What came first, the content or the search term?
24/09/2013 | Written by | Categories: Analytics Philosophy

Ok, I get it, the sky is falling.  Google is now switching to 100% secure search which will mean that we will not receive any search term data, it will all be (Not Provided).  Cue mass panic and comments on related blog posts such as

  • “Officially time to look for a new career.  It was lucrative while it lasted.”
  • “How on earth are we to serve clients now without this data?”

I don’t work in SEO so not as much direct impact on me.  But at the same time, I am not surprised by this action from Google.

First though, can I just state this is not a Google Analytics issue.  This affects all analytics tools equally – yes even Google Analytics Premium.  And all of the open source and self built tools aren’t a solution either.  Google does not pass the search term as part of the referral string.  Therefore no one is able to record it.  Doesn’t matter how much you are paying for the tool or how clever the person who built the tool.

My thoughts on why Google won’t tell us search terms

I agree with everyone else, this is not Google trying to protect everyone’s privacy.  If that was the case, you wouldn’t get search term data from Paid Search.

But I don’t believe it is a deliberate attempt to force people to use Paid Search as the channel you can get search term data for.  It is the obvious conspiracy theory (well one of them) but too simplistic for my liking.

My belief until now is that Google wanted to stop sending through signals that other search engines could learn from.  If Bing, Yahoo, etc were able to learn from Google, they have more chance of competing & improving upon.  Google above all wants to protect its market share so must remain the best source of search engine results.

Then I had a different thought this morning, although based on the same end goal for Google.  What if the biggest threat to Google’s market share was not other tools improving but a declining quality of search engine results – with this due to the work of the SEO industry.  Google wants to show the most relevant pages for any word/term/phrase searched for.  SEO tries to game the system (yes you do) through manipulating various signals to indicate their page is the most relevant.  End result – top pages are not the most relevant but the ones that have been gamed the most successfully.

Actions taken by Google

Again this is not my industry so going to really simplify matters. But since Feb 2011, Google has launched first Panda and then Penguin and numerous other updates to the system.  All intended to hit the manipulation of results, starting with the black hat tactics and (I am slightly guessing here) moving into the greyer tactics with more recent updates.  These tactics should no longer work and any website/page using them will get dropped down the rankings.  End result is Google is able to show the most relevant page for any word/term/phrase searched for – at least in theory.

Has this worked?  Based on the various posts and discussions I encounter (without taking a lot of notice of, again, not my area), only to a certain degree.  It has cleaned up some of the bad practices but the SEO industry is working hard to stay ahead of the game.  People are still out there identifying the tactics which can still be used to manipulate the results and get the desired page ranking top.  And this is still reducing the quality of Google’s search results.  So what does Google do next?

Force a switch in focus

To Google, the content came first.  “Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  They crawl all of the content on the internet – that is their starting point.  They want to show the most relevant content to their users.  That keeps the users coming back, where they also click on those sponsored links which brings in all the money.  And all those users is what keeps all the companies paying for those ads.

To the SEO industry, it appears the search terms come first.  “What are the search terms you want to rank for?”  “Step 1 – Keyword Research”.  Now lets write some content to rank for these terms.  And make sure we tell Google that these are the terms that this content is designed for, whether via links to the page or in the metatags.

See  the conflict?  Google is thinking content and SEO is thinking search terms.  All those algorithm changes and the thinking didn’t change.  Next step by Google, remove the search term information, force the SEO industry to switch their focus from search terms to content.

So what do we do now?

Go with it – Google is bigger than you, lots lots bigger.

Let’s go back to the original business objectives and business questions for a company.

We want people to find us when they search for XXX.  Well, there are two choices (you have always had two choices).

  1. Become the results people want to find when they search for XXX.  Let Google discover this (they need to get back to being good at this). Keep fingers crossed that Google stops other people from cheating the system to get ahead of it.
  2. Pay for top spot.  The recent changes mean if you are going to pay, it will be for top spot in the paid results.  Previously you could also pay for top spot in the organic results (two choices were always be the best or pay the most).

This is all based on the assumption that Google really can clean up the results pages and identify the most relevant results.  If so, they win as the quality of their search results improve and so do their users and so do the companies who should naturally be at the top of those results.

And the Analytics?

Switch the focus from search term reports to landing page reports.  No we don’t know which search term people used to find these pages but we can still tell if Google thinks this is good content – it will get traffic.  The biggest loss for analytics is on interpreting the quality of the page once people reach it.  Is a high Bounce Rate due to a bad page or visitors accessing it who you didn’t design the page for?  Although, on the latter, the page really shouldn’t be ranking for them anyway.

Focus on the content, just like Google does.  Good content drives traffic.  Bad content doesn’t.  Good content will provide good quality traffic.  Bad content won’t.  Yes I know that is simplistic but is a starting point.

