Executing great SEO campaigns will be a nuanced, sophisticated effort moving forward. Here's how we will find (and optimize for) the keywords that matter in a world where keywords are hidden.

So, odd’s are you’ve heard: Google is now encrypting all searches that take place on the Google search engine. This change left many SEO experts scratching their heads wondering what this means for the Internet and everyone who uses it. Game over, right?

As marketers that obsess over results, we build SEO strategies around our interpretation of rich keyword data. With this latest update, those search queries (or keywords) used on Google to find a website will not be available to marketers anymore – not even in Google analytics.


The game has evolved and the rules have changed. The ability to create and execute great SEO campaigns will be a much more complex and nuanced process from this point forward. If there’s ever been a time for companies to work with a solid SEO firm, now is the time.

I don’t foresee this change impacting Adept’s ability to execute great SEO campaigns. When building a comprehensive SEO strategy for a client, we harvest two essential types of keyword data: real-life keyword data and 3rd party keyword data.

Google's latest changes will not prevent us from being able to conduct this type of research. Here’s why:

Real-Life Keyword Data

For this approach, we look at actual keyword performance from Google Analytics and identify which keywords have been driving the most productive traffic. Fortunately, there are still a couple ways to get this data, even post-Google change.

The Old Way: You Probably Already Have A Valid Sample
Did you launch your first website on September 23, 2013? If not, then your Google Analytics account is loaded with great keyword data from the past that we can analyze to learn which types of searches generate the best traffic. This sampling of data is still current and is unlikely to become obsolete anytime in the immediate future. In this scenario, we’ll have no problem conducting the necessary LIVE keyword research to understand what has been working and what hasn’t.

The New Way: Pay to Play
If you have a new website and/or lack relevant historical keyword data, there is still a perfectly reliable way to conduct this type of real-life keyword analysis but it isn’t free. Using Google Adwords, we can test our keyword and search behavior theories by driving real-life traffic and measuring the productivity of various keywords. This ensures we don’t expend a lot of resources optimizing for keywords that are unlikely to have a positive impact. Note: For local SEO efforts, this may not be necessary.

3rd Party Keyword Data

Not all keywords are created equal and there are plenty of tools to prove it. When conducting keyword research, it is very important to look at two primary metrics: search volume and competitiveness.

Search Volume
Search volume shows us which keywords have enough searches to actually increase organic traffic when our rankings improve. If we optimize for keywords that lack sufficient search volume, our results will be less desirable.

We also look at the competitiveness of keywords to make sure we are balancing budget and resources with realistic expectations. For example, a $1,000 per month SEO budget isn’t going to get a website ranking above Best Buy for the search query, “Flat Screen TV”. We look at competitiveness and combine that with search volume estimates to understand which keywords are ideal.

Fortunately, both search volume estimates and keywords competitiveness are available in 3rd party applications like SEMrush.

From Keywords to Correlation

Even though we can still access this level of keyword data, you might be wondering how the lack of keyword data from Google Analytics affects our ability to measure and refine our optimization efforts over time. Let us explain.

Now that we are missing the real-life SEO keyword data, the new approach to monitoring SEO results and adjusting strategy accordingly requires some effort and a bit of patience.

Think of it is as a four-piece puzzle with no artwork to help tie the pieces together – only blank pieces. The artwork only appears once the pieces are assembled. Until then, you have no idea why you’re putting it together. However, the end result willl make the arduous task worth it.




Keyword Rankings

2013 has been the year of “goodbye keyword rankings.” Google’s implementation of personalized search results has made obtaining accurate keyword rankings continually more difficult. However, using tools like SERPSrank.com, we can obtain ranking data that, combined with other relevant data (the other puzzle pieces), helps paint a clear picture of which keywords are increasing in exposure and potentially generating more clicks.


Organic Traffic Changes

Increases in organic traffic are usually a strong sign of SEO success. At Adept, we’ve always looked at Non-Branded traffic increases as more important than Branded traffic increases.

Until now, we were able to segment organic traffic into branded and non-branded keyword groups with relative precision because we had enough keyword data from Google Analytics. Going forward, we won’t have this same level of precision. But we can still make accurate assumptions about branded vs. non-branded traffic using data from Google Webmaster Tools (GWT).

By segmenting all of the top search queries into two groups qualitatively (branded vs. non-branded keywords), we can see what percentage is attributed to each group and how each group is changing in volume of clicks over time. While GWT is not known for providing the most accurate data, using this approach as a benchmark combined with the other puzzle pieces will be very insightful.

Note: BringShare.com is about to release a new report that stores all GWT data and automatically filters the keywords into branded and non-branded groups making this type of analysis extremely efficient.


Top Landing Pages Content

At this point, we have keyword rankings data and a strong idea of how organic traffic breaks down by branded and non-branded keywords. But without specific keywords in Google Analytics tied to conversion metrics, how do we know which keywords are actually generating conversions?

It’s easier than you think. Looking at Google Analytics data, we can see which pages on a site are acting as the primary landing pages for organic search traffic. Asking a few questions and combining a few of the puzzle pieces again gives us the perspective we need.

  1. Does the content on the top landing pages relate to the Google Webmaster Tools keywords with the most clicks? If so, we have some useful keyword insights.
  2. Does the content on the landing pages that show traffic growth relate to the improvements in keyword rankings? If so, we have some useful keyword insights.
  3. Does the rank tracking tool show any of those landing pages as the primary ranking page for the keywords being tracked? If so, we have some useful keyword insights.

Combine all three types of data and the keyword puzzle starts to come together nicely. But there is still one more piece to the puzzle.


Engagement Metrics

At this point, we know the following:

  • The keywords that have improved in the search results
  • How non-branded organic search traffic has been impacted by these changes
  • Which keywords are most likely driving those results by looking at GWT and top landing page data

Now it’s time to refine our optimization strategy based on key engagement metrics such as bounce rate, time on site, pages per visit, conversion rate and average transaction value. If we see increases in organic traffic pushing these metrics down, we will need to look more closely at our keyword insights and run more tests to identify the most productive keywords for ongoing optimization efforts.

Being Intentional About SEO Is More Important Now Than Ever

There is no doubt that Google’s decision to hide keyword data makes SEO even more challenging. On the flip side, it also makes SEO more important than ever. The days of clicking a few links and getting a list of keywords are gone. At the end of the day, this latest change forces the industry to look at SEO more holistically…which might have been Google’s plan all along.

Google keywords may officially be a thing of the past, but SEO isn’t going anywhere. The time is ripe for companies to create a competitive advantage by leveraging a thoughtful, comprehensive SEO strategy.

We say, game on.