With Google rolling out encrypted search to all searches recently, internet marketers have lost a valuable resource: the keyword data that led people to their websites. Where the keywords that people searched for to find websites used to be, Google has replaced it with the frustrating placeholder in their analytics dashboard: (not provided). We invited three SEO professionals in the internet marketing industry to discuss with us what the effect of keyword (not provided) has been and will be, why Google made the choice to make the switch, and, most importantly, what they've been doing to adapt to the complete roll out of encrypted search.


Hello, and welcome to our panel today where we’re going to be talking about the not provided keyword phenomena and encrypted search. I’m Chad Hill, the CEO of Semify, and I’m joined today by a number of other SEO experts. We have Collin Jarman from Click Optimize, Christine Rochelle from lotus823, and we have Brett Snyder from Nebo. So let’s get this started. Collin, could you explain a little bit about what keyword not provided is for those who may be watching this and don’t understand it?

Yeah, so in the past, users who are logged into Google could make a choice in their privacy settings to hide their keyword data from websites with analytics installed and that would appear as “not provided.” Recently, Google made a change to their default settings such that all searches, whether you’re logged in or not, are secure. So, effectively what’s that done is made just about 100% of searches come back as secure and so the keyword data now shows up as not provided within Google Analytics.

Got it. Now Christine, how do you think the lack of keyword data is effecting the SEO industry? Do you think this is a big deal or something that’s not that big of a deal?

It honestly depends on how you’re approaching SEO at this moment. For a lot of SEOs who are more traditional in terms of their strategies and their metrics, it’s going to be a huge change for them. But, if you’ve been able to move with a lot of the things that Google’s been putting out, you’re a little more prepared for this change. In terms of reporting, I believe that a lot of third party providers are certainly going to gain a lot of business from this because people are going to look for more data outside of Google Analytics. But, if you look at what’s been added to Analytics as well as how Keyword Planner came about, you can see that Google is really looking more towards user behavior. So, just watching the metrics a little bit and really utilizing user behavior metrics more so than the straight keyword metrics is key, and the biggest struggle is going to be the education of the client. If you’re providing SEO for a client, educating them on how these metrics are changing is also essential.

Thanks! That’s a great answer, and thanks for that. Now Brett, we want to flip it over to you and find out what you think of not provided and encrypted search. What’s your take on why Google’s doing this, and is it something that impacts the SEO industry in terms of trying to take data away, or are there other reasons that they’re making this change?

Sure, and I think Christine kind of hit the nail on the head when she talked about user engagement. Look at all the changes that Google’s been making over the last couple of years, from the fact that Keyword Planner replaced the AdWords tool which used to give more keyword-level metrics in terms of search volumes, to the crackdown on different third-party providers that were scraping results to get rankings reports, they have the Hummingbird update, the Penguin update, the Panda update. All of these things are really trying to get SEOs, marketers, and business owners in general to be able to look at not serving the keyword or the search query anymore, but serving the user on the other end of the search query. You’re trying to provide an answer to a question and not a response to a particular query. I think that it’s really kind of a fundamental change in how Google wants us to pursue optimizing for their search engine, because they don’t want people to optimize simply to rank in their results. They want to optimize their websites to be able to serve end user, and Google just wants to serve as that conduit between a business and a user in a way that hasn’t been available prior to 1999, around the time it came out.

That’s a great point. One of the things that I heard Rand Fishkin at Moz.com talk about was this early idea from way back, when there were lots of search engines and not just one and a couple second-run ones, for a general contract that said, “Look, I’m going to let you crawl my website and put my content in your search engine, but in exchange for that, I want to know, when you do refer traffic, what that person is looking for so that I can tune my pages to make sure that they have answers to the questions that the person is searching for.” Brett, going back to you, has that really changed? Has that contract been broken? Is it still fair that this data is no longer coming over, or are we just going to have a new way of looking at it?

