere and the SEO industry on its head: With organic searches now operating on Google’s secure server, organic search keywords are now fully encrypted and will no longer be provided in Google Analytics reports.

This means webmasters and Analytics users everywhere will no longer be able to see what keyword query brought a user to their site. On this very site, the decision was even claimed to be another nail in the coffin for SEO professionals. Though there is no denying that the SEO industry is certainly taking note of the search engine’s decision, the change in data is neither unexpected, nor is it all that dramatic or damaging. Let’s take a closer look and find out why.

Before we delve into this further, let’s look at the history of (not provided) keywords. Beginning in about October of 2011, Google started introducing a parameter in Analytics in which users that were logged in to a Google account, using the https protocol, were rendered anonymous. This left their behavior online ‘private’, and unable to be reported in Analytics. Between GMail, Chrome, Google Drive, YouTube, Blogger, and a host of other services under the Google umbrella, it’s no surprise that the number of keywords listed as (not provided) continued to climb, as these services attracted a high number of regular users. The website notprovidedcount.com even provided clear evidence of a spike in withheld keywords across the board, using a small sample of about 60 sites or so to indicate the climbing percentage and alarming rate at which Google was omitting information.

Google also unleashed a subtle rebrand of its homepage, replacing the black bar with a clean, all white bar, and an app launcher similar to that of its Chrome browser, and the tagline: “One password. All of Google.” At this point, keen marketers may have been able to see where this was leading: as Google tried to rope users into ensuring they were signed in, they also adjusted the protocol on their search engine across all platforms to ensure all queries were equipped with the secure tag, meaning that all keyword data would be withheld.

It seems that many are pointing to NSA and PRISM as particular motivating factors for Google’s switch. Google didn’t like seeing other secure search providers getting jumps in traffic, and didn’t like the loss in PR, as the global conversation continues to keep privacy a priority. However, paradoxically, Google provided this data for those who had active AdWords campaigns for sites. With today’s (not provided) keyword data currently climbing to 100 percent, as it stands, keyword data still remains visible for those with AdWords accounts. It’s easy to see how cynics and stalwarts alike can’t help but think this is a surefire way to increase ad revenue. Why else would a company that provides itself on user experience remove a function that can be used to improve UX?

The switch to secure servers can be a daunting one, as it primarily robs marketers or data-driven Analytics experts of one thing, and one thing alone: Convenience. However, below, you will find three reasons why this really doesn’t matter all that much.

1. SEO has always been about more than just keywords.

Search engine optimization services generally offer the opportunity to better expose your website for specific keywords; the way in which each company quantifies their success in this regard varies from company to company. With my experience in SEO, I can confidently say that while we work with clients to identify target keywords to promote, our work benefits a huge amount of keyword variations that end up driving traffic to the site rather than just the specific keywords we may have identified. In nearly every case, I regularly see that while our target keyword may have brought traffic to the site, keyword variations regularly account for even more. Similarly, a sophisticated SEO strategy will not solely work on exact-match keyword phrases, but a host of relevant phrases, variations and compelling content to drive visits.

As a result, the goal is to capture not just a phrase or a set of phrases, but an entire register of keywords that may be relevant to your niche. By removing keyword data from the organic search report in Analytics, this may be harder to qualify, but judging by other metrics, like bounce rate and the time spent on site, we can clearly see whether or not users are arriving to the site and leaving with a satisfied search query and a good experience. Furthermore, this data already exists by the buckets: As stated in the previous piece on this site, Google Webmaster Tools offers users a glimpse into keywords that regularly generate first-page impressions of your site in the Search Queries report. Explore the impressions, clicks, click through rate, and changes, and quickly discover which keywords represent successful queries, and which are sending users back to the drawing board.

As long as overall traffic, organic search traffic and referral traffic continue to grow, coupled with increased conversions, it is safe to say that the efforts from your SEO campaign are paying off.

