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Is Google Killing the Keyword?

Organic SEO has hinged on the quality of keywords and related searches since inception. It’s a simple formula: determine how users are searching for your content or services, adjust your keyword strategy, and reap the benefits. But for over two years now, those efforts have become increasingly more challenging to accurately execute.

Why? Because the more business owners are able to determine their own best keyword strategies, the less they need to fork over cash to Google’s paid keyword advertising. That’s a gross generalization, but it seems to be at the heart of a movement Google launched in October of 2011. To understand what’s causing the demise of the keyword – and how to fight back – we have to face some cold hard facts.

Keyword Data is Almost All Encrypted

Back in the day, search data could be sliced and diced in all manner of valuable formats, allowing marketers to fully comprehend how visitors were finding their websites, and what do to draw even more in. Analytics are still comprehensive across the board – except when it comes to keywords.

Two years ago Google quietly told the world they would block keyword metrics, specifically regarding the ways in which people found the content they accessed. They in turn offered a consolation prize; the willingness to port visits from natural search results into the “not provided” category in tools like Google Analytics. If this sounds a bit fishy, that’s because it is.

While eyebrows were furrowed at the move, panic did not ensue. Google promised only 10% (or less!) of search traffic would be impacted. But the truth is, over two years later, it’s abundantly clear this encrypted data is messing with marketers in the worst possible way. There is no longer accurate data revealing keyword usage, rendering related marketing efforts a completely blind experiment.

In Google’s Defense

Why would Google jeopardize the efforts of the folks teeming to better the relationship between consumers, content creators, and search engines? They vowed it was a matter of security and protection. In the beginning, this extended only to those who were logged into Google. They stated that by encrypting the data, no one could spy on a string of searches and invade a user’s privacy. No one, that is, except Google.

Since then, steadily it has been noted that even searches executed without being logged in are winding up encrypted. Google has verified this, stating they are extending the “security” to all searches. This means as researchers access the keyword data, in return they are seeing more and more “data not provided” results. And SEO rankings for many are greatly suffering.

Some say these efforts are truly benevolent on Google’s part, rolled out to protect users from the NSA’s PRISM onslaught. Google suffered a great deal of PR woes and public backlash as the PRISM details were revealed, and in turn, it makes sense they would respond in kind. But is keyword annihilation really all about protecting the privacy of users?

Why the Death of the Keyword Spells Danger to Marketers

Most marketing teams focus their efforts on organic search results, and at the heart of all these strategies lies carefully selected keywords. By studying keyword effectiveness, marketers can adjust campaign tactics in content creation, page optimization, and an overall focus on demographics and user behavior.

Without statistical data, however, teams are left to use their instincts alone. Understandably, this method is anything but ideal. Consider a business that sells framed artwork and prints. They may create a landing page focused on “abstract modern paintings” that begins to receive an influx of users searching for “abstract modern posters.” As a result of misleading results, the page may see a significant spike in bounce rates. Without the knowledge of what people were searching for when they landed on the site, the marketing team here wouldn’t be able to subsequently create a page for “abstract modern posters” and thereby capitalize on the traffic.

Marketing teams are now facing these dilemmas daily, simply because the data is no longer available. How many users are you losing every day because you simply aren’t aware how they are searching for you?

Ultimately, this conundrum hurts the whole spectrum: consumers and business owners alike.

How Can Businesses Make Lemonade?

Now that we are facing facts, it’s important to understand it’s not all bad news. Sites that relied solely on keyword research obviously were not paying close enough attention to the quality of their content, and in the end, fantastic text, graphics, videos, and marketing campaigns are what sell products and win the hearts of consumers. It’s not all about the perfect string of keywords.

To combat this lack of research, reestablishing a firm commitment to outstanding, compelling, and engaging content is the first step. Furthermore, don’t forget that keywords aren’t the only metric worth studying.

Analytics like rank tracking data are now gaining more prominence. Rank tracking mirrors back whether or not you’re getting all you can out of the keywords you’ve selected. You can segment keywords and study your search visibility from various angles, thereby understanding overall effectiveness. Several third-party metrics vendors have fabulous new algorithms that showcase rank data alongside other relevant data in order to fill in the blanks left by keyword research. Use this to your advantage.

Page level insight is also increasingly valuable. By studying which of your pages garner the most visits from Google searchers, you can ascertain a lot of demographic awareness about your visitors.

Finally, don’t forget paid search. Google AdWords still contains keyword data, which is another prominent reason folks believe Google has made things more secretive; you now have to pay to access what was once free. This gives added value to your AdWords campaign, however, so when appropriate, leverage paid search results to give your site top level prominence and insight on your selected keywords.

In the end, the mere fact that marketers can access keyword data if they pay for it rather shows Google’s true intent. If privacy were such a massive concern, the data wouldn’t be accessible under any condition. That said, it is at least good news for marketers who need the analytics to validate large shifts in strategy and focus. If you pay for it, the information is still there.

Have your marketing efforts been affected by Google’s keyword data encryption? What are some of the ways you’ve balanced out the loss?

Digital producer, game designer, Internet marketer and staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs, Tina Courtney-Brown has been shaping online businesses since 1996. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, massively multiplayer games, social networks and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, nonprofit director and true cooking diva. Learn more at her personal website, or find her on Facebook and Google+.

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