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POV: Google Keyword (not provided)

OVERVIEW

There is no doubt that Google’s recent changes make performance reporting less accurate. SEOs and Marketers no longer have the raw data that we once used to measure SEO results and we recognize that we will need to use different KPIs and trending metrics to approximate the data that is now lost.

However these changes do not come as a surprise as it has been widely assumed by the SEO community for some time that this change was going to happen (although few expected it to be so soon). Google isn’t the only company making “secure search” a priority. Browsers such as IE10, Firefox 14+ and Mobile Safari have put measures in place to mask your keywords from the internet.

Fortunately, BusinessOnline has been preparing for this eventuality and we have a solid plan in place to report on data that we know historically has a high correlation to the success we once were able to directly measure. The good news is, unlike the Panda and Penguin updates, this change doesn’t affect our approach to optimization other than performance reporting (with the exception of being able to use analytics data for keyword research).

To quote Google’s Matt Cutts, explaining the future of SEO: “Succeeding in SEO will be the same as it’s always been if you’re doing it right – give the users a great experience.” We at BOL believe this as well. By developing user-centered content that is valuable and informative, and publishing to the web using best practices, you will see positive business results.
In this POV, we define our new approach to SEO performance reporting using the metrics we still have in conjunction with a couple new KPIs. This extrapolation should provide quite accurate organic search performance results and allow us to understand if we are successfully driving more visits based on our optimization activities.

“Succeeding in SEO will be the same as it’s always been if you’re doing it right – give the users a great experience.”
- Matt Cutts, Google

Understanding the backgroundunderstanding-chain

To both SEOs and digital marketing professionals alike, the “not provided” or “keyword unavailable” issue has been going on since late 2011. Since that time, Google has been redirecting a growing number of users to a secure page for their search activity (https://www.google.com). The effect of this situation is that all search referring data that traditional analytics tools have used to understand which keywords drove visitors from Google is now blocked.

When Google initially launched their secure search many marketers began seeing that a percentile portion of their keyword data fell into a “not provided” category. In fact, Google estimated at that time that keyword unavailable searches wouldn’t exceed 10%. Initially, a searcher had to be logged into one of their respective Google accounts in order to produce any sort of keyword not provided data. This meant that referring keyword data was no longer being fully displayed in analytics as Google aimed to provide their users an amount of privacy when searching.

However, the percentage of organic search keyword traffic coming from keywords that were not provided grew steadily in past years, to the point that many sites were accumulating over 50% of keyword not provided data (and in some cases upwards of 80% or more).

Things changed again in late September 2013 when Google rolled out major changes toward encrypting all search activity altogether. Now, when any user goes to Google to search they are automatically redirected to the https:// version of Google or, an SSL encrypted search. This update only affects organic search data. Paid search data from Google continues to report on keyword referrals.

What does Keyword “not available” loss of data change really mean?

 

Quick summary:

  • Changes only affect how we measure and report SEO performance
  • Organic traffic from Google can no longer be tracked at a keyword level via analytics
  • There will be a limited amount of keyword referral data available in Google Webmaster tools
  • No longer have visibility into traffic numbers
  1. Brand / Non Brand
  2. Long Tail Performance
  3. By Keyword Group
  • Decrease in visibility for new keyword opportunities based on analytics data
  • We need to use a different metric set to understand SEO performance
  • We should expand the number of keywords we check rankings for in Google

As mentioned, SEO still works the same way.  But, not having keyword performance data affects SEO practitioners and digital marketers in two distinct ways:

1. How We Measure Success and Performance

SEO professionals have historically used a combination of ranking, traffic and conversion metrics as the primary KPIs to measure SEO performance.

Now, based on the new Google change, only the following metrics from this list are still available:

  • Overall Organic Search Traffic By Engine
  • Search Rankings for Critical Terms
  • Search Rankings by Page Tags / Types
  • Search Rankings by Keyword Tag

 

These are no longer available:

  • Year Over Year Brand / Non Brand Total SEO Traffic
  • Year Over Year SEO Traffic by Keyword Tag
  • Conversions by Keyword / Keyword Tag
  • Keyword Traffic  Patterns by URL
  • Long Tail Keyword Traffic Patterns

2. How We Research Keyword Opportunities in the era of “Keyword Unavailable” performance data

This is a much smaller issue but still deserves attention.  Historically, analytics data has been an excellent source of uncovering additional keyword opportunities and long tail permutations that had a propensity to drive traffic.  However, this data was used largely in conjunction with other keyword data sources like:

  • Google Keyword Planner
  • PPC / Paid Search Data
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Intuitive Understanding of the Market / User Personas
  • Third Party Tools (SEMRush, Keyword Discovery, etc.)

 

Going forward, greater emphasis will be placed on these data sets as the foundation of keyword research, especially PPC impression data which will be the most accurate source of information to identify opportunity.

How do we report on SEO performance if key word data is “not provided”?

