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).
- 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.
- 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…