Are You Ready For A World Without Keywords?


Are You Ready For A World Without Keywords?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally set for publication on September 10, which would have made Phil look like a total psychic genius. As we all now know, his prophecy came to pass much faster than even he could have predicted and he made a few updates accordingly. Still, marvel at the prescience!

Remember three years ago? You were allowed to say the phrase “link building” out loud at a search conference, anchor text manipulation worked, AdWords prices didn’t rise every month, people could make a living as affiliate marketers and small sites were able to compete with Internet giants by leveraging the Web and their special place in it.

Those days are over. The end started officially with Google’s announcement on October 18, 2011. The day the referrer died. And it really ramped up earlier this week with the imminent approach of 100% (not provided).

Google has tightened the screws over the past three years in a way that has convinced me that three years days from now, the only keywords you will see will be the ones you’ve paid for.

This leaves search professionals walking down a path where some of the core functions of the job we’re being asked to do today will be gone soon – and maybe that’s a good thing.

(Not Provided) Takes Over Reporting

Much to our dismay, clients still demand “traditional” reporting. Questions that still seem logical to normal people are now horribly complex to answer. Fortunately, Raven’s new report builder can solve much of that.

Even before Google’s bombshell, any client question that focused on the subject of keywords was beginning to be so complex to answer that we generally had to show a chart.

Answers sound like this, “Last year, queries from Google for widget X accounted for 40% of your search traffic. This year, searches for widget X are only sending 23% of your traffic, but your (not provided) numbers have doubled. So if we extrapolate and assume 40% of the ‘not provided’ was for widget X we are at about the same level. Of course since 58% of our traffic is now ‘not provided’ we can’t really be sure that it is a valid extrapolation…”

That glazed-over look from your clients can be translated into, “I stopped listening at the first comma.”

Personalized Rankings Changed the Game

Equally as frustrating is the question, “where are we ranking for widget X?” For quite a while, results have been personalized, so you may rank #1 for me and #6 for my brother 750 miles away. That’s difficult to show in a graph or a spreadsheet.

So we compromised and pull a machine ranking to mitigate the personalization, but what good is that, really?

Everyone is seeing personalized results, so telling me where I rank in a non-personalized result seems counter-intuitive. If it doesn’t seem counter-intuitive to you, then you’ve been doing SEO too long.

The Slow Progression of Google

We’ve all been watching the slow progression of Google in their crusade to dismantle manipulative SEO practices. Part of what they’ve been telling us is that we need to look at the bigger picture.

Google has been telling us for years to stop obsessing over keyword data and to spend our time and resources on building a great site populated with great content. Naturally we ignored this advice and continued down the well worn path of link building with high value anchor text. It worked so damn well, why would we stop? Link building was the brass ring on the ranking merry-go round.

In normal Google fashion, they rolled out “secure search” and told us it was for our own good. We didn’t even know enough to be terrified of unsecured search! Step one was only for people logged in to their Google account. Matt Cutts estimated that after the full roll-out, this would only impact less that 10% of all Google searchers. Oh, phew – that was a relief.

The only down side was that even on my tiny personal blog site, I was over the 10% threshold within 6 months!


Maybe that’s because Mozilla’s Firefox browser also decided to switch to Google’s secure search in the spring of 2012. In July of 2012, Firefox accounted for about 21% of the browser market.

In a not-so-shocking update, Chrome followed and started encrypting all searches in their omnibox. In January of 2013, Google’s Chrome browser accounted for 31% of the browser market.

Between just those two browsers, about half of all people browsing the Web are no longer sharing their organic keyword phrases with you when they come referred from the SERPs.

Then, Google went with the nuclear option. All searches are now encrypted – no search phrases for you!

What Google Wants

I have found that the easiest way to understand Google is to ask myself, “If it were my search engine…”

I can understand the perspective that you might not want people hyper-focused on using specific keywords. I would want site owners to create content about their thing and if people are looking for that thing, they might check them out – oversimplified, but you get the point.

The Real Cost of Conversions

Let’s look at a theoretical example. A desperate site owner who is getting no visits starts spending some money with AdWords. He begins to see some traffic and sell his service. He uses that money to buy more ads and more traffic and more sales.

Everything seems fine until you dig a little deeper. Our business owner is paying $5/click for those visits. If visitors land on a well-done landing page, let’s say 20% click the button. That means the remaining visitors are really costing the site $25 each to get to the page where they fill in their info. At that point only 20% fully convert, and now that conversion just cost our site owner $125. The item he’s selling costs $129, so he’s actually only making $4 with every sale!

Then one day his competitor, who sells a similar item, bids up the threshold to $6/click. Now each conversion costs him $130. He’s done, although few small businesses realize it at this point, because he still see the visitor costing $6 rather than $130.

