Since October 2011, Google has been restricting keyword data that webmasters, SEO’s, and web developers can see through Google Analytics, with the stated goal of making search more secure. This has led to an increasing number of keyword referrals appearing within site data as keyword (not provided). Based on a sample of 60 websites, the analysis site Not Provided Count measured the (not provided) percentage at 80.4% on October 1st. Given the current rate of growth, the same website predicts that November 17th is the date when keyword (not provided) will hit 100% in Google Analytics.
Keyword (not provided) is growing because Google are increasing the use of secure search. Google already stated in early September that they had increased the use of encrypted, or SSL, search, before admitting at the end of the month that they had moved to making 100% of searches encrypted. While Google continues to state that they are looking to make search more secure, there is much cynicism in the search community that this is merely a ploy to increase revenues from AdWords. After all, if a business isn’t able to make an impact on search due to lack of keyword data, their next best option is to pay for ads that will continue to bring traffic to their pages, or at least help them with their own research.
Google refuted this suggestion by stating that webmasters could simply use Google Webmaster Central to get their keyword data. However, many pointed out that the reason they still used Google Analytics, often alongside Google Webmaster Tools, was that the depth of historical information was better. Using Google Webmaster Tools, for example, only provides you with the last 90 days of search data and, although Google increased the search terms viewable in April 2012, the information still only allows for limited analysis, with year on year performance impossible to track.
Alarm was raised further at the beginning of this week when Google Webmaster Tools stopped sharing keyword data, too. However, Google stated to Barry Schwarz, of Search Engine Roundtable, that this was a bug, and subsequently confirmed that data would be made available once more in the coming days.
Everyone involved with SEO seems to have accepted that 100% keyword (not provided) is going to happen, and that it is likely to occur with Google Webmaster Tools data, too. Many commentators below the line on Search Engine Land articles even went so far as to say that there was no bug, believing that Google had withheld data deliberately as a means of ‘testing the waters’ for a reaction.
What is certain is that Google aren’t going to change their course, so the best approach for marketers to take is to look at the ways they can approach SEO without having keyword data to hand.
To adapt to life without keyword referral data, we first need to understand why we use it in the first place. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but merely some suggestions as to how keyword referral data might be used. Every webmaster or SEO professional is likely to have other ways and reasons they use it.
Keyword data identifies many opportunities, but three stand out. The first is if you receive healthy levels of referral traffic, but know that your ranking isn’t too great for the keyword, you can focus your efforts towards improving your ranking.
Secondly, if you’re seeing a lot of keyword referrals but low conversions, you can take action on the quality of your page. Is the page relevant to the search term? Does the page contain a good enough call to action to be an effective landing page?
You could also find you are ranking for some keywords, particularly long tail keywords for which you weren’t expecting to rank. You can then build this into your content marketing plans to increase traffic even further.
Whether you’re doing SEO yourself or using professional SEO services, keyword referrals are a great piece of evidence for measuring improvement. You can link keyword referrals to improvements in your ranking easily. It works the other way, too. If your ranking improves but keyword referrals don’t, is there a reason behind this?
Knowing how people are finding you is important for knowing what they think of your business. For example, if people are clicking through to your site using terms you might not want to be ranking for, you can go away and do something about it.
Working Within 100% Keyword (not identified)
100% keyword (not identified) means we need to find new ways of completing the tasks we’ve discussed above. Here are some ideas that will help you when you’re working without the benefit of keyword referral data.
The trick to identifying your keyword opportunities is going to be accumulating data from a variety of sources rather than relying on one, as might have been the case while using Google Analytics. Thankfully, you’ll still be able to analyse search performance at page level, so you’ll know which pages are being found through Google search. You can also track your rankings for keywords using SEMRush or a similar service. This isn’t an exact science, but if you know you have a handful of keywords for which you rank on page one, and you know what percentage of your traffic comes from a search referral, you’ll have a reasonably good picture of which keywords are working. At which point you can then begin to go through the process from earlier of tracking conversions and auditing the quality of your landing pages.
You might also continue to use the data available through Google Webmaster Tools. Although this Moz blog post explores its use and questions its accuracy and validity, it is still a potentially valuable tool, especially now. Based on our earlier assumption of Google taking away the data available here, it is probably worth getting as much use as possible out of it while you still can!
As for identifying the long tail keywords you’re unexpectedly ranking for, there’s likely to be much trial and error involved, but keyword research is still going to remain a factor in SEO, so we’d suggest taking this path to get you the best potential results. Tools like Moz Analytics will be useful if you want to check geographical keywords, which many a small business following a local SEO strategy will do.
Of course, the final option is Google AdWords, with the elephant in the room here the suspicion that Google wants you to do exactly that so that they increase their own revenues. Managing an AdWords campaign to identify long tail keyword opportunities is relatively straightforward: if you’re getting paid referrals from a particular keyword, start targeting it organically.
Perhaps the biggest issue 100% keyword (not provided) is going to cause is that SEO professionals are going to be challenged massively when it comes to proving their worth. Without keyword data, how can anyone with confidence declare that those traffic increases are their responsibility? No business owner who has invested in SEO is likely to accept an answer based on assumption.
One option is to use Google AdWords specifically to target branded keywords. You can then discount the Google AdWords traffic generated for a website, and so look to other increases and say with a degree of confidence that you’ve delivered that. For example, if AdWords traffic remains stable but other traffic skyrockets, it’s clear where the traffic is coming from. While still not a full picture, you can go back to showing a client ranking changes and demonstrate how this would have made a difference.
Set up a system for measuring rankings using a range of your targeted keywords, from short to long tail, from broad to specific, from branded to unbranded, just remember not to obsess about checking these daily. Set up Google Alerts for your keyword terms – using a separate email address so you aren’t swamped – if you need to. Alternatively, using Google Insights will also provide useful information, and doesn’t require the same level of financial investment.
This aspect of SEO is set to become a huge challenge, but for those who can use the tools available to continue to deliver results, it is also a potentially lucrative opportunity.
As previously, Google AdWords is a great source for discovering how people are finding you, but whether you use it might come down to money or whether you want to feel like you’re doing what Google wants you to do.
A more simple approach is to use keyword suggestion tools or even go into Google and start to type your brand name or keywords where you know you rank. What are the suggested terms or variants presented to you? Are these an opportunity to change the perception of your business, or to develop your site to attract more visitors?
If you have a search box on your website, reading the data will also give you an insight into how visitors look at your brand, although it is also an indicator of other potential problems with your site, solving which will be good for your site and SEO in any case.
There is no doubt the techniques covered here are going to be a big part of the search marketing landscape over the coming months. Those who adapt quickest, as with anything in the industry, are going to be in the best position to make a difference both to themselves and to their clients. 100% keyword (not provided) is nearly the reality of the industry, and something we all need to accept we’re working within, whatever our opinion of Google and their motives.