Expert Interview: How Google’s Keyword Search Encryption Affects Blogging

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Keys on Keyboard

For quite some time now, we’ve all been dealing with Google’s “Not Provided” keyword search issue (Google Analytics). Frustrating? Absolutely. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Up until a few weeks ago, the keyword encryption was applied only to a certain percentage of searches performed. On September 23, Google turned up the heat by making all searches secure. That’s right. Out of the blue, “organic analytical data is nonexistent for Google traffic, and many webmasters are seeing 95+ percent of keywords being reported as “(not provided)”, with that remaining 5 percent coming from non-Google searches (Search Engine Watch).”

What does this mean for bloggers? And what can you do to better understand how people are finding your blogs? I’m not an SEO expert, so I turned to my former colleague and friend, Gil Reich. Gil is the owner and founder of Managing Greatness, a firm that helps companies build great websites. Prior to Managing Greatness, Gil was a founding member of Answers.com, where he helped drive content, community, and the search marketing strategy for a site that is now ranked in the top ten globally.

1) In layman’s terms, what does the recent move by Google – encrypting all keyword searches – mean for content marketers and bloggers? Is there reason to be concerned?

It used to be that if I searched for “crock pot beef” on Google, and then clicked to your site, Google would tell you that I searched for “crock pot beef.” It doesn’t tell you that anymore. You’ll still know that I came from Google and what page I landed on, but you no longer know the search term I used.

So you have less information about your users and what they’re searching for. Should you be concerned? If you weren’t using that information anyway, then no. But if you were using that information to figure out what post to write next, or to understand your users, then you just lost some valuable data. The people who are most concerned are SEO professionals who can no longer tell clients “I can double your traffic and revenue on these 5 search keywords.” We can no longer directly track how much traffic and revenue is coming from each search term.

2) How does this change affect SEO?

The two main areas where this makes SEO harder are:

  • Discovery: Harder to see what new words and phrases are bringing us traffic.
  • Measurement and optimization: You can’t optimize as well when you can’t measure, so there’s going to be a lot more flying blind. There’s going to be a lot more wasted or misguided efforts.

3) Are there other places that bloggers can obtain keyword data?

No other keyword data will be as good, but it’s like when somebody turns off the lights you have to get better at feeling around in the dark. Google Webmaster Tools is now the best way to get information about what keywords Googlers are using to get to your site. Google AdWords still gives information about what search terms were used before somebody clicked an ad to get to your site. Yahoo and Bing still tell you what search terms were used on their search engines to get to your site. And you can look at your internal search to get a feel for what your users are looking for.

4) How should bloggers respond to this change? Should we even focus on keywords anymore?

This change makes it harder to optimize around keywords. And other changes Google is making are making keywords less relevant. Google has been moving “from strings to things.” For example, they increasingly treat homonyms as different words. Jordan is probably a country if your previous query was about Syria, but a basketball player if you’re in Chicago. And they’re increasingly treating synonyms as the same word, so if you’re searching for crock pot chicken recipes Google will increasingly present you pages optimized for the phrase slow cooker chicken recipes.

Keywords are definitely getting less relevant. And if in the past you focused on things like keyword density for different phrases on a page, you should probably stop. That said, you’re more likely to get search traffic on a page called “Crock pot chicken recipe” than “My Aunt Petunia’s scrumptious taste of heaven.” If you want search traffic, you can’t ignore keywords.

How should bloggers respond to this change? Unless you were relying on the keyword data that is no longer provided, you don’t need to respond to this change.

5) Anything else bloggers should be doing or aware of?

Bloggers should be aware that Google is getting smarter and smarter. Don’t think about tricking Google. But that doesn’t mean “just write good content and you’ll get search traffic” because that’s not right either. Give Google accurate signals as to why your page is perfect for their user. Google wants to know whether or not other websites value your content. So network with other bloggers and share each other’s best stuff. Google wants to know if your page is a good match for certain search terms. So help them out by using words that your searchers are likely to use. Google wants to know if users find your page valuable. So make sure that they do.

Last thing is to think about how important search traffic is for your blog. For some sites, search traffic is core to the business model. But sometimes you’re blogging because that’s the best way to develop and share your thoughts, or to interact, or to position yourself as a thought leader, or to earn the trust and respect of people who check out your site. If you’re letting SEO distract you and compromise your writing, you may be doing it wrong, especially if search traffic isn’t one of your core goals.

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