2. The Keywords Driving Traffic to Your Site Are Already on Your Site.

With rare exception, we don't see keywords driving traffic to a site that are a total shock. Generally, keywords that are driving traffic to your site are intuitive; you have put them in your page titles, headings throughout your content, and also in the content that you’ve marketed to build referrals, building domain authority and page authority, in the process, allowing you to rank for these keywords. Admittedly, these should be in the GWT report referenced above, but regular rankings reports can offer you a compelling lens through which to view your site’s performance. Check the pages that are most visited on your site, or even try sorting them by Page Title. You may find that title tags optimized for particular keywords are performing very well, or find that others could use some improvement in terms of the way they are presented. Similarly, you may have localized rankings for a particularly competitive keyword that is regularly converting for you from a particular location in the demographics section. While lacking the keyword data robs you of this convenience, it frees marketers from the burden of worrying about the performance of particular keywords, and instead allows them to focus on what happens to users once they are on the page. What pages are successful, leading to conversions, and what locations continue to drive traffic?

Of course, strange keywords can still drive traffic to your site. I remember working with a couple of clients that were getting substantial traffic from obscure references in blog posts on divergent topics; however, these were resulting in an alarming bounce rate, and were easy to spot with or without the organic keywords on hand.

3. Content Remains King - Even in Analytics!

With this last move, Google is really taking the chains off of the way in which people market websites. I firmly believe that taking the onus off of a particular keyword or set of keywords allows marketers to pay more attention to page performance, location, demographics, bounce rate, time spent on site and conversions.

First of all, by using the aforementioned reports in content, we can see what pages are getting the most visits, what pages are getting the most exits and look closely at different paths to identify potential roadblocks in the way users navigate around a site. From In-Page Analytics to Behavior Flow, Exit Pages, Content Drilldown--these are all transformative reports that will provide a clearer understanding of the average user’s experience, regardless of how they arrived. Immersing our marketing efforts in these reports offers marketers the opportunity to create happier clients. This will definitely make the job of the search marketer more conversion-heavy; instead, we need to illustrate how to improve a site to constantly remove roadblocks, enhance experience and increase conversions.


For those still on the fence, removing keyword data offers a powerful cross-sell opportunity for an AdWords campaign for the data obsessed. Furthermore, plenty of third-party Analytics vendors must be thrilled at expanding their customer base for what still is a pretty powerful tool.

Though (not provided) keywords certainly sent a jolt through the Internet Marketing industry this week, it seems clear that this obstacle, like others, can be easily circumvented by the way in which you present data to clients and colleagues. Keep your eye on increasing traffic and conversions and improving rankings overall, and SEO can still be among the most successful components of your marketing campaign.

About the Author: Richie Lauridsen is the Director of Operations at SEOHaus, an award-winnnig SEO firm based in California with over 600 brands in its client roster including Hilton Hotels and Warner Bros. 

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RichS 10-01-2013 3:30 PM

What then are the best tools for identifying optimal keywords for your site? Tks Rich

Richie Lauridsen 10-01-2013 4:48 PM

When viewing the organic keywords report in Google Analytics, you would be looking at a set of data with keywords that drove users to your site. They were essentially telling you what keywords you were ranking for. Sometimes, you may see that a keyword was driving multiple clicks to your site, and then you'd check its ranking in SERPs and say, "Oh, well, we're in position 9, or 12, for this keyword, maybe we should put a little bit more effort into optimizing it and get some additional traffic." Alternatively, the report let you see long-tail traffic that might be working for your site, but that you weren't targeting specifically, along with all the keywords that you were targeting, tracking, actively monitoring, and finding out if those keywords would convert.

I don't think tools for identifying keywords have changed all that much--you have Google Webmaster Tools, which lets you see the same data referenced above, but you also have tools like SEMrush, UberSuggest, WordTracker, and tons more that might be able to give you keyword ideas, and fundamentally, the content in front of you that tells you how to take advantage of these opportunities. SEMRush is probably the one that I use the most for keyword research. There are a plethora of tools to help brainstorm keywords, even more to check your ability to compete. From there, rankings, impressions, clicks, and traffic will be the key metrics to monitor to find out how those keywords are performing. By targeting particular keyword phrases to particular pages, and then monitoring the performance of those pages in organic search, it becomes pretty clear what keywords are working for your site, and what keywords may not work for your site.

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any further questions!

