A Day in the Life or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (not provided)

I read the news today, oh boy…

Danny Sullivan announced that Google is actively moving towards 100% encrypted search results. This should come as no surprise to anyone in the industry. When Google introduced secure search back in 2011, we saw the writing on the wall. As Google increased their number of users, the number of (not provided) results would increase as well. The percentage of (not provided) traffic grew from 3% to 5% overnight, and upwards to 10% by the first quarter of 2012.

We’ve been able to get by for the past two years. We’ve explained to our clients what (not provided) means, why it exists, everything.

and though the news was rather sad…

Though it might not be tomorrow, next month, or even this year, soon enough 100% of Google’s organic traffic will be unknown to us. Sure, there will be a number of hacks we can use to infer data, or we can just lean heavily on AdWords (shut up and take my money!) to provide the information, but the truth is keyword-based marketing as we have known it is dead. We will no longer know what keyword drove that visit that drove that sale. It won’t exist. Not in Google Analytics, not in Site Catalyst, not in your log files, nowhere.

This has led to quite a bit of panic.

People are assuming that we’ll have to spend thousands of dollars on AdWords just to see what terms are working, and to find what terms we need to build a strategy around. Some are claiming that all the data Google collects is going to go away eventually, and that we’re heading to a paid-only world.

There’s even talk that we’ll have to start tracking keyword rankings like a hawk. That the only metric to determine keyword effectiveness will be ranking, and that we’ll map each page of a site to just a set of unique terms and we’ll weigh how much traffic those pages generate by how successful we are.

I just had to laugh…

At the end of the day, this really changes nothing.

While it has been very useful to have that data over the years, and I know we’ve all been able to glean new ideas for pages, blog posts, etc., it’s not crucial. That’s because, when you take a step back, everything we do is still just a part of Web marketing. In fact, we view SEO as a result of proper marketing.

If your site has a thorough hierarchy, uses clear architecture, is well designed, provides a good user experience, is fast, and has proper title tags, headings, well-crafted content, etc. then it’ll likely do just fine. It will get links and visits and will rank for whatever term you like. Write content that speaks to what you’re selling whether it’s a product, a service, or just an idea. We’re afforded a great opportunity as Web marketers; our audience already knows that they want something akin to what we’re offering. All we have to do is close the deal.


Seal the Deal

I know that I’m not going to start relying solely on rank tracking to convey keyword success. There are a lot of tactics we can use to get granular about how profitable traffic may be related to a specific search, and none of them involve heavy scrutiny of keyword ranking. Rankings shuffle all the time for various keywords. You could rank in position 3 for your most profitable term today, and rank number 8 tomorrow. It’s just not a part of a strong long-term strategy.

If anything, this is good news for all of us who have been in a meeting where a client says, “more sales are great, but we’re not number 1 for ‘widget keyword that doesn’t convert’.” Or think of it this way, imagine you sold umbrellas, and one day you found that 5% of your visitors came to your site using the term “parasols for rain.” Would you revamp your entire site? Of course not. A little traffic or a bump in search rankings doesn’t affect your bottom line as much as a sale does. So why not talk about site performance from that standpoint instead?

This is perhaps the best outcome of all. We can focus on how organic traffic and site performance influence unique visitors, conversions, sales, revenue, etc. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to shift your conversation towards meaningful KPIs and away from silly things like ranking and traffic.

So, in the end, thank you (not provided) for our industry’s evolution away from outdated “metrics” and toward meaningful results.

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  1. Well said! I’ve been um-ing and ah-ing about the ‘Great Google Keyword Apocalypse’ (please…) all day and have come to a similar conclusion; not worrying about the keywords that brought traffic to a site might actually free up some time to focus on building brand or increasing conversions, or providing content that actually matters rather than 300+ words of nonsense to tick off a keyword you would like to rank for (rather than should) and potentially pollute the SERPs.
    As you say as long as a site is well constructed and covers topics pertinent to your niche, you’ll still get traffic and be able to get an idea of what kind of content and subjects perform best by looking at landing pages vs. conversions etc. It might actually be fun!