Remember as well that you still have search term traffic from other search engines.  Smaller numbers but it still exists.  Use this data for inspiration and ideas, to identify what people may be thinking when they stumble across your website.

And if you have to, you can still list out your key terms and check how you rank for these terms.  You can’t tell how much traffic they drive but still something that you can keep an eye on.  All of the basic principles on using metatags (is that the right name?) so GoogleBot can understand your page still apply.

So my advice, do what Google wants you to do, switch your focus from search terms to content.  Now the SEO crowd can now tell me just how wrong I am…

17 responses to “What came first, the content or the search term?”

  1. Gerry White says:

    Defending the SEO guys (of which today I am one) – we use the data to analyse how people search for products to make pages more appropriate, i.e. if people are searching for the manufacturer code – we need to make that more appropriate, this is to help users find what they want which is ultimately beneficial to Google – whilst this data you would think is available other places, anyone working in a niche is still a bit screwed!

    We can segment the phrases that people come to an article and then ensure the quality is there – we often create pages (we being us web marketing peeps) that have an unexpected audience and it is often a key source of information as to who else we should be providing content for … – this was key when I was at a gov – an example was the number of people searching for council tax going to the wrong tax hub etc…

    I think the idea that keyword level data can be used to create a worse experience for users is generally wrong, at least when its provided to the site owners – there are contnet farms – but the data for this is available in so many other sources before you would start to look at onsite content.

    Frankly I think that without the KW level data web content could be in a worse place where SEO and content marketers will deliver increasingly generic, one size fits all lower quality content ?

    • Peter O'Neill says:

      My point is that while you can game the system to get top spot, the system will not show the best result in that top spot. So Google is removing the options that help people game the system. The point I didn’t make is this has had a follow-on affect which does hurt a lot of other areas – discovering what users are searching for, who else to provide content for, etc. But I believe they are trying to fix the big problems first.

      I think I can provide alternative approaches or counter arguments for your examples but it is on a case by case basis, which is difficult to do here. There is nothing stopping SEO and Content marketers from producing increasingly better quality content, they can still easily see if that content is working based on quantity/quality of traffic. Just the easy solution has been removed when it comes to analysis but hopefully it will bring the focus back to the content itself.


      • Gerry White says:

        The one problem is that I have always been a preacher when it comes to looking at the keywords as it shows how / what people search and its always been useful in teaching businesses how to write good content for the end users rather than writing for themselves!

        I also hate the value some SEO people put on rank checking of head terms that drive little or no value to the business, this update pushes people back to look at the head rather than the tail where typically quality traffic is! Rank checking is a neccesary evil – but I would much prefer to analyse the traffic coming in!

        “content is working based on quantity/quality of traffic”

        I have had articles rank for rather random phrases that drove little quality traffic, segmenting that traffic out I could see if the article did actually perform… We have all used a line from a film or a quote that is used out of context that sometimes gets completely the wrong traffic… Maybe that is the exception rather than the rule so generally your probably right!

        Honestly – I just like it 🙂 being able to look at the kw level data and that real understanding I feel it gives me of our clients, well I like it – Jono made a good point at MeasureCamp that maybe we need to talk to / listen to our customers instead….

        • I agree on it being very useful to look at kw level data, it just helps to know what is going on. But that option (toy) has been removed by Google as it was being abused (yes, am exaggerating here but you know what I mean). So now lets move on.

          Interesting the discussions I am reading. Half of SEO throw arms in the air and say they are forced back to ranking reports (even though terms will rank differently depending on signals). And other half appears to be saying they were already moving towards a focus on landing pages, understanding customers, etc. It could become an easy way to identify the bad SEOs…

  2. Hi Peter,

    you forgot the magic word: “lawsuits”


  3. Google has been trotting out the same old line about build good content and they will come for years and while it’s true, it’s also very simplistic.

    As is the catchall line about SEO people trying to game the system. As anyone who has been to one of my talks knows, I’m happy to admit that our industry has more than our fair share of snake oil salesmen and that’s allowed people to knock SEO as something a little underhand

    If you want to be successful at SEO, gaming the system doesn’t get you as far as understanding the signals that Google is looking for on site and constructing the content accordingly

    Those of us who have been doing SEO for long enough know that good keyword data is invaluable in helping build better content as it allows us to understand user intent and how they are asking certain questions. It’s far better than ranking reports as it shows true visits

    As someone who sits in the PPC, SEO and analytics camps, I do think that Google is doing this to drive more people into paid search for the simple reason that it will make them more money and where else are people going to go. Simplistic it may be, bu

    For example, Google has never paid cost data available for matches search queries in GA. It’s something that would be invaluable in allowing us to manage our campaigns, but they simply won’t make it available for the simple reason that it would make them less money

    We audit a lot of PPC campaigns produced by both agencies and inhouse and the wasteage is shocking. Google has no real interest in helping people reduce their costs (why would they)
    so this is just a continuation

    • Thanks for your input Charles. And I continue to admit this is slightly an outsider point of view. Definitely agree on frustrations with match search queries not being available in GA and that Google doesn’t actively work to reduce wastage/costs.