The Google Loop

If our site owner is savvy, he might start to realize that if the thousands of dollars he’s spending on PPC were used to build up his site organically, he could have a long-term win because organic search traffic is free.

So he spends $5,000 fixing up his site and jamming in a few extra keywords in the appropriate places. Then he sits back and waits.

After a month, panic sets in. Where’s the traffic? He talks to his agency and finds out that Google doesn’t have any trust in his site because there’s no links vouching for it. The site owner wonders how Google can take thousands of dollars from a site and not trust it. Nevertheless, he starts to build some links. Good links, from high quality sites. Real relationships are paying off.

Then Google dings the site for building unnatural links. The links he worked on had overly commercial anchor text and did not appear editorial.

Now he has to return to AdWords to keep traffic coming in while he works his way out of trouble. Google has no problem sending traffic to his site when he pays for it, but organic traffic – no, that traffic can’t be trusted to the manipulative bastard running that site.

All Your Keyword Data is Dirty

And if you’re a local business, you’re in the worst of both worlds. With local search, you’re not just losing keywords once, but twice!

In the search shown, I did a search for “raleigh bbq.” The carousel shows a bunch of options – let’s say I click on the first result – The Pit Authentic Barbeque (which is awesome, by the way).


When I click the engaging photo in the carousel’s “photo strip” area, the search query changes!


The page updates with more specific information about The Pit, but if someone now clicks through to the site, it appears as if the query that brought that searcher to the site was “The Pit Authentic Barbeque Raleigh, NC”.

All your keyword data is dirty. In fact, it’s now so dirty you should probably stop using it to base decisions on.

Yes, I said it. Your referrer data from Google is so bad now, you should stop using it.

What Do We Do Now?

So what do we do now? If search professionals could find the core functions of the job we do today changed in just a few years, how do we prepare?

Well, one thing we can do is consider how to plan for intent. I was talking with with a co-worker recently about how this will impact big websites. He brought up how Best Buy has the same page ranking for the term “laptops” and “cheap laptops.” With limited keyword data now, that’s a problem because the intent in those two searches is very different.

Maybe Best Buy needs a “cheap laptop” landing page that is distinct from its “high performance laptop” landing page and “mac laptop” page.

But more importantly, the digital marketing community has to lead the discussion with our clients.

Start reworking your reporting to reflect the new reality. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and Annie Cushing gave a great presentation about the demise of keywords at MozCon.

And start having the tough conversations. If you haven’t already started, you have a new part-time job. You are getting paid the big bucks to act as a teacher. It doesn’t matter if you are in-house, at an agency or on your own, your customers are most likely clueless about the new reality.

Start with the next client conversation you have. “Are you aware that Google is withholding and/or obfuscating about half most of your keyword data?”

The answer will likely be, “What?!”

That’s your opening to start a deeper conversation. It’s an opportunity to build a stronger relationship with your clients, facing the future together and focusing on the new metrics that matter.

What’s your plan for a world without keyword data?

Photo Credit: bandita via Compfight cc

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Phil Buckley is the Director of Marketing at PrecisionLender. He runs a successful SEO Meetup group in the United States in Raleigh, NC, and regularly organizes #geniuslunch events to talk with the smartest people in and around the Triangle area. He is also a die-hard Red Sox fan.

More about Phil Buckley | @1918

Tell us what you think

  • Spook SEO

    I totally agree, nothing to panic about just do the right thing of what SERP’s (Google) tell’s you to do. Write the best, high quality, fresh content out of the best/relevant keyword that represents your business, services etc and everything will be fine for sure. Thanks for the great post such a mindful ideas.

  • Mike Johnson


  • Jessica Hartman

    John Mueller (Google) stated that this was a mistake and they are looking into it.

  • Mike Johnson

    Ok, thanks.

  • RavenCourtney

    Most likely, but you may want to report a ticket on it just so we can make sure that’s the issue.

  • Mike Johnson

    Yeah I noticed the Webmaster Tools data is not showing clicks to keywords correctly anymore. I am assuming this is from Google’s update to pure secure search?

  • Michael Slattery

    Long time? Not really, exploded to middle of page 1 or better for everything in Feb. & have stayed there for most phrases with blogging but have slipped to Page 3 for “roofing miami”, the #1 phrase by far. When I NEED more I’ll do what I do – write.
    Albert who?

  • Michael Slattery

    You have to define link building for a novice like me. Did a lot of article submissions & then got away from it. Am active in four roofing forums. All links were manual, one at a time to relevant sites like Angies List, BBB, Yelp, etc. Google Roofer Mike Inc and you’ll get pages of all the site’s I’m on. Paid $10 here and $15 there to get on a few directories. When I heard there will be penalties for paid links I was a little nervous but I pay Yahoo local $10/ month and that’s it.