  2. Couldn’t agree more man. Concentrate on tracking what you can and producing better pages. Sounds simplistic and a little cheesy but what else are we meant to do, cry about it? Oh…

  3. In the end, people and business are the ones that matter. As long as you can create content that is useful for them, everything will be the same. Spending time getting to know our audiences, their problems and answering to their needs, that is what I think we should concentrate on.
    I am happy that I found your article. 🙂

  4. Time for a non-believer’s view.
    When that client comes demanding that you need to get them ranking for “widget keyword that doesn’t convert”, how are you going to justify that standpoint? How will you know that it doesn’t convert?
    When it’s budget time and you put-in for an increase in SEO budget for the year, are you going to get laughed out of the room because you can’t attach an ROI or otherwise justify your request?
    When you say “We can focus on how organic traffic and site performance influence unique visitors, conversions, sales, revenue, etc”. Is a page converting badly because it attracts too much traffic from irrelevant keywords, or is it because the user-journey is crap? You can’t maximise search-revenue through a given page if you can’t tell which search terms are converting well. You can’t tweak page content if you can’t tell what works (well, you can, but it comes down to uninformed choices and ‘test & measure’).
    My view is that client-side SEOs are the most worried by this. They are the ones who typically have to manage budgets, create business cases and argue projects through development prioritisation.
    Agencies will care much less. This will give crap agencies a greater level of obfuscation to hide behind and the good ones will find a way to report that showcases their work in a good light.
    Critically, this change removes a level of transparency and accountability that will erode the credibility of SEO – an industry that has struggled to shake-off a perception of being a dark-art and an image of snake-oil salesmen.
    The type of site matters too. Keywords are much less important to my editorial blog – I can measure the people landing on a specific page and not particularly care what keyword they used to get there – if they bounce, it wasn’t relevant to their query, if they don’t, it was relevant. On the ecommerce sites I manage, it’s a different kettle of fish; if I want to take market-share from competitors, keyword data is invaluable; what terms convert best? Can I leapfrog key competitors in that SERP with on-page tweaks? A deeply granular view of traffic is what drives tactical and strategic decision-making on how we shape the site and referring keywords, and the metrics tied to them via analytics, play a big part in that.
    This comment has turned into a big critique of your standpoint, but I’m really attacking everyone’s view. I have not seen one piece of commentary on this subject that truly delves into the repercussions of this issue. Neither the people decrying disaster, nor those claiming “freedom from the tyranny of keywords” have articulated the issues or their arguments very well.
    One thing that no-one seems to be exploring is how this affects creating a single SEM strategy that brings SEO and PPC together under a single search channel. Simply, it makes it impossible to examine how paid and natural search rankings perform side-by-side. No-one can disprove the stats that Google churns-out saying how overarchingly wonderful PPC performance is and that people should spend more money on it.

  5. Dug makes valid points, and I disagree with the notion that this change doesn’t matter much.
    “If your site has a thorough hierarchy, uses clear architecture, is well designed, provides a good user experience, is fast, and has proper title tags, headings, well-crafted content, etc. then it’ll likely do just fine.”
    Much of what you say in that sentence is better accomplished with the soon to be missing keyword data. Doesn’t mean we can’t do it all now, just that it’s going to be harder. But better keyword data means better website optimization. Most importantly, no client wants to hear “it’ll likely do just fine.”
    I do agree with the your fundamental premise that all we do is better seen as “web marketing.” We’re always going to be dealing with game changers like this one, so if we don’t see the bigger picture we’ll always be freaking out.
    Best of luck to you, Josh!

  6. Dug & Bean – You’re both dead on in your critiques, and time will tell how much we’ll be able to adapt v. how much we’ll be hindered by this change going forward. I just happen to think that we’re going to become a better industry due to our need to evolve.
    Yes, we’re likely going to go through a bit of a dark age in terms of respect. Though, with the right communication around how our SEO efforts are affecting proper KPIs, I think we can thrive. We just need to start that shift now, before it’s too late.

  7. I think we will get it back.
    Google will sell it to us, either in the form of GA Premium or, more likely, Google Tag Manager.
    I hope they do the latter; it will give SEO the same metrics as other channels and put all the data in the same playing-field.

  8. Thank you Josh for writing one of the most level headed and informative pieces on this topic. I’ve been reading a lot about it, and this article sums up the silver lining in the loss of data – the shift towards meaningful KPIs and the emphasis on a holistic type of web marketing. Plus blogs with Beatles references are always a win.

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