Not Provided % Over Time

Google Secure Search: Reacting to Keyword Not Provided

There has been quite the uproar the past few days, after Google announced that they are moving 100% of search queries from unencrypted to Secure Search. When this news broke on September 23, the SEO world had a collective panic attack. But is this really the end of SEO as we know it?

Google Secure Search: What Is It?

Google Secure Search is the name for a change originally introduced in 2011. At that time, Google decided to start encrypting keyword search data for logged in users only, which was positioned as potentially impacting less than 10% of searches.

The net result of this change is that Google Analytics no longer showed all of the data about which keywords were driving traffic to your website via Google Organic searches. This was the origin of the dreaded [not provided] keyword with which most web pros should be all too familiar.

Google’s guidance of 10% or less remained true for several months according to industry observers. However, in March of 2012, we saw the volume of [not provided] start to trickle upward. between that time and mid-2013, the numbers slowly pushed up toward 40% over time, with some more tech-savvy industries seeing 50-75% of their keyword traffic showing as [not provided].

Then Google made the change (looks like they started the rollout in July if the chart is correct), and we are nearing 77% [not provided] for all Google searches. Brace yourself, because 100% is right around the corner. See the chart below from the Not Provided Count website, which tracks the progress of this over time.

Not Provided % Over Time

How to React to All Google Keywords As [Not Provided]

Now that Google has forced our collective hand, SEOs and web marketers need to adjust and move on. They have been pushing us toward the semantic web for some time now, and semantic search is about user intent rather than keywords. Google is justified in saying the writing has been on the wall, but we were in denial or just plain ignoring it.

Keep Targeting Keywords

It would be foolish to think that we will move from keyword-driven search to semantic overnight. If you are writing good content and adding real value, semantic search should be able to highlight your content for relevant searches eventually.

In the near term, keywords still matter a great deal. Fortunately, the Google AdWords Keyword Planner is still available and very useful for researching which terms to target.

We also still have the Search Queries report in Google Webmaster Tools. For as long as this remains available, it will be useful for estimating search impact of each keyword, tracking rankings, and keeping up with your overall search visibility.

Use Other Search Engine Data As A Proxy

While Google has moved fully to encrypted or secure search, none of the other search engines have announced plans to make a similar move. With Bing and Yahoo commanding nearly 30% of the search market in the U.S., there will still be keyword volumes available in your analytics packages.

Of course, their slice of the pie is pretty small, so there is the chance that the numbers will not scale to the whole population of data. This is where you can get creative. Compare your GWT search queries reports to the Bing and Yahoo numbers, and see if you can find similarities or common trends. Using the data that is available to us, you should be able to cobble together some rudimentary reports to share with clients who absolutely MUST have keyword level reporting of some sort.

If you have more influence over those expectations, try this…

Focus on Page-Level Metrics

A well structured SEO campaign or program will think about what keywords are being targeted on each page of the website. There will typically be only one primary keyword for each page in this situation. That is very useful for pushing up the page on only one SERP, but a single page can rank for a variety of keywords.

Rather than investing valuable time cobbling together highly inaccurate keyword proxy reports, start setting expectations that we now need to measure success differently. After all, the important metric is to get a page ranked, so that page receives organic traffic which can hopefully be converted.

Keyword metrics only tell a fraction of the story about a successful page, post, or other piece of content. When you add in long-tail, semantic matching, and referral traffic from external linking sites, you start to get a true understanding of campaign success. So run with it, and make growth in traffic on specific pages your goals now, rather than first page rankings for hyper focused keywords.

This is a great way to reset client focus from link building and off page tactics to content marketing and social media marketing. A holistic campaign will weave in multiple angles of marketing support, so this translates into a great opportunity for savvy marketing-minded internet pros to do the right thing.

Adopt Sound Testing Practices

Since we no longer have granular keyword data to understand what works and what does not, the importance of testing increases even more. It is important that you test and analyze what works on your website and in your industry firsthand. But test it at the page level, and work backward into the sources and other metrics. Make conversion or engagement with the content the focus. Once you get the conversion process in order, you can drive traffic to that page in any of a number of ways.

If you are inexperienced at testing, now is the time to read up on how to run an A/B test. Once you are comfortable with A/B, it may even be worth your time to investigate multivariate testing, assuming you have large enough volumes to run tests in reasonable timeframes.

Many industry experts are also advising us to use Google AdWords to vet out potential keywords. While I cannot argue that point conceptually, keep in mind that AdWords visitors and Organic visitors do not always behave exactly the same. The user experience is completely different, and many searchers understand the difference between organic and paid listings. When savvy users click a CPC ad, they are more likely to convert than if they are just casually browsing content on a topic of interest.

Stay the Course

Google has gone to great lengths the past three years to eliminate manipulation and spammy tactics. Although they are positioning the move to secure search as a security issue (which I believe is a factor in the decision), this is another step toward leveling the playing field between white hat and black hat SEO practices.

Keep doing the right thing, but adjust how you analyze success. Secure Search is not the end of SEO, just another evolution in the ways we manage our web presences. Any other tips I missed that should be added? Please share them in the comments below.

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As Founder and President of Return On Now, Tommy Landry provides the vision behind our SEO and SEM methodologies. With over 25 years of business experience and a deep understanding of modern internet marketing techniques, he spends his time providing hands-on consulting, insightful content, and engaging public speaking appearances to Online Marketers of all skill levels.
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