Team Portent Weighs In On the Loss of Organic Keywords

A length of rope almost broken with the strain

Well it finally happened. In what they claim is a move to make search data more secure, Google has begun to encrypt all searches, effectively placing all organic traffic into the (not provided) category. This means business owners will never see the keywords people used to get to their site.

We’ve already gone over what this means for SEO but, since big changes like this are always accompanied by big opinions, I decided to ask around Portent and see what people here thought about this new era of SEO. With that, let’s meet the players:

Ian Lurie, CEO, Founder, Dictator. Probably already knew this was happening from some important-people news feed.

Elizabeth Marsten, Senior Director of Search. The Commander Riker to Ian’s Darth Vader aboard the Galactica.

Josh Patrice, Director of SEO. “Directs” the SEO team through the troubled waters of the industry. Recently lost compass.

Michael Wiegand, Senior PPC & Google Analytics Strategist. Still has all his keyword data.

Aviva Jorstad, Director of Accounts. Courier of terrible and depressing news from SEOs to clients.

Ken Colborn, SEO & Analytics Strategist. Informed team of Google’s update by loudly sobbing into his keyboard like a little, baby girl.

Travis Brown, Offsite SEO Strategist. Couldn’t be happier that Google is making life miserable for other SEOs.

Nick Bernard, SEO Strategist. Lives in Montana. Keyword research process almost certainly involves fly fishing in some form.

Marianne Sweeny, Senior Search Strategist. Has been warning colleagues, clients, and people walking on the sidewalk about this for years.

Matthew Henry, SEO Developer. Half robot, half cyborg, half wizard.

David Portney, SEO Strategist. (bio not provided)

Kiko Correa, PPC Strategist. Uses the word “clicks” in almost every sentence, except when talking about “cliques.”

George Freitag, SEO Strategist. Author of this article, making his opinions the most important.

Where were you when you found out about Google’s switch?

Aviva: At the airport bar in DC, checking Facebook on my phone. Ian had shared the SEL article.

Elizabeth: At my desk, smashing through emails.

David: Working at my desk.

Michael: Probably eating a sandwich.

Matthew: Sitting in my flooded apartment trying to roll out some code.

Ken: I heard about it first from Twitter and the angry mob of SEOs declaring the end of the world.

Travis: At my desk across from THE Ken Colborn during a beautifully dreary morning.

George: Eavesdropping on Travis and Ken.

Kiko: Looking at a search term report in AdWords.

What were your initial thoughts on the move?

Marianne: “No surprises here.”

Josh: I don’t think that we can print my initial thoughts. This is a family blog.

Aviva: The writing’s been on the wall for nearly two years. We knew this was coming.

Elizabeth: Well that’s a hell of a thing… but I’m PPC oriented, so it really doesn’t affect me. If anything, I just got more useful.

Matthew: I figured they would do this eventually, but I was surprised they did it so soon, and so completely.

Michael: It’s a token gesture on Google’s part to their searcher base. But ultimately, one that’s likely to garner them respect outside of the search community.

Ken: I was surprised at first. While it was a move that I was expecting, I didn’t think it would happen this soon. I thought it was going to be a more gradual move over the next year.

Nick: Like most people I’m sure, I’m surprised they just flipped the switch and turned it secure for everyone. I thought they would drag it out some more in little increments, like “This month, all searches from BLACKBERRIES are secure!” (Were they already?)

Travis: Google has been moving towards this direction for a while, and it was only a matter of time. While there are going to be negative side effects and an adjusting period to having no data, the future will be better because we will not be slowly hemorrhaging data for years to come. Instead, it is all gone now, and we have to adjust now. In the end, it is going to be more “wheat from chaff” for agencies.

Kiko: Thank goodness I work in PPC. Total job security… for me.

How do you think this will impact the industry?

