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.

Even before Google’s bombshell this week, 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, so he start spending some money with AdWords. He start 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 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 just a couple of months ago.

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

File under: SEO

Phil Buckley is the Director of SEO at Virante. He runs the most 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. He is also a die-hard Red Sox fan who thinks this year is the year.

More about Phil Buckley | @1918

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