I think that what it really comes down to is that every one of Google’s updates, if you really look at it, is a response to their algorithm being abused. You see things like the Panda update going after people who were stuffing keywords into the site and the Penguin update going after people who were trying to build spammy backlinks to manipulate the algorithm. This, I think, is a little bit different in the sense that it’s trying to get people to stop optimizing just for keywords. It’s a little more intangible to look at it that way, because it’s not so distinct to say this is a spam tactic, but there’s a lot of money in search and there’s a lot of money in ranking in the top spot. There are some industries where the number one spot can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in revenue for you. When that’s the case, people are willing to do whatever they need to in order to show for those keywords, and Google’s approach to it is to want to get people back to level where they’re going to serve the end user and not simply use this as a tool to make money without respecting the end user on the other side of the engine.

That’s great. I want to switch gears here and talk a little bit about what some of our companies are doing to introduce new metrics, and some of you already talked about engagement and that Google, even though they’re not passing the keyword data in the referrals anymore, has opened up other means of getting data like Webmaster Tools, so you do have information. I want to spend a minute talking about what Semify is doing, and then I also want to have each of you take a moment to talk about what metrics your respective agencies are now looking at in your monthly reporting. So at Semify, we’ve kind of seen this coming, and we’ve been pushing a while on measuring the leads and actual output of what people are doing on your website. Our software product measures lead referral sources and the number of phone calls coming in from different sources, because we believe that at the end of the day, for most of our clients who want to generate leads, we want to show that the investment, the search engines, the content we’re creating, and what we’re doing to make your site a more engaging place, are turning into new customers. We’re really focused there. Now, used mentioned something, Brett, which was interesting because at the same time, we have had to strengthen some of our keyword ranking tools because people still want that data. They want to know if they’re improving in the rankings or not. So, I think this is a longer term transition, but we’ve definitely amped that up. The other metric that we’ve introduced at Semify is we’ve started including in our monthly reports a number of entrances from organic sources at a page level, because one of the metrics we want to show as we engage with you and build interesting, compelling content on your website is that the number of pages receiving organic referrals is going to increase. Even though we don’t know what keywords are referring that traffic, we’re going to know that that content is addressing a need out on the web, and people are finding it and engaging with it. So, that’s what Semify’s doing. I want to turn this over to Collin and hear about what you’re doing at Click Optimize to redefine some of the metrics in your monthly reporting.

What you were saying about increased organic referrals and individual pages is actually exactly the kind of path we’ve taken with it. When it’s all said and done, it’s about relevance to what the user is actually searching for and what’s on your page. So, if you do good SEO, each page is going to have a specific theme or topic that it addresses, so if you look at your landing pages from the organic traffic, you can see, for example, that 20% of your organic traffic lands on a certain page and 40% lands on another page. So, by looking at that and knowing what topic your landing pages are focused on, you can start to get a good idea of the types of searches that people are using to find you. Going back to ranking reports, that’s another thing we can cross-reference this with. By combining where we’re ranking in searches for hundreds of different words as well as where our organic traffic is landing, we can paint a pretty good picture of what keywords people are using to search for us and the terms that bring them in and what needs to be changed and updated or moved around. We top it all off with some good keyword research, the keyword planner, and Google Trends and stuff like that, and we can get a solid idea of how people are finding us.

Awesome, and that’s great. So, Christine, what are you guys doing at Lotus? How are you guys addressing this? So, we’ve sort of been turning it around a little bit, and one of the ways that we optimize a lot of our landing pages is based on particular keywords, whether it’s related to the product or to the service. So, really watching that user engagement and watching the engagement with those pages is part of our strategy. One of our advantage is that we’re able to integrate both the traditional PR as well as social media, so really at the end of the day, what our SEO metrics are going to tell us is what kind of content we have to craft to be able to build our communities for our customers as well as to improve engagement. So, looking in terms of media relations on the traditional side, we’re looking at which stories they’re picking up for content, and then on the social media side, seeing what pieces of content, whether it’s a specific post like a video or status or a specific topic, they’re engaging with. We’re taking all of those metrics into play with also the traffic and engagement on the landing pages and the blog posts and being able to craft content for the brand based on those metrics. So really what it comes down to is that most SEOs are wanting to manipulate Google, and Google’s been constantly turning it around and saying that you really have to change yourself based on what your audience wants. That’s where a lot of those audience metrics are coming into play, and Google Analytics. So, by integrating those other two data points on traditional and social media, we’re able to continue crafting our content to make the sites more relevant for the user, and thus for Google.

