There’s been a noticeable increase in the level of griping by SEOs about the way that Google has been treating them. The complaints are mostly focused on the rapid growth of (Not Provided) keywords from Google searches. While SEOs struggle with the changing tools available to them, what Google is trying to accomplish is much larger than frustrating the search optimization business – they intend to fundamentally change the way we approach our organic search strategies and I believe they’ll succeed.
About two years ago, Google started to slowly shut off our ability as website managers to see what searches brought visitors to our sites. Google decided to hide the keywords used by anyone using the search engine through an encrypted (https) connection and clicking an organic (non-paid) result – primarily those logged into Google when doing a search.
Their argument was that this is a privacy issue. Google explained that they should protect the browsing habits of anyone using an encrypted search. These users wanted greater privacy – that’s WHY they used an encrypted page, after all. Functionally, this meant anyone logged into Google for any reason including Gmail, Google Voice, YouTube or Google Analytics would now have their keyword searches hidden from destination websites.
I’m a skeptic, however, and don’t believe the privacy explanation. Even when logged into these services, destination websites never received individual identifying information from Google. More importantly, Google isn’t giving the same treatment for those clicking paid search results. One could argue that they must share that information in order to validate billing statements, but I think it’s a simple pay-to-play philosophy at work. This view was reinforced when Google recently killed it’s free keyword research tool and replaced it with the keyword research tool for Google Adwords, their highly lucrative digital advertising platform.
Regardless, as the popularity of Google’s login services continued to grow in the past two years, the number of (Not Provided) results has grown steadily. Experts predicted that we’d lose 100% of keyword data within the next 12-18 months.
But something different happened in September. You can see the change of trajectory on the site www.NotProvidedCount.com which tracks this figure across a range of Web properties. From the week of August 28, 2013 to the week of September 24, 2013, the average percent of keywords reported as (Not Provided) jumped from less than 50% up to more than 76% with individual sites catering to tech-savvy Web professionals floating around 90%!
It was clear that we were losing keyword visibility more quickly than we’d feared when we received the announcement that Google will be encrypting all non-paid searches. In short order, we will hit the point of 100% (Not Provided) – A complete organic keyword blackout!
Changing the Thinking on SEO
Why would Google do this? What are they trying to accomplish with this move?
In part, this is the next stage of the battle that Google has long waged with SEOs looking to game the system. Hiding keyword effectiveness information makes it more difficult for so called “Black Hat” SEOs from abusing Google’s algorithms.
Certainly, this also hurts legitimate content producers’ ability to take steps to boost their rankings. The problem is the gap between Google’s take on what is and isn’t good SEO and what legitimate SEOs want to place above that line.
Google doesn’t want us thinking about search optimization as something that we “do.” They want organic search rankings to be something that naturally comes from producing quality original content and publishing that content on well-constructed websites. Google frames its recommendations in these areas not as “SEO guidelines,” but rather as “Quality guidelines.” Any SEO work outside of this is seen as an attempt to unfairly manipulate Google. In their eyes, there is no “white hat” SEO.
In other words, Google wants us to focus on creating great content and great experiences, not on trying to optimize for the search engines!
Here are a few of the recent and planned shifts that Google is making to move search in the right direction:
- Social cues. While inbound links from one site to another have long been a mainstay of search ranking algorithms, Google has more recently admitted to using social cues, inbound links and other mentions on sites such as Twitter and Google+, within its ranking algorithms. This leads us to the fact that Google+ is no longer an optional part of your digital strategy.
- Personalization of search results. Google has been gently pushing this direction for some time but it seems they’re beginning to move this way more aggressively. Search results are now being influenced by who you follow on Google+, for example, and Google Fellows have indicated that geography plays a role in organic results and not just targeted PPC through Google Adwords. Knowing where your results fall for a given search key phrase therefore becomes more difficult as two different searchers will receive different result sets.
- Schema.org. To cut through issues of interpretation, Google is increasingly supporting structured data standards such as Schema.org designed to facilitate the semantic Web.
- Google Authorship. One example of the way that Google is enhancing its listings using Schema.org is that of Google Authorship. For example, a Google search for me should yield information about me and enhanced listings of my blog posts citing me as the author and including my photo.
- Google+ local. The former Google Places is part of Google’s move to become the most dominant player online (battling with the likes of Facebook and Microsoft to get there). If more and more information is concentrated within the Google family, you might never need to leave to get what you’re looking for!
Google has made these and other moves with the intent to improve the search experience for its users while reducing the ability of SEOs to manipulate results. Despite the fact that Google would like us not to try consciously to influence our placement, it’s more important than ever to play the game on Google’s terms to improve your odds of ranking well.
For more information on the changes that Google’s sending our way, and how to adapt your organic search strategy, join us for our Keeping Up With Google Webinar on October 17, 2013.