October 25, 2014

Why Google Is Encrypting Search Keyword Data and How to Work Around It

Late last month, marketers saw a mild headache swell to a full-blown migraine when it was confirmed that Google was, indeed, taking steps toward encrypting all of its search activity. In other words, that already pesky “(not provided)” line in the Google Analytics report for organic search will soon obfuscate just about all of a marketer’s perspective on which keywords are driving organic search traffic to their sites.

Google logo

 

This news begs a few questions, including: Why is this happening? What does it mean for marketers? Are there any workarounds to track organic search traffic? Is Google violating its popular motto by being evil?

Read on for some answers.

Why is Google doing this?
The most cynical, and maybe the most pragmatic, reaction is to think that Google is doing this for money. “They’d surely want to increase ad sales,” says Reid Bandremer, SEO project manager at LunaMetrics. “They get 97 percent of their revenue that way. It’s impossible to not notice that they recently released the paid and organic report in AdWords. Plus, you can still get the same insights on keyword quality and keyword conversion data in AdWords. So if you’re a rational-minded Web marketer, even one focused on organic search, you have more incentive to, at the very least, spend more time in the AdWords interface.”

“Prima facie, it does appear that this change will drive marketers more toward SEM – Google’s AdWords – than SEO, hence driving ad sales for Google,” says Jalal Nasir, CEO of Pixalate. However, he thinks this move has more to do with Google’s new search algorithm, Hummingbird, which aims to naturally classify high-quality content without relying on unnatural feedback from webmasters and SEO firms.

“One of the ways Google can tone down some of the unnatural SEO feedback was to cut the feedback loop for the webmasters so they can’t see how various keywords were performing,” Nasir says.

Google AdWords logoLarry Kim, founder and CTO of WordStream, says that this latest move from Google is another in a long line of related activities – Panda, Penguin, SEO penalties, large ad formats on search results pages and the retirement of its keyword tool, among others. These all point to the same thing: “Google is trying make SEO relatively harder to do and more difficult to measure than before,” he says. “It is naive to believe that these changes have no impact on AdWords sales or SEO effectiveness.”

The notion that Google is doing this purely to protect users’ privacy is refuted by the fact that the company is making this information available to AdWords users, Kim adds. However, it does appear to be a move that would make users feel happier and safer, which is good for public relations.

“It also negates threats from competitors like Firefox and DuckDuckGo, who might have had a competitive advantage regarding improved privacy,” Bandremer says.

He adds that if he were to speculate, he could think of two other goals that Google might have for this move to encrypt search activity:

-       make Google Analytics Premium more appealing by making this information available to that set of customers; or

-       make it harder for other search engines to reverse engineer its algorithm.

What does it mean for marketers and SEO?
“Firstly, and obviously, SEOs will need to develop different ways to track and report on the ROI of organic search efforts,” Kim says. “But the loss of keyword organic search query data has other impacts other areas of marketing.”

For instance, PPC marketers who relied on organic search keyword data for conducting keyword research, sales automation tools used to drive auto-responder campaigns based on the entry keyword and sales teams that analyzed organic search query data to infer the intent of a lead to tailor better sales pitches will all have to make adjustments.

“These and other popular marketing strategies triggered off of organic search keyword data will all need to be updated using less precise methods,” according to Kim.

In general, this change requires a shift in perspective for marketers, according to Scott MacLeod, director of analytics and insights at The VIA Agency. “Google’s new encryption mandate simply reinforces that page- or content-centric analysis and optimization is more critical than ever to deliver experiences that will attract people to websites.”

Marketers should also see the silver lining here: “It’s an opportunity for SEO practitioners and marketing agencies to differentiate themselves from those that can’t adapt,” Bandremer says. This differentiation has to come from understanding that search is moving away from “strings” (i.e., strings of characters and simple word matching) to “things.”

“So search marketers that want to remain successful need to harness their ability to understand what people want and are searching for, and deliver that in a way that meaningfully meets both business and audience needs. They can’t simply try to match strings of characters anymore,” according to Bandremer.

Are there any workarounds?
“Several workarounds exist, including measuring total organic search numbers to different pages, leveraging paid search data, and estimating or extrapolating by using proxies like searches from Bing,” Kim says. “The challenge with these methods is that they’re less precise than before, and search marketing is a field that prides itself on being data driven and quantitative.”

MacLeod says his company will use the page- and content-centric approach mentioned earlier in order to deduce what topics are attracting people to its websites. “Second, we’ll lean more on paid search and Google AdWords or Google Webmaster Tools for keyword insights.”

Bandremer has 15 ideas for how marketers can deal with the growing “(not provided)” problem, including the use of a rational problem-solving framework; verifying trends with Google Trends; asking people how they found your site; focusing on landing pages; and triangulating visits with volume, rankings and click-through rates.

Meanwhile, Marc Purtell, director of SEO at MediaWhiz, lays his own list of possible solutions, which includes the use of keyword suggestion sources, and tracking and comparing buckets of keyword rankings to page visits.

What do you think about Google’s move to encrypt search activity? What workaround solutions will you be using?

By Jason Hahn

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