NewTress Virgin Hair 10-01-2013 10:50 PM

This applies well when you understand your vertical or your website, but I think from a Marketer's or Agency's experience, it becomes increasingly difficult when they are not as familiar with the industry or the site is not properly optimized for a particular set of keywords with the appropriate meta information. Yet still, keywords were a matter of convenience and they are still fairly easy to track if you understand rankings, keyword derivations and of course what keywords do apply to your vertical. It also helps if you are still running Adwords.

LucianoB 10-02-2013 3:47 AM

Contrary to contributing to the death of SEO, Google's decision will WEED OUT all those unprofessional SEOs - (or those who simply claim to be SEOs just to make a quick buck) - from those professionals who spend hours reading, researching and studying SEO.

Richie Lauridsen 10-02-2013 10:22 AM

@LucianoB, @NewTress, I agree completely! Thank you both for your thoughtful insight. As I stated in the article, really, all this decision does is rob us SEOs of convenience. It's a bit of a thorn in our side, but it certainly doesn't take all that much away. :)

Richie Lauridsen 10-02-2013 10:22 AM

@LucianoB, @NewTress, I agree completely! Thank you both for your thoughtful insight. As I stated in the article, really, all this decision does is rob us SEOs of convenience. It's a bit of a thorn in our side, but it certainly doesn't take all that much away. :)

Liqui-Site Designs 10-02-2013 11:03 AM

Google’s changes are abrupt and make it more tedious to analyze organic keyword search data, but it also presents some exciting opportunities in our view.  

First, this is going to divide SEO providers between those who have robust SEO software and approach SEO as one (important) integrated component of online marketing, vs. those who focus on keyword rank, link-building and other tired SEO tactics.  

Second, while AdWords may seem like the only choice, smart marketers are utilizing Niche Marketing / Microtargeting and Banner ReTargeting to reach more targeted audiences and increase conversion rates. Google AdWords PPC is limited to Google search results – while the best of these platforms can reach 98% of websites on the Internet. Website owners should be looking for these options from their NEW SEO provider.

Lastly, the goal of SEO will always be to provide a great user experience. Keyword rank is great – but what happens when users visit your site? If they are not met with an engaging website and quality content – keyword efforts are in vain.  

Check out "How Google Killed SEO (As We Know It)"  blog.liqui-site.com/.../how-google-killed-seo-as-we-know-it.html

Richie Lauridsen 10-02-2013 11:45 AM

Hi Karelisa, you raise a lot of good points.

While I agree that Google's changes are indeed abrupt, the point of a post like this is to offer some perspective--nothing that drastic is being changed, really.  

The tools I mentioned in comments above are either free or offered at a very nominal fee, at most, so I don't think there's a huge distinction between the haves and the have-nots, so to speak. Again, when you say "keyword rank, link-building, and other tired SEO tactics..." I'm not entirely sure that these things can be considered together without some serious extrapolation and discussion. Link building, in one way or another, will always exist, and I've just commented on another blog suggesting that SEO is perhaps the only industry where debate is always so lively and robust about the best tactics to move forward. It's truly exciting! I think that keyword ranking will always remain important, not only as a deliverable metric of progress, but because high-ranking keywords are a direct gateway to lead searchers to your site.

I agree that AdWords, banner ads and a comprehensive SEM package remain important to market a website, but when you talk about a huge investment, these can come at a much higher premium rather than attracting users already searching for your product. It's definitely debatable.

You're absolutely right that a user experience should remain the focus; I think that's a given.

SEO, in some fashion, will always exist. No matter how our searching experience changes and shifts in the future, there will always be a need to assist users in finding what they are looking for among billions and billions of pages. To me, branding the industry 'dead' or 'killed' can be a bit hyperbolic. SEO is constantly shifting, a dynamic, ever-changing, moving target. It's our job as Internet Marketers to stay updated with these changes, and adapt and anticipate these changes for our clients!

Thanks for the feedback!

JosephG 10-02-2013 4:21 PM

Thanks for clarifying and offering some solutions to the whole (keyword not provided) issue.

Richie Lauridsen 10-02-2013 5:09 PM

Thanks for reading, JosephG!

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