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November 26, 2013

Missing Organic Terms? What to Do & Why the Glass is Half Full

November 26, 2013

As you can see in the image below, Google has been slowly removing organic keyword data from Analytics since 2011. In its place, we’ve seen a growing number in the (not provided) group, which now represents 88% of our organic traffic. This will soon become 100% as Google recently announced that it aims to encrypt all of the keyword data on which we’ve previously relied.


Like many Google announcements, this created quite a stir. Most cried foul towards Google’s decision and anxiously looked for other ways to identify the (not provided) terms. This post will look at why this data mattered, where to go from here, and why the glass is actually half full. 

So, why all the fuss?
We’ve noticed that our clients love keyword rankings because it’s an obvious way to compare themselves to competitors. If my competitor is ranked above me, they have a better chance at getting to customers first – makes sense. Keyword rankings are also a heck of a lot easier to understand than more advanced topics like canonical tags and rich snippets.

Marketers like them because they can help show ROI. If someone says these are my core keywords and we can show how many organic visits those keywords are driving AND tie that to specific revenue, that is pretty good justification for the work. Moreover, keywords are a source of research, giving us all insights into the customer base. What’s driving traffic? What are the top converting terms, what terms are keeping people on our site the longest? All of these things can help inform improvements to a site.

Why did Google make the change?
The answer depends who you ask, but there are three primary ideas:

  • Since first reigning in the data in 2011, Google has stood behind its claim that the move is to protect user privacy.
  • Others in the industry say that the change is to prevent NSA spying.
  • While a third group think it’s a play to drive people to spend on Adwords. Paid advertisers can still see search queries that trigger their ads. There are several reasons I don’t believe this is Google’s motivation, but I’ll save that for another blog…

Whatever the reason, or likely combination of reasons, the change is happening and it’s time to adjust.

So, why is the Glass Half Full?
While we are losing some valuable data, and believe me I love data, I don’t think this is the worst thing that has ever happened. This change is stirring conversations and causing people to think about other tactics and metrics that have previously been overshadowed.

Consideration #1: Keyword Optimization is just one tactic but it has dominated nearly 75% of the conversation. It’s time to focus on other opportunities.

For a very long time, SEO was synonymous with keyword-focused optimizations. Sure, there were some other key players in the mix (link building, site architecture, etc.), but keywords consistently lead the conversation. How can I rank better? Why isn’t this term #1? How come my competitor is ranking higher than me?

So now that Google is closing the curtain on keywords, people are asking, “What do we focus on? What’s a good performance indicator?” These questions are well overdue and thanks to this update, the questions are finally being asked.

Consideration #2: Ranking for X term is not a business goal.

Before we can determine what other metrics matter, we need to identify primary goals, and one item that has often fallen into the shadows of keywords is proper goal setting.

There are 4 things to consider when creating a marketing plan: goals, channels, tactics, and results. Goals help us to determine which channels we need to target, the tactics are how we’ll find success on those channels, and from those efforts we can see results.

Proper goal setting is crucial for a comprehensive strategy, and ranking for a term is not a proper goal – it’s a means to achieve a goal. While keywords can be incredibly helpful in guiding the tactics, keywords should never define the goals that then determine the channels and tactics – unless you are taking a tunnel vision approach (which I would not recommend).

Consideration #3: The performance of individual terms has been unreliable for some time now.

Keywords used to be the Hannah Montana of SEO, and now they’re all running around naked licking wrecking balls. In other words, keywords were a predictable player in the golden days of SEO. It was easy to manipulate content, target specific terms, and see rankings increase. But let’s face it; with each algorithm update the volatile nature of individual terms continues to grow. 

Instead of focusing on individual players, keyword strategies are shifting towards a thematic approach. If a certain page on your site has been built with a specific theme in mind (as it should have been), you’ll be able to measure the success of that theme by monitoring the metrics for that page. Moreover, you can still get thematic data from sources like Google Webmaster tools.

What’s next then?

Stop focusing on beating your competitors in the rankings and start focusing on your users. Don’t create content written and curated only with a search term in mind. Instead, create content that answers the questions your users are asking. Stop asking search engines what they’re looking for and start asking your communities.

In other words, take a step back, get out of the keyword tunnel and let your business or organizational goals guide the way. How many visitors do you want to reach next year? What’s your revenue goal? What do you want your users to walk away with? What do your users need or want from you?

At the end of the day, Google cares about one thing – giving users the best experience. Call me an idealist, but I’d like to think that Google implemented these changes with the common good in mind and we’re all going to better because of it.

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