The SEO Apocalypse – How to Survive Google’s Massive Encryption

Google main search from MoneyBlogNewz on Flickr
Google main search from MoneyBlogNewz on Flickr

In the marketing world, SEO has been a key investment for brands and companies hoping to boost visibility online. In the early days, marketers only had to use one or two of their main keywords 32 times in any piece of content online, Google worked its magic, and boom: first page of a search for that key term. Even though that’s an extremely simplistic view of the beginnings of SEO, it used to be the general idea. After years of roll outs, updates and government conflicts, Google SEO as we know it has become a thing of the past. A recent panel with the Austin SEO MeetUp group helped an SEO newbie, such as myself, understand how things were, how they are, and how they will be in the world of search engine optimization.

The Problem, Perception, and Progression

In October 2011, Google announced its most recent search encryption, an attempt to keep control of privacy in light of federal government requests for information. Google gave the impression that, once the encryption rolled out, the changes would be very minor, affecting just a single digit of keyword traffic for only logged-on Google users. No biggie, right? One month after this announcement, however, 17% of keywords had been encrypted. From April 2012 to August 2013, term (not provided) steadily increased up to 48%, encrypted search terms in non-signed-in users reached 60-80%, and today we sit at an overwhelming 81% encryption, anticipating 100% search term not provided by the end of the year. So much for those single digits…

Implications: What does it all mean?

If you’ve dabbled in SEO in the last year, you’ve probably noticed that the majority of your keywords are encrypted on any analytics platform – so what did we actually lose, and did we gain anything in return?

  • We lost the simple ROI pitch. Initially, marketers could view keywords that directed searchers on to their sites. It was an easy way to talk about investing in search marketing, especially SEO. When marketers look at site analytics now, they can no longer see which key terms are sending people to their site, compounding the complexity of SEO and adding to the already low investment environment of search marketing.
  • We lost the brand vs. non-brand distinction. Generally, there are more people that do not know your brand than people that do. Key terms that people search on that don’t contain a brand’s name hold a huge potential for customers, allowing marketers to look at visits coming into a website on branded terms (Oreos) versus non-branded terms (cookie sandwiches) – extremely valuable information. Post-encryption, marketers can see people are searching for their brand (cool), or just something (that’d be nice to know…) and ending up on their site.
  • We lost the ability to read Google’s mind. Marketers used to be able to just look at your content and where certain terms were located and get a good sense of where Google might rank that page. With the new encryption, it’s become more complicated to track and make inferences on how exactly Google will perceive your content, keywords or not.
  • We gained a better planet online. The number one factor that affects page rank is its perceived value to users, closely followed by authorship metrics, influence of Google+, social shares, and content readability. Google’s trying to rank content’s real value, can we blame them?

SEO (life) as we knew it is over. Not all is lost, but what now?

  • Google webmaster tools and adwords. This is a fantastic source of data where you can still learn about keywords that drive traffic to your site. Its accuracy is debatable, but it’s a step closer in the right direction on the desperate journey to finding what key terms are bringing visitors to your page. On the downside, these tools limit results to the top 2000 queries, and for many companies that’s just not enough as they may be getting a million visits a day, creating an issue of visibility. Additionally, webmaster only tracks three months of historical data at a time. While there is talk of expansion, it restricts data comparisons and progress reports to three month periods, when most people like to view year over year stats.
  • New metrics. As Google evolves, so should we. In the past, marketers have focused heavily on keyword level metrics, traffic and ranking. Google is emphasizing keywords less and taking into account phrases, combinations of words, and their meaning and sentiment. These improvements to the ranking algorithm are attempts to understand the content, not just pick out how many times the word “shoes” shows up in a blog post. Page level analytics and experiences are also of utmost importance now. Conversion rates, bounce rates, page behavior are components worth measuring for an accurate account of site visitor stats.
  • New approach: map your keywords. Build a page that helps you recognize the lifecycle of a customer in terms of keywords on your site. Marketers will have a much better chance of mapping where Google is going in the future of SEO, basing predictions on intent rather than words. See what pages are receiving the most traffic: Product pages? Services? Home page? Categories?  Interpreting the data in front of you can lead to valuable information for longer term SEO investment validity. Bing has yet to encrypt any data, and YouTube, the second biggest search engine, has a keyword volume tool – take advantage where you can!