      I don’t know enough SEO tactics and how common they are. How common would guest blog posts or onsite content being produced purely for a SEO purpose be? I think both would fall into the white hat category but both are still gaming the system. Wouldn’t tactics like these have been used by the vast majority of SEOs? As legimate tactics but still manipulating results. Which I have taken advantage of myself.

      If all the games stopped, would we then be able to see the top content actually rise to the top? Constructing content still being fine as it is simply telling Google what the content is.

      No questions keyword data would help in all this. But losing that may just be the extreme method of stopping the games.

  4. Simon Hawtin says:

    “Now the SEO crowd can now tell me just how wrong I am…”

    Great ending. 🙂

    My ten cents worth is that the move by Google is not to counter the SEO industry’s best efforts – be that white hat or black hat. Google have enough firepower and intelligence to counter search spam. We continually see refinements to their algorithm (Panda /Penguin et al) and I can’t believe we’ve seen the last of them.

    I believe the reason Google has moved to HTTPS is because of the increase in concern around the internet and privacy. We’ve seen some pretty big hacks this year (NY Times homepage, Reuters Twitter) alongside consumer data scares (e.g. PRISM).

    As the world becomes more intertwined via the web, security and privacy are of increasing importance. Duck Duck Go is a classic example of a start-up that saw this development well in advance. It is my thinking that Google are responding to consumer concern in an attempt to avoid losing market share to new and more secure search engines like Duck Duck Go.

    As for what we can do now, well we’re SEO’s so we understand what Google (sorry “search engines”) look for on a page.

    What’s the most important ranking factor? Yahtzee…it’s the page title.

    Using analytics we can filter traffic by organic search and find number of visits to the website by landing page title. This will give us at least a rough idea of what the keywords were sending visits to our site from organic search. Agreed, it’s not ideal, but it’s a lot better than flying blind completely.

    • Peter O'Neill says:

      I still think that if privacy is the issue (and Julien has linked to a relevant blog post re a lawsuit), they would not be able to send through search terms for paid search. I don’t understand how one can be fine but the other one isn’t.

      But agree with your end point. We are not flying blind now but we need to develop alternative approaches – page title, page name, search terms from other search engines, etc.

  5. […] O’Neill advises: “Switch the focus from search term reports to landing page reports.  No, we don’t know which […]

  6. Penelope says:

    Hi all,

    Let me start by saying I am not an SEO practitioner, however, I work in digital analytics and I have always been a strong advocate of good SEO techniques and always believed that SEO was a very powerful way of getting real insight on what your users/consumers are looking for…
    I have worked very closely with SEO guys on website optimisation in the past and we were able to do nice stuff together. Also, I view paid search and SEO as two very complementary channels not rivals.
    Anyway, I was pretty disturbed by Google’s latest announcement.
    There are two things which immediately came to mind: I am concerned about the potential future lack of good quality content on blogs and publishing websites. If your SEO efforts can not be measured anymore, is good content really still going to get you up there? At least, when we were able to measure SEO efforts we could verify some aspects of the Google’s algorithm but now…How is Google going to rank articles? God/Google knows…
    But, the only possible positive thing I can see out of this is that the search engines performing pretty poorly right now could wake up big time and take this as a HUGE opportunity and I wish them well. I have always been Google’s devil advocate with no complex but today I am not impressed by this latest move. And yes of course, privacy? Really? Do you really care? I don’t think I could care LESS if Google captures my keywords, honestly…
    Apologies for the passion but I am not happy!

    • Sorry Penelope but what do you mean you can’t measure SEO efforts anymore? We can’t identify keywords from Google but can still measure SEO based on organic search from Google, landing page performance for Google organic, keywords from other search engines, etc etc.

      Plenty of options and with a focus on this analysis, I believe the quality of content will improve (as less time will be spent on creating content purely for SEO or on building links).

      Agree not a privacy issue.


      • Penelope says:

        Hey Peter,

        I do think that measurement for SEO performance and efforts are going to be significantly affected. Yes, we’ll still be able to see how organic search is doing versus other channels and out of overall traffic but! Google’s market share in the UK was around 90% the last time I checked. Will we be able to really analyse and act on organic keywords as a whole by looking at 10% of them? Eh, maybe- If the behaviour and the demographic using the other search engines are similar to the ones on Google.
        Yes landing pages reports will help but won’t tell you what keywords help you get there, I think making assumptions on what keywords drove people to such and such landing page is going to be harder than we think…And what about long tail analysis?
        I wonder what’s going to happen to Insight for Search though!!or however new name they call it now…

  7. […] belief, shared by our good friend Peter O’Neil of L3Analytics, is that Google has made these changes primarily to improve the overall quality of content and […]

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