Adapting to Survive the (Not Provided) Google Evolution

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you missed out on all the hysteria that has happened in the search marketing industry thanks to Google’s decision to make all their search queries encrypted.  Your SEO eyes read that right – checking the keywords for search traffic from Google will all yield the dreaded (not provided) phrase in your analytics tools.

Google seemingly went live with the change back in September 22, leaving many in the online marketing industry shaking their heads in dismay and scrambling in confusion. Before this security update, keyword data was only withheld for users signed in to Google services like Gmail and Google+, a system that was implemented back in October 18, 2011.

Although there hasn’t been any official statement from the tech giant, many are speculating that the recent NSA controversy pushed Google to make the decision to keep its users’ data safe from unwarranted government surveillance. However, keyword data can still be accessed through Google AdWords, leading others to believe that the move was more for monetary reasons than privacy issues.

Whatever the reason, the loss of such vital information will have an undeniable impact on how search marketing is done, especially because of Google’s 67% market share in the search engine industry.

No keyword data means there is no easy way of telling what site visitors are exactly looking for, and that also means not knowing what your prospects and customers intentions are (e.g. simply searching for information, comparing prices, planning to buy). As a result, online marketing campaigns will be much harder to plan because of the lack of knowledge over target audiences’ wants.

You won’t immediately know if you’re ranking high for branded or non-branded terms, which landing pages you need to optimize, what kind of content you can create to bring in more targeted traffic, etc.

PPC is also affected because keyword research is an essential element to creating the most effective ads. Slight variations in search terms can spell the difference between a failed and a successful PPC campaign, and the money invested in using such a strategy cannot be simply overlooked.

Identifying potentially popular search terms that can lead to more growth in other areas of a business is much harder now as well. Checking pages that are already bringing in a lot of traffic won’t help, and AdWords’ Search Query Report only suggests keywords similar to the ones that you’re already doing well on.

It doesn’t seem likely for Google to reverse their decision, and you can expect the percentage of (not provided) data to reach 100% by November 20 this year. The situation is dire, and you can either adapt or get swept away by this sea change.

The easiest option for surviving these challenging new times is to give in to Google and pay through AdWords to gain access to keyword data.

If you don’t have the resources (or you simply don’t want to play along with Google), try the following methods:

Google Webmaster Tools

Keyword data for all search queries is fortunately still available in Google Webmaster Tools. If you’ve used it before, you should know by now that it only stores data when you start using it for a particular site, and it only goes back as far as 90 days. Download your data every 30 days through CSV or Google Docs so you have records you can peruse.

Look Back at Old Data

Thankfully, keyword data for sites before Google’s update is still available. You can still learn a lot from such information, especially when you have content that you consistently put out for particular seasons and for evergreen content as well.

Google Trends

If the site you’re monitoring experiences a massive influx of traffic without having done any changes to the site itself, you could very well have a trending keyword in your hands. Use Google Trends to jumpstart your search for what could possibly be sending a lot of visitors your way.

Pair (not provided) Keywords to Landing Pages

Although you might not know what the exact terms people are using to get to a site, you can still find out which pages they’re ending up on. With that knowledge, you can have a good idea of what those hidden keywords are based on the keywords you’ve been using in the past for your landing pages. Econsultancy has provided a step-by-step tutorial for pairing up (not provided) keywords with their landing pages.

Check On-Site Search Queries

Having an internal search engine isn’t just for your visitors’ convenience. You can still see what search terms they are using on your site, and that information has become much more valuable in learning what your target audience is looking for.

Check Rankings

Analytics’ tools will still show how well your pages are ranking for specific keywords. Keep your eyes on your rankings, and not just for the competitive ones but also for mid-range terms and long-tail phrases.

Check Keyword Data from Other Search Engines

Bing and Yahoo might not account for too much of today’s organic search traffic, but considering the limitations currently present, you might as well check how well you’re performing for keywords from these search engines.

Although this change already has a significant impact in the online marketing industry, it’s only one part of Google’s overall update to its search engine’s algorithms called Hummingbird. Unlike the previous Panda and Penguin updates, Hummingbird isn’t about keeping spam and other useless content from appearing in results page.