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Google’s Latest Storm in a Teacup: Separating “Keyword (Not Provided)” Fact from Fiction

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Google DarkEarlier in April, SEO gurus quite literally flew into a panic that Google’s latest expansion of secure browsing meant the end to paid keyword search query data. Not so, folks! In fact, paid search query is very much still available, and third-party sources like iSpionage’s very own KEI are critical supplements. If you’re still confused about the changes to Google’s privacy search policy – and how that impacts your ability to build AdWords campaigns and optimize search content – you’re forgiven. Reports that Google would stop passing keyword data along to advertisers continue to swirl in cyberspace. Now that the dust has settled a bit, we’re here to help separate fact from fiction. Here’s how Google’s changes affect your business and how you can continue to improve SEO efforts – with or without Google keyword data.

Fact: Keyword data is accessible using the search terms report in AdWords.

Yes, it’s true; you can still access your keyword data in AdWords. Go to the keywords tab and select the “view search terms” option. Ta-da! Your keyword data is all still there. And contrary to reports, “Search Term Report” is NOT a new feature in AdWords. It’s been around for a while now, although in the past it was known as Search Performance Query Report. Still, there’s nothing to fear here, folks.

Fiction: Keyword data is not available for third party paid search platforms.

There’s simply no truth to this rumor. The users of popular third-party PPC management platforms are not impacted by Google’s changes. These platforms access search query data via AdWords API; users will continue to have access to keyword data. However, if you previously relied on parsing out search query data from a referring URL string, then you will be impacted by these changes. This includes a log file analyzer tool or any other analytics tools that evaluated referring URL strings. In order to analyze your search query data, you’ll need to go straight to the source now, which is AdWords.

Fact: There’s more to Google’s “Keyword (Not Provided)” changes than meets the eye.

While Google officially claims the reason for these changes is user security, as usual, there’s more to this decision than meets the eye. Officially Google states that this change is just a continued part of Google’s SSL encryption rollout. Google first provide SSL encryption for signed-in searches in 2011 and extended its efforts over the next few years. In fact, by 2013, “(not provided)” data accounted for more than 50% of all keywords, according to a BrightEdge study. So, what gives? Google’s move effectively shuts off competing party ad networks or search engines. In order for these ad networks to work, they would need to have access to Google’s search query data. By limiting data access to customers, this effectively shuts down third-party networks.

Secondly, the data restrictions reflect Google’s continued push away from keywords and towards semantic search. Hummingbird, Google’s algorithm that launched last fall, is built specifically to power semantic search, delivery highly contextualized results that place a greater emphasis on the searcher’s needs (e.g., geographic location) than simply a string of keywords. That’s not to say keywords are not important when it comes to search engine optimization. It does mean, however, that Google is continuing to emphasis user intent and quality content while slowly weaning SEO junkies off their keyword obsession.

Fiction: Google has eliminated all access to competitor search information.

At first glance, it’s definitely going to be more difficult to access keyword competitor search term data. However, that doesn’t mean access is totally gone. Yes, you will only be able to see your own search data through AdWords reporting. The good news, however, is that there are other ways. For example, one option for general search term information is to view the Search Queries report that’s available via Google Webmaster Tools. This report provides aggregate information about the day’s top 2000 queries, as generated by organic clicks. The even better news? Third-party tools like iSpionage’s KEI is an additional way to find keywords that produce results even if Google were to altogether eliminate both competitor and personal keyword data.

Fact: Keyword search data can still be used to customize landing pages.

Google’s AdWords search term report will still let website owners see which search queries generated ad clicks; this information can be used to customize landing pages. When customizing landing pages, Google officially suggests using the keyword that generated the ad click, rather than the query. To identify the keyword and match type, add a ValueTrack parameter to your destination URLs; this will then pass keyword value information along to your webserver.

Fiction: Google’s Changes to AdWords Keyword (Not Provided) Data is the Same as its Changes to Search Data

A number of search websites agree; it’s really not fair to compare Google’s changes to Keyword (Not Provided) data for AdWords with Google Analytics search data changes. After all, AdWords advertisers are still able to access all their data just as before. Whether you need to do a negative keyword expansion or a query expansion, nothing has changed about this process.

Folks that rely on Google Analytics data, however, have been hit hard in the last few years. As we mentioned earlier, “(not provided)” data now accounts for more than 50% of all keywords in Google Analytics thanks to Google’s secure search. The loss of organic search data makes reporting a lot less accurate as SEO professionals and marketers no longer have direct access to raw data for measuring different trending metrics and key performance indicators. It’s not just Google who is making secure search the new default; Firefox, Mobile Safari and IE10 all put measures in place to mask keyword referral data. It is possible to work around the loss of this data and there are still useful metrics. These include:

    1. Overall organic search by traffic/URL
    2. Search rankings for critical terms
    3. Conversions from organic traffic/URL
    4. Search rankings by keyword tag
    5. Search rankings by page tags/types

Yes, you can no longer track long-tail keyword patterns, conversions by keyword/keyword tag, or even keyword traffic patterns. But it’s not the end of the world. Google Keyword Planner and third party tools are still incredibly beneficial, as is a natural, intuitive knowledge of the marketplace.

Summary

As Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts has said, “Succeeding in SEO will be the same as it’s always been if you’re doing it right – give the users a great experience.” From crafting the perfect AdWords copy to optimizing websites for organic search, the Hummingbird update last September placed an even greater emphasis on optimizing for user experience and content. Google’s latest changes are truly a “storm in a teacup” – while a lot of folks initially panicked, your keyword data is still accessible using the search terms report in AdWords. And as long as third party keyword planning tools continue to access search query data via AdWords API, they will still work. So what does this mean for your AdWords keyword optimization efforts? It’s business as usual for now at least; just keep maintaining a healthy balance between keyword optimization, content quality and semantic search optimization.

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