Ian: Keyword rankings and data became a poor metric several years ago, when personalized search hit. If you haven’t already changed your focus to true KPIs that impact the business, and started treating SEO as a single channel in a larger strategy, then this would be a reallllly good time to start.

Matthew: People will scream bloody murder for a while, then everyone will eventually calm down and adapt to make use of what information we do have.

Josh: Well, the levels of panic are going to rise in the near future, but if we’re really doing our best to optimize a site, then we don’t necessarily need this data. Sure, it’s helpful; we can build content around long-tail queries, we can chase changes in the lexicon for a site or a product or a category, and we can make assumptions around our audience. In the end, most of the time what we as SEOs really need to be doing is putting the right content on the right pages. I feel that we do that already.

Aviva: There will be freak-outs. There will be outrage. For content-focused, whole-brained Internet marketing agencies like Portent, not much – in fact, in many ways it sets us apart from the pack. My point is, thinking in terms of individual keywords is really, really limiting. As marketers, this move is exciting because it forces companies to be more strategic and holistic with their online marketing efforts. At Portent, we’ve always pushed clients to start from a higher level, and approach SEO as an integrated effort that is part of everything they do online. Now, we have more leverage to push high-quality, link-attracting, and social-buzz-getting content. We have more leverage to talk about user experience and site speed. We have more leverage to stop the obsession with keywords and rankings and look at overall visibility. Can you tell I’m excited?

Marianne: Without organic keyword data, keyword research will have to change as ad behavior is markedly different from organic data. User experience practices will become instrumental in optimizing websites for organic ranking.

Elizabeth: After the crying dies down and we all remember that Google is a privately held company that can do anything they want to in reality, 3rd party tools are going to become a booming industry, anyone who can do correlation fun (i.e. with paid search keywords) is going to enjoy job security, and I think we’re going to see a lot more innovation over all. New tools, new technologies, new math even.

Travis: Rankings may not return as the KPI to watch, but they will continue to be an indicator of performance. Google could get more people running advertisements or paying for the data. Using an analytics platform to appropriately segment attribution and measure page-level performance will be even more important. From a link building perspective, it is a non-issue. There are more interesting KPIs for off-site to judge performance, and anchor text should already be diversified.

Michael: SEOs will look for more creative ways to siphon data from PPC. Ironically, there’s a new report in that shows click-through balance on a given term when you have paid running, when you have organic listing or when you have both. Additionally, Google Analytics’ eventual move to tracking users instead of cookies will render a lot of what we used to ascertain through search queries – customer intent, namely – useless, as we’ll get a much bigger window into how many visits and influences lead to a purchase. We’ll need to start solving for the entire marketing mix and not just one keyword on one channel.

Keyword Spy
Google claims that they are doing this for enhanced security. Do you feel there is any legitimacy to this reasoning?

Josh: Ha.

Ian: I question Google’s statement that this is privacy-motivated, given that they still store the data (I’m sure) and they still show all AdWords clicks.

Kiko: Did someone say enhanced? Seriously though, are you implying Google would have an ulterior motive behind hiding keyword info behind a pay wall? $hocking.

David: At SMX Advanced 2013, Matt Cutts passionately argued this as a justifiably important protection for searchers, but that seems hypocritical when the data is available if you pay for it via AdWords advertising.

Matthew: Nope. I think they are withdrawing this information because they have no real motive to give it to us, and because the information makes it easier to manipulate.

Elizabeth: No, it’s crap. That’s the kind of thing that’s thought up by a scriptwriter for a movie or TV show to cover up the real reason. I’ve got cable. There have to be other mitigating factors and one of them (it wouldn’t surprise me) has to be around the fatigue of fighting spam and jerks trying to “game” the system. Take away the stuff they’re using to do it and you’re left with fewer options. Like creating good content for people.

Michael: While I think they’ve taken an appropriate response to NSA activity in general and in crying out for more government transparency, I think the query data they’re storing to benefit their AdWords user base is at odds with any legitimately good motives they might have on the privacy/security.