  • Andrew Broadbent

    Wow Phil great post i am going to share this on Google +. You had my laughing on the whole paragraph called the Google Loop. Very insightful.

  • Alistair Lattimore

    Speaking to the point that Phil made about keyword data being dirty in the case of local, there was a way around that by extracting the &oq={term} (Original Query) out of the referrer data to understand how the user’s query was changed/refined – however that is not possible with the recent changes to move Google over to HTTPS entirely.

  • John Anselmi

    Great post! It still amuses me that people see this as “the death of SEO”. This industry will be constantly changing forever, just like it always has been.

    Keyword data can be important, sure, but in the end quality content is more important. Thanks Phil!

  • SEO Manager

    For every Problem there is a solution, and we SEO agents will find the way to super pass this! we are stress right now with this news but probably something very good will come up from it!

  • 1918

    I believe you are benefiting from staying at or near the top for a long time. A decent site that has lived on page 1 for real reasons gets harder and harder to displace each day it’s there.

    I like the Red Sox’s chances in this playoffs this year, solid team, lots of grit. I guess nobody in St. Louis misses King Albert huh? ;-)

  • 1918

    As much as I hate to admit it, we are all looking for a shortcut. That’s why diet pills sell like crazy, it’s easier than the treadmill. Steroids are easier than 8 hours in the gym. Clients say rank us fast, so we turn to the short-term solutions that are “questionable” for long term value.

    The answer for the industry is more education and less caving in to unrealistic client demands.

  • Nick Barker

    haha nice post… a part of me thinks that you are secretly doing a little bit of link building here, but who am I to judge ;)

  • Nick Barker

    Sure leaves a lot to think about. For so many years it was about putting keywords in your meta title, description and on page while also link building. If you did those things and you did them well you were golden. Then content started to play a role. So we all created more shareable content for our sites. We mixed that into our link building strategy and we were baking up a cake that was to die for. Like your article says… those days are really coming to an end. Yes we still need to be doing some of those things but in much different ways. Really at the end of the day we aren’t getting links just because we want to rank higher. We should be getting links that are relevant, will bring traffic to our site, make sense and are from relationships that we have built to better our company. So much to think about but great article. I am excited to see how raven changes some of their tools to better focus on things that REALLY matter.

  • Michael Slattery

    Just an amatuer who built his own site, wrote it all and had a geek buddy with Dreamweaver C&P it up there. Took two years to build page at a time, always reading articles like this, learned to optimize photos, titles and description was a big breakthrough. All links were manual, one at a time. became page 1 for every phrase I cared about suddenly after putting up P14. Was so swamped, haven’t touched site in months except blog to stay near the top. My point? I think I unwittingly built the thing as organically as it can be done and Google loved it – and still does.

  • codie

    I LoLd after reading this line “that traffic can’t be trusted to the manipulative bastard running that site” its so true lol.

  • Mike Fitzpatrick

    Excellent. Why not just look upon the positives – stop being hyper focused on keywords and create content about our thing. Well put.
    Google is moving ever more towards rewarding honesty, quality and transparency in website content writing. To be honest, I think the biggest metric should be time spent on a website. Like a high street shop in the real world – if a website is full of people spending a lot of time browsing and shopping, then it is obviously offering huge added value / giving people what they want, and what else does it come down to?

  • Farhan Muthu Kt

    i Used. Really good. Check out mt website thanks

  • Dean Knight

    Great post! No need to panic about this. Just produce content that is useful to your audience and do it often. Although you might want to start thinking about what to do after that in a few years time…

  • 1918

    You’re right Adrian, great content is only part of the equation, but it’s an essential first step.

  • 1918

    I think you need to start with a content audit and see what pages are ranking for what terms. Then you can start to use those pages as leading indicators of increases in CTR on those keywords.

    That can be tricky when you have multiple pages ranking for similar keywords, but for now, it’s a starting point.

  • Adrian Hayman

    Certainly food for thought. I’ve always focused on content, but rarely found its sufficient to rank well alone.

  • Ashish Ahuja

    The big problem with this is that how do you correlate your keyword rankings with traffic to show to the client the seo work you are doing is correlating with traffic? Webmaster tools is fine but is a macro view

  • Chris

    Ok, thanks for the quick reply Courtney!

  • RavenCourtney

    Hi Chris! Phil’s a guest writer today, but we’ll have more info soon from us at Raven about what all this means for our tools and how we’re working on potential solutions.

  • Chris


    Thanks for the great post. How will this affect the reporting in Raven, traffic reports. Will it all show up as not provided? What’s the best way to adjust the reports going forward?

  • Bill Bean

    Now that’s a good blog post on the subject. Well put, Phil! We can stop freaking out now and move on, calmly and intelligently.

    And I’m going to be using this, “Questions that still seem logical to normal people are now horribly complex to answer.”