 

In this previous section of this document we identified the historical KPIs that we have used to measure SEO success as well as which of those KPIs are still available.  Here is a more detailed look at how we plan on using the data that is still available, and which other KPIs should be incorporated into our reporting methodology.  Below are the four primary metrics that we will use to measure search performance going forward:

1.     Total Organic Search Visitors:

This will still be the primary metric that will be the main focus of our reporting.  “Did traffic go up or down in comparison to a previous time period and is that change substantial relative to our goal?”  Unfortunately, because brand and non-brand segmentation of this traffic is no longer feasible, it is less clear if SEO efforts were primarily responsible for a shift in performance or if it was mainly due to a shift in demand across keywords that have remained consistent in ranking.  This is especially true for brand related searches where a company will typically rank number one for their brand.

Therefore, any change to brand traffic levels are not usually considered a result of SEO activities when the ranking doesn’t change for the brand terms.  This is not as true for large companies that have multiple brands or sub brands where they are less likely to own the number one spot for all brand related terms.

2.   URL Level Traffic:

Although we are no longer able to see the keywords that are driving traffic to a Web site from Google, we can see what pages that traffic lands on.  By identifying the pages that drive the most organic search traffic to the site and correlating which keywords those pages are ranking for, we can correlate changes to both traffic and rankings to see if we can identify positive or negative changes.

In many cases this will be difficult since we no longer have visibility into the keywords driving traffic (with the exception of Google Webmaster Tools data described below).  However, we can get greater context around these traffic and ranking numbers by analyzing them in conjunction with the GWT keyword data.

A sample reporting structure might look like:

a. URL:                       http://www.example.com

 

URL: http://www.example.com
Total Traffic: Last Period: xxxx Current Period: xxxx Change: +/- xxxx
Keyword 1:
Rankings Last Period: #4 Current Period: #1 Change: +3
Traffic Last Period: xxx Current Period: xxx Change: xxx
(traffic numbers only if they exist in GWT)
Keyword 2:
Rankings Last Period: #10 Current Period: #6 Change: +4
Traffic Last Period: xxx Current Period: xxx Change: xxx
(traffic numbers only if they exist in GWT)
ETC

 

3.   Use Webmaster Tools:

You can still get keyword data in webmaster tools, and it includes search data from encrypted searches. It also gives you impression versus click data so have visibility into the keywords people are using and where your site got an impression in the search results.  Note that this data is not 100% accurate and is only available for a small overall % of search queries (currently around 2K).

Comparing keyword traffic volumes over time will give you a trending direction for your SEO program, especially for competitive non brand keywords.  Therefore we will be using this data as part of our Trend Over Time performance report in order to show the effects of the SEO program.  This will be especially telling when coupled with the URL level traffic and rankings for those keywords that have data in Google Webmaster tools.

  • Since the number of keywords reported on is not comprehensive and the data is not 100% accurate, the analysis of the data derived from GWT will be considered trending data and is a KPI that will need to be considered in conjunction with total traffic, URL traffic and search rankings to form a comprehensive view of the overall effectiveness of the SEO program during a specified period of time.

4.   Search Rankings:

Search rankings will actually gain in importance because of this update since marketers can no longer see which keywords have driven traffic to their site.  Therefore, it will be important to check rankings for keywords that have historically driven traffic to your site since you won’t be able to directly measure changes in traffic levels for those keywords anymore.  Analyzing ranking changes across keywords that have historically driven traffic will now be a critical tool in identifying and reacting to negative traffic changes.

It will also be important to carefully track which URLs are ranking for which keywords in order to correlate ranking changes to traffic changes.  This insight will allow us to better understand what is happening to traffic at the URL level.

By using these four primary data sets in conjunction with one another we can develop a comprehensive overview of our SEO performance.  Here are four additional data sets that will add context to the four primary metrics:

5.   Use Google Adwords:

AdWords impression data can be used in conjunction with the Google Keyword Planner data to identify new keyword opportunities.

6.   Look at Non-Google Keyword Data:

While Bing and Yahoo don’t provide nearly the amount of traffic that Google does, insights can still be made about the keywords that are driving traffic to your site, in particular at the URL level. This is especially true for those sites that have a significant amount of traffic.

7.   Look at Historical Data and Trends:

You still have all your historical keyword data in your analytics platform prior to this secure search update. This data will be extremely valuable for identifying campaigns and keywords that have consistently been performing well for years. This is important information for keyword opportunity identification standpoint as well as understanding URL level traffic trends.  Recall that we are now using page level data with ranking data to show performance changes.  By researching historical trends for the URLs that are being reported on, we can get a better idea of the keywords that have historically drove traffic and whether or not those keywords were primarily brand or non-brand keywords.  This allows us to better understand the cause and effect of traffic changes to those URLs.Historical data also gives insights into the seasonality of your market.  This  offers insight into the potential causes of performance changes.

8.   Google Trends:

Google Trends can give you insights into what is trending and thus what is bringing you traffic (especially as it relates to understanding how your brand traffic might be performing).

Summary

Using data analysis to understand and identify performance changes is critical for SEO professionals so that they can quickly and effectively respond to negative changes, prioritize resources and accurately report performance to executives and other team members.

In the past, keyword level analytics data has been the focus of this type of analysis and therefore has been critical in accomplishing these goals. In the absence of this data, based on the new Google changes, new metrics will need to be prioritized for these purposes.

While these new metrics aren’t as accurate as keyword level data, they do provide a solid alternative to understanding SEO performance.

Portions of this blog were previously published on “SearchEngineWatch.com