invasion-of-the-keyword-snatchersThe amount of keyword traffic data missing search queries (keywords) in web analytics has been steadily increasing each month since Google’s initial encryption of searches back in October 2011. Google prevented the search terms, of anyone logged into a Google account while searching, from passing through to a website’s analytics. The result was (not provided) being displayed in the place of actual keywords in organic search traffic reports. This meant that keyword level performance analyses could no longer include all data, but rather a sample set of those organic visits that did pass through keyword-level data.
Last Week, Google announced that they are moving entirely to secure search, which means all organic keywords from Google will now be (not provided) in your web analytics system. Google handles about 67% of all search engine queries every month according to comScore’s August 2013 Search Engines Ranking report. Billions of searches from billions of users gives Google a lot of power.

Why is losing this referral data on keywords so important?

We use this data for a number of reasons. Knowing which keywords people search on and then visit your site allows us to:
1. understand how visitors perceive the brand and the website’s content.
2. connect the efforts we do in improving our ranking on targeted keywords with the result of improved traffic to the website
3. discover new ways to improve the performance or rank of the page or website in the search engine results
4. uncover new keywords to use in our efforts to draw more relevant traffic to the website
5. determine opportunities to create new content for the website based on perceived need from keywords.

SEO experts are now left with some daunting questions as a result. Without this vital information, how can we improve the page rank and performance to correspond with the user experience? We can use the aggregation of several bits of data to unlock this information. For example, we are able to see which landing pages are receiving search visits in Google Analytics. And while this won’t tell us exactly which phrases, if there has been any optimization effort, we can infer, to a certain extent, the success or failure base on the growth or decline in traffic to that page.

Also, if we know that a certain page is ranking well for a specific phrase or set of phrases using rank tracking methods, and that page is receiving a lot of visits, we can also infer that these are the phrases that are driving traffic to the page on Google. So any additional efforts using this key phrase in a support or authoritative manner should continue to improve traffic to these pages and hopefully conversions on the site.

Google Webmaster Tools offers impression and some click data on keywords used to find and visit your site. However, as of this blog post, we see that even this information is starting to wane from this tool. There is some controversy as to the accuracy of this data at times, but it is still useful information, and certainly better than nothing.

Google AdWords still has information as far as what keywords are getting traffic volume (because, of course, this is the area that Google makes money, so they are happy to share that information). AdWords also can inform us about average search volume for particular keywords, which is useful in determining potential candidates for optimization.

So, using all these tools and their information, we are able to understand which pages are receiving search visits, whether they are ranking for targeted key phrases for which we know we have optimized, and therefore have the opportunity for improvement through SEO efforts.

So, how are we able to now make the connection of all the efforts we have put into SEO to the website’s traffic growth from search?

As marketers, we have previously been able to put a dotted line from our efforts to quantifiable keyword traffic to a website.  And while the data may have been blurred somewhat in the past with branded vs non-branded traffic, as well as other referral influencers such as email marketing, banner advertising, and social media exposure, we still were able to concretely justify our efforts. With these new changes, the path is a bit more precarious to show effect, but still viable. One method is by using Google AdWords.

In AdWords, you can conceivably create a Paid Campaign on branded terms, and monitor your web traffic accordingly. If there is a spike in traffic, you can then infer that this is a result of branded rather than targeted non-branded keyword traffic efforts. If however, we see a steady increase in traffic that does not correlate to the launch of a branded ad campaign, we can infer that this is as a result of non-branded keyword traffic.

If paid ads are not the path you wish to choose, Google Insights or AdWords volume can be utilized. You can also go back to the landing pages in search and the optimization practices and keyword used to optimize and measure over time.

How will we now be able to tell how searchers are perceiving your brand and what is driving them to your website?

While this keywords may be disappearing from Analytics, there are still sources by which we can gather this information. These include Google Suggest, Ubersuggest, AdWords URL search in the keyword planner, and SEMRush.

Another great source of information is your own website’s internal keyword search. If you have site search, you can use this information to glean frequent branded and non-branded key phrases used within your own site to find information. This is information that is often overlooked by site owners, and can be some of the most valuable information you have. And while it doesn’t tell you have visitor got to your site, it does tell you what phrases they are associating with your brand once on the site. This data can also help you define what new keyword opportunities there are out there with which to optimize your site.

Traditionally, we uncover new opportunities by comparing external keyword research with historic data of what user search on to arrive at your site. Using keyword research tools and rank tracking data we can still perform these same analyses. And while this doesn’t account for personalization and localization, it does give broad brush data. Once again, you can also create non-branded AdWords campaigns to uncover this keyword information.

So, the information is still there, and SEO is not dead. It just requires more effort on the part of the website owners, marketers, and SEO experts alike to piece together this information to move forward.