Goodbye Keyword Data (Kind Of), Plus a Super Secret Trick for Marketing Success

What if you went into your web analytics and saw no keyword data … at all? What if one of your best sources of intelligence on how buyers are finding you just – poof – went away?

Well, folks, that would be a big deal. And, unfortunately, it looks like that might be exactly what is about to happen. Search Engine Land offered this report earlier this week in Post-PRISM, Google Confirms Quietly Moving To Make All Searches Secure, Except For Ad Clicks:

In the past month, Google quietly made a change aimed at encrypting all search activity — except for clicks on ads. Google says this has been done to provide “extra protection” for searchers, and the company may be aiming to block NSA spying activity. Possibly, it’s a move to increase ad sales. Or both. Welcome to the confusing world of Google secure search.

Where we started: Google’s “not provided” challenge
In October 2011, Google began encrypting keywords and secure search for anyone logged into any Google product while searching. What many people didn’t understand at the time – and still don’t now – is the impact of the “not provided” result on their analytics. I covered this previously in the post Web Analytics: How to Handle Direct Traffic, Not Provided, Dark Social and Do Not Track:

…essentially what it means is that if people are logged into a Google product (think Gmail, YouTube, Google+, etc.) and conduct a search using Google, the referring keyword data is not passed through to your site. This is also commonly misunderstood as an issue with Google Analytics; in fact it doesn’t matter which analytics program you are using because Google search is holding the data and never passing it through to your website, regardless of whether you are using Google Analytics, Omniture, or any other application. For a significant number of the clients that I work with, “not provided” has become one of the top 3 keyword sources in organic keyword reports. This means that a significant amount of keyword data isn’t being captured; it’s just gone.

Secure search for all
From Google’s official statement to Search Engine Land on September 23, 2013:

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.

At the time of the 2011 change, Google expected this to impact approximately 10 percent of search results. Fast forward and we now see “not provided” for most clients (and ourselves) in the range of 60 to 80 percent of search results, and we expect this to grow even higher as more users are switched to encrypted search. As an example, in the last 30 days our Marketing Trenches blog saw 79 percent of Google organic traffic as “not provided.”

Many folks think that as a marketing site (heck – the name marketing is right in the title) we are an outlier. As it turns out, our 79 percent is essentially in line with what other sites are seeing.

The incredibly helpful Not Provided Count tracks 60 sites and charts the progress of “not provided.” As you’ll see below, there’s been a sharp rise in the curve in the last few weeks, leading to a current average of 75.19 percent of Google organic traffic showing as “not provided.” That’s a whole lot of keyword data that’s being kept from site owners.

Goodbye Keyword Data (Kind Of), Plus a Super Secret Trick for Marketing Success image reportKeyword Search Report

So what?
“Why does it matter?” you may ask. “I have more than enough things to do in the day without worrying about keywords and analytics.” Some companies have a set-it-and-forget-it approach to web analytics and for them, maybe it doesn’t matter. However, for those of us who have relied on keyword data to understand our traffic sources and buyer behaviors, and use that data as one of a few different sources to build our search and content marketing strategy, we may be losing a vital tool in our tool belt.

Four things marketers should do
First, cry. Once you are over that, scream and yell at Google. OK, don’t really do that, because it won’t get you anywhere and won’t change a thing. So, with those options out the window, here are a few tricks to use to adjust to this major change:

  1. Use your Google Webmaster Tools data – While Analytics and Webmaster Tools have known data discrepancies – and Webmaster Tools is limited to 2,000 keywords and 90 days’ worth of data – for the time being, keywords are still captured in Webmaster Tools. Something is better than nothing, so make sure your site is properly configured and submitted, and that you regularly check your Webmaster Tools account.
  2. Leverage data from Bing and Yahoo! – While users of these search engines may not have the exact behavior and profile of Google users, according to August comScore data, Google sites led the U.S. search market with 66.9 percent market share, followed by Microsoft sites with 17.9 percent and Yahoo! sites with 11.4 percent. You will still get specific keyword data from Yahoo! and Bing … so use it.
  3. Closely monitor your URLs for traffic from and position in organic search – With continuous zoo-animal-named changes to Google’s algorithm favoring quality content that is shared and contains keyword concepts vs. specific SEO-optimized pages, keywords themselves have become a bit less important. By looking at which pages in your site receive significant traffic, you can begin to reverse engineer to measure your search effectiveness. By measuring your position in search results, you’ll also gain insight into how that impacts the traffic flowing through to your site.

Continue to track your AdWords campaigns – Google seems less concerned about privacy for paid ads – all that data will continue to flow through. With this in mind, make sure that your Google Analytics and AdWords accounts are properly integrated and/or use AdWords as a platform to test and experiment.

Super secret magic trick No. 5
This one’s not for just anyone, but after you’ve taken whatever knowledge you can glean from the tips above, try this one on for size:

Understand the problems your buyers face, and educate them through helpful, useful content. (You can even Tweet this.) As we move away from a world of SEO smoke and mirrors and an overreliance on “push” marketing, the best marketing is the kind that’s useful to the buyer. So:

Time and time again, each change Google has made to the search algorithm favors quality content shared by humans. Even without full analytics data, I can tell you that one’s not going away anytime soon.

For more tips about how content can accelerate business growth, download our eBook, “How to Grow Your Business with Content Marketing.”

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