Google quietly confirmed earlier this week that it would be encrypting all search data, regardless of whether a user was signed in or not. The company offered the following statement to clarify their sudden decision to withhold the data:
We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year. We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.
Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan wrote about Google’s move to encrypt all non-paid searches, explaining, “The change makes it very likely that in the near future, publishers will receive no search term data sent to them directly through the decades-old and industry-standard ‘referrer’ system.”
In light of Google’s decision to make search term data “100% not provided,” we asked a few of our SEO columnists and other search marketing professionals their opinions on Google’s decision to withhold the data and what marketers should do now.
“This certainly does make things harder on publishers who want to know what types of things are searching on that ends up bringing them to their site,” said Stone Temple’s founder and CEO Eric Enge, “This is pretty basic information that they can use to better understand whether or not the content they are providing on the pages of their site matches up well with the incoming search queries.”
Enge points out that the search data is available via Google’s Webmaster Tools, but pulling the information can be cumbersome. “You can get that data, but only by clicking on the search term,” said Enge, “When you do, you get a screen like this (see image below). Pulling this data across thousands of terms is clearly not going to happen.”
Enge offered a number of solutions for finding keyword data, including Google Suggest and YouTube Suggest to see common variants of search queries, PPC tools like SEMRush and SpyFu (“This will be PPC-based data, but should be good,” said Enge), and Bing’s keyword tool, along with other keyword tools like WordTracker and Keyword Discovery.
“Monday was the day keywords died,” said LunaMetrics SEO project manager Reid Bandremer. “This is a huge challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity for top agencies to differentiate themselves from those who can’t adapt.”
After hearing the news, Bandremer said his company held a brainstorming session that included team members from LunaMetrics PPC and Google Analytics departments. The SEO project manager offered the following advice culled from his company’s brainstorming session:
First, SEO practitioners need to frame their problem. They need to pin down the gaps in actionable insight they need to fill: What are the decisions you and your clients make that rely on keyword data? What specific metrics and reports do you use to come up with the insights required to make said decisions?
The second thing to do is brainstorm solutions. For example, we came up with eight possible ways to estimate the ratio of non-branded to total organic search traffic.
The third thing to do is vet the solutions. It seems that there are three factors that make a solution to problems caused by “100% not provided” viable: 1.) the problems it resolves, 2.) data accuracy, and 3.) scalability and practicality.
There’s a fourth step in overcoming “100% not provided”. That would be continuous improvement. We need to keep checking our methods, keep reading the industry literature and keep looking out for better ideas. The problem is too big to tackle alone.
As the director of Web marketing for 352 Media Group, Erin Everhart was shocked. “It was alarming,” said Everhart, “But, it’s really not that bad. We knew this day was coming.”
According to Everhart, marketers need to be more analytical in what they are measuring, and pay more attention to KPI’s like page level metrics, traffic sources and breakdowns by campaigns. “All of these things actually show us way more about how our website is performing than keyword data,” said Everhart, “Clients are the ones typically demanding keyword data and rankings, so it’s our responsibility to educate them.”
Everheart says that her company has been preparing clients for these changes.
“It’s definitely annoying it popped up all of a sudden, and that you can still get keyword data if you pay for it,” said Everhart, “You can’t claim it’s for users’ privacy if you’re turning around and selling that data to the highest, or any, bidder.”
Other SEO professionals are questioning Google’s motives as well.
“In terms of the suddenness of the decision,” said SEO firm Conductor’s director of research Nathan Safran, “I can only speculate that it’s about wanting to appear protective of the user.”
Referencing the recent Prism scandal where Google was accused of giving data to the NSA, Safran questions Google’s intentions to withhold the data, “How they did not anticipate how that would appear, given their willingness to pass keyword data in paid search, truly baffles me.”
For marketers, Safran’s agency is encouraging companies to look at the broader picture when it comes to keywords:
We think it means they [marketers] need to shift from being purely keyword focused to being more content focused, measuring how content is resonating rather than strictly how keywords are performing. Measuring search visibility actually becomes more important as a top of the funnel measurement since keyword traffic data is now gone.
The Link Building Company owner Julie Joyce was not rattled by the news. “I can honestly say that Google’s decision to do this doesn’t have a huge effect on how I work,” said Joyce, “I’m much more concerned with looking at which sites send referring traffic through the links I’ve built, for example, than I am on which keywords bring users to the site.”
Joyce admits she uses keyword data, but simply doesn’t rely on it. Still, while she wasn’t surprised by the decision, she was puzzled by how quickly the change was made.
“The suddenness of the switch did throw me a bit as I knew it was coming, but was definitely surprised to see it happen so quickly, but, in the end, it’s their product so I suppose it’s their right.”
Like Everhart, Joyce recommends that marketers consider a new metric, or KPI, to suit their purposes. She suggests using Google’s Webmaster Tools or possibly running a small Adwords campaign if necessary, “I hate to advise people to spend money to get something that they used to get for free,” said Joyce, “If that’s how it’s going to be, I think it’s better to accept it and deal with it than it is to stay stressed and complain about it for ages.”
Here is a collection of insights from SEO professionals who tweeted their responses:
@amygesenhues Not that big of a deal. We loose a good feature but can find our golden nuggets with other tools.
— Per Pettersson (@per_p) September 26, 2013
@amygesenhues @mattmcgee @sengineland it’s a key opportunity for SEO to focus on core KPI’s for clients, Not Provided will force innovation
— Martin Crutchley (@Embers29) September 26, 2013
@amygesenhues This isn’t about privacy, it’s about product. Adwords is now the only way to get keyword conversion rates. @sengineland
— rjonesx (@rjonesx) September 25, 2013
@amygesenhues disappointing and annoying. But not the end of the world. We just have to dig a bit deeper for our insight
— Stacey Cavanagh (@staceycav) September 25, 2013
@amygesenhues the shroud of the dark side has fallen :) @sengineland @mattmcgee
— Shaun Anderson (@Hobo_Web) September 25, 2013
@amygesenhues More important than ever to set the expectation with clients, focus more on alternate conversion metrics and insights.
— Caleb Donegan (@calebdonegan) September 25, 2013
100% not provided is not the end of SEO. We still have more data than we did 10 years ago. @amygesenhues @mattmcgee @sengineland
— brysonmeunier (@brysonmeunier) September 25, 2013