The Keywords Have Fallen! The Keywords Have Fallen!  Or is That an Acorn on My Head?

This chick thinks the SEO Sky is fallingChicken 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:

google analytics keyword data screen shot

This type of data will eventually be a thing of the past, although it's still showing up in my Google Analytics accounts as of yesterday.


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

screen capture of Google Analytics highlighting the Search Engine Optimization sectionAgain, 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.