The Keywords Have Fallen! The Keywords Have Fallen! Or is That an Acorn on My Head?
Chicken Little must have worked in Search Engine Optimization. While the real world is heavily focused on the typical fiscal squabbles of government and the prospect of (heavens, no!) continued bickering over the budget, in the SEO community we have bigger things to worry about. The talk all last week was about Google hiding those precious keywords we’ve been used to seeing in our traffic reports behind the dark, ominous curtain of “not provided.”
Last week one of my colleagues at Horizon Web Marketing, an SEO/SEM agency in Las Vegas, Nevada, forwarded to me a blog post from Website Magazine that carried the following quote:
Today, 100 percent of the referrer data on search queries from organic traffic is not provided. Folks, this is the day that SEO (as you know it) died..
Pretty alarming, I would say. Also an overstatement of such magnitude that it would be better spoken in Washington D.C., where the word “hyperbole” has lost it’s meaning.
Subsequently my Search Engine Academy colleague Nancy Wigal commented (in a much more balanced way, I might add) on this situation and discussed some of the theories about Google’s motivation for taking this step in her blog post on Wednesday.
Just a Tad Bit of Background
First of all, for those of you who might be a bit new to Google Analytics and SEM evaluations, the blog post is talking about the keyword data that you can see in Google’s Analytics tool telling you what search term your visitors used to get to your site. In Analytics it looks like the screen capture below:
Many SEO analysts have relied on this report of keywords to help them assess what kind of traffic is visiting their site. They then will use this information to fine tune their content.
Personally, I never have paid much attention to it, and here’s why:
My goal is often to target the traffic I’m not getting more than the traffic I’m already getting. Although the type of keyword data that this controversy is about is important, it’s absolutely blind to those many, many keywords that might be driving traffic to other websites that you’re missing out on.
I am not saying that saying that the keyword data in GA was not valuable. But it’s easy to overstate its importance. Plus, there’s a better dataset that’s replacing it, namely the search visibility data from Webmaster tools.
Webmaster Tools Search Queries Data – A Matter of Hot Debate
Again, if you haven’t been spending all your free moments enmeshed in the Google Analytics maze, you might not have been paying much attention to the Search Engine Optimization tab in the Sources section. Instead of being pulled from Adwords or referral strings, this data is pulled from Google Webmaster Tools. To have it show up in Google Analytics you need to have your site authorized in Webmaster Tools and then have your Google Analytics account linked to that Webmaster Tools url. That’s not the subject of this blog post, but Google provides information on linking Google Analytics with Google Webmaster tools. It’s quite easy.
Once linked, the GWT data purports to show you how many time your site appeared in Google search results for all search queries, not just the ones that brought you clicks. It will also show clicks through, the average position the term carried in search results, and the click through rate for the term. The numbers are obviously approximate, but this search. What isn’t?
But Can We Trust Google’s Numbers?
I’m sorry, did I hear that correctly? Is that question really coming from SEO’s who trust Google for 80% of all their other data? If they don’t trust them (and I don’t), why are they just now waking up to the fact that the results Google reports to them in Analytics, in Adwords, in Webmaster tools…even using special search operators like “site” or “intitle”… might actually be untrustworthy. To quote Captain Louis Renault, “I’m shocked, do you hear shocked, to find out that gambling has been going on here.”
If you want to read some of the debate about the accuracy of search query data in Webmaster Tools you can scan a few of these blog posts:
Google Webmaster Tools Query Data is Worthless
Google Webmaster Tools Search Query Data is Accurate (and Valuable)
Comparing Rank-Tracking Methods: Browser vs. Crawler vs. Webmaster Tools
The first link is a test done by SEO consultant Ian Lurrie where he came away with the conviction that Webmaster Tools clickthrough data is bogus.
The last link is a test by Dr. Pete at Moz where they tested the data (albeit for rankings, not for impressions or clicks) and came away with the conclusion that the rankings data is fairly accurate. And if it’s accurate for rankings, why not suppose it’s accurate for the other reported metrics as well?
Bottom line: I don’t think anyone has an answer to the accuracy question. Like everything else, we pretend to trust Google and do the best we can with what we have. And for the time being, this is our best alternative.
In a future blog post I will discuss some of the reasons why I think the Google Webmaster Tools query data is actually more useful than the keyword data that is now being “not provided.” But for now, I would encourage you to spend your time looking it over. Let me know in the comments if it seems accurate to you or not. I’m interested in your feedback.
Ross – excellent post and entertaining read – for those of us who find SEO really entertaining, which of course I do! We really can’t too worked up about accuracy, unfortunately – we have to take the data we are given and use our creativity from there. The WMT data has always seemed a little “off” to me, but I think that reveals the fact that up until this latest Hummingbird update that Google’s system for categorizing content was not quite as sophisticated. Case in point – I am optimizing my site for “SEO training Dallas” but still rank pretty well for variations of “SEO Dallas”. Thanks for your work on this and I look forward to hearing other’s perspectives too.
Thanks for the feedback, Beth. Do you see improvements in content categorization already since the Hummingbird update?
Thank you for this. As John says, focus on good content everyday.
I have been a late entrant to the effects of Panda, Penguin and now Hummingbird. I guess the way forward is to write content as if no SEO exists and make it valuable enough to trust Google to find it and rank it well.
Agreed. Increasingly we need to think in terms of “marketing” rather than “optimization.” (Although optimization will always be a component of that. It’s just a question of emphasis)
Many thanks for an interesting article, clarifying and explaining things.
I wondered about this – webmaster appears to show a complete drop off for any visits to my site – 14th Sep 2013, and this matches into the analytics queries that you’ve mentioned above. Whereas looking at other info in Analytics does not show that drop off e.g. just traffic sources overview.
(My site used to be very well ranked but the update in Sept last year moved my many pages from position 1 (yes, not just page 1) to page 10 or worse – so at present I”m trying to recover and hence the overall search volume is already disastrous ….)
Thanks for your feedback Anna. I’m glad you found the post useful. Keep at the research, learning and analysis and you’ll get your site back on track.
Nice post, we all need to think quality quality quality! Quality content, quality links and a dash of quality social media thrown in the mix. Google+ is probably the best ROI as it offers followed links. The industry of SEO has transformed so much in the last couple of years, big G keeps us on our toes X