Awesome! So again, we have some really good stuff and definitely some commonality here that’s coming up. I want to flip it over to Brett and ask you what you guys are doing at Nebo.

So, what I actually want to talk about is a little bit different that the straight up reporting, because I think everybody here has kind of hit the nail on the head already. I think that you have to look at things at a page level, you have to look at engagement metrics, you have to look at things like your rankings reports. If you can say that you know that a certain term used to draw a lot of traffic and still does, now you have a little bit more information to be able to tell what goes through. What we’ve tried to start looking at is the keyword themes that are surrounding your site. So, yeah, Google took away our keyword referring data. It didn’t take away our landing page data. It didn’t take away our Webmaster Tools data which is questionable in terms of whether or not you believe that, but it is information from Google telling us whether or not they think our site is relevant. They didn’t take away our on-page metrics. One of the things we start to look at is through a tool called Screaming Frog that lets you actually pull all the title tags associated with your website. You know that the title tags are one of the most fundamental things that you optimize for in SEO. At least for us, it’s one of the very first things that we do once our keyword research is completed. What we’re trying to do is match up the keywords that are actually placed in the title tag, because we know they’re the ones we feel are most relevant to the site, and then we look at how those correlate with the keywords that Google, through Webmaster Tools, tells us are referring traffic to our site. From there, we’re able to pull out themes, we’re able to pull out additional long-tail opportunities that we hadn’t considered. We’re able to use the available information that we have in order to go in there and say, “Okay, now I know that since this page got a ton of traffic and we’re targeting X, Y, and Z keywords in those title tags, I want to see what other related keywords Google is telling us refer traffic or at least refer impressions to our website. From there, we can go and almost reverse back into our original keyword research process to be able to ask if the terms make sense. Do the other sites that Google is showing in these results match with the user intent that we expect to align with these search words? From there, we’re allowed to say, “Okay, now these are the things that we can really look at to help build our SEO strategies.” The other thing that I am of a personal opinion may or may not be why Google is pushing this not provided, is that this information is still available in your paid campaign. They said that this keyword referring data is still available if you go purchase your AdWords keywords placements. If you go in there, you can actually see how these keywords refer traffic, what conversions they lead to, and how this contributes to the growth of your business revenue, leads, or contact form completions, however you measure conversions in your APIs. That information is still available on paid platforms, and I hate to use the word “synergy” because it sounds like a buzzword, but that working together with your alternative mediums that Christine mentioned is giving you considerably more information about your site than you had when looking granularly at individual keywords.

Yeah, that’s a great point. I’m surprised no one mentioned this, but I think in addition to this data that’s very valuable to Google, there is, I believe, a privacy issue around it with some research somebody did a number of years ago where AOL released a supposedly scrubbed list of keyword searches, but they did have a unique identifier and some researchers were able to almost specifically identify based on just the search queries they had. We all know, with the number of advertising cookies floating around on the web these days, it wouldn’t take a lot for somebody to use that keyword data to actually build a very precise profile of who the person was, maybe even down to the specific person. So, I do think that one, Google wants it to be them who has that data, and two, they probably is a rightful privacy issue because they know better than most of us about what is really going on across a lot of websites. Again, I don’t know if anyone else has any final comments, but I want to thank you all for coming today. This is really interesting information. So I will just kind of pause here. If anyone else has anything to say, please bring it up! Awesome! So thanks a lot, again, for your time today, and I hope everyone who joined us and watches this webinar appreciates the expertise that we’re able to bring together. So, thanks a lot and we’ll talk to you soon!