Aviva: User data is still available for sale. And we have encryption technologies that make it possible to protect users, which are or will soon be enabled anyway. So no, this has nothing to do with security.

Marianne: Google’s justification fig leaf of protecting privacy is very small and extremely thin. User privacy was never compromised as it was not accompanied by the data points of who and where. Also, Google still retains all user data for use at their end. How private is that? IMHO, the motivation for this move on the part of Google is all of that tantalizing Big Data and its richness of actual user behavior data.

Travis: Yes, there is legitimacy to the Big Bad Wolf’s reasoning. What is not legitimate is keeping the data for paying parties. To reinforce their claim, Google is moving towards more transparency by showing the amount of requests they receive from government agencies and probably would do more if they were legally able. Recently, there has been buzz about tracking users without cookies. How Google accomplishes that will be a huge hint at how they truly feel about privacy and whether they are walking the walk.

George: I do think that Google being able to state that they no longer give your search data to marketing agencies can play pretty well for them from a political standpoint. Even if it is a totally empty gesture.

Any final thoughts on the matter?

Ken: While we lose some valuable insights on keyword data, our main goal should stay the same: create great content that is truly useful to our customers.

Kiko: In all honesty this seems like a poorly motivated move by Google that will have an unintended positive impact on marketing. Crap marketers will still be crap, but have one less leg to stand on. After the initial shock of client expectations people doing the real quality work will have no problem getting the job done.

David: We just have to adapt accordingly. Search marketing will undergo radical changes as Google works toward its dream of a “Star Trek” computer and continues to serve itself and its shareholders, being a publicly traded company and all.

Matthew: The SEO industry has always had to adapt to squeeze as much use as possible out of very limited information. When we are given something useful, and then it is later taken away, it’s easy to fall into a sense of entitlement. “Google OWES us that keyword data!” but, of course, they don’t really owe us anything.

Michael: AdWords will still have a ton of data that’ll be useful for SEOs. Hopefully this’ll be the (albeit awful) thing that drives legitimate cooperation between organic and paid search folks for good. We’re in the same game and it’s been stupid of us to create these borders – blog posts about cannibalization, mainly – between our goals, which should be to grow search holistically.

Travis: ¡Viva la Rankings!

What were your thoughts about Google’s switch to secure? Do you have any questions? Any tips? Share your thoughts and stories below and keep the conversation going!

Portent Alum George is a former member and lead of Portent's SEO team. George went on to Moz as an expert on local SEO and is now in residence at

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  1. I agree. This won’t really affect the good marketers, in fact, it’s probably going to be a big positive for the better marketers and create less competition for them.

  2. Could go the opposite direction of Google’s hopes and expectations too. For example, if I wanted to get hit by a car, I would go out into the street. Take away the street and I don’t know if a car will ever come by. So, I have to wonder aimlessly to find traffic to get in front of. Google has removed the street so the risk is that by eliminating our ability to see what people are searching for organically, content suppliers (quality and otherwise) will be taking potshots. I too saw this coming and have already been practicing the solution with my own sites and client sites. There is definitely a temptation more than ever to just churn out 5 times as much content to make sure all possible keyword phrase variations are covered instead of just going after what we knew people were searching for previously. And, that seems to be the opposite of what Google is hoping for with this move.

  3. Likely better for the internet community at large. Better for quality marketing purveyors. Probably not so good for Google, the leaders of search too will change.

  4. It’s been coming, I think a lot of us were hoping that it would be much later. Certain businesses/audiences have had very high not provided for some time anyways.
    I agree with Ian’s comment though that we should be moving to real KPI’s, and understanding the larger picture of how all channels are working together. Regardless, it’s nice data to see.

  5. I think Google is still on its main theme of relevance. They want to come up with better searches for their users than their competitors do. That means good content that users want will rise to the top.
    But then again Henry Ford “If I asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” So it will still be challenging to drive new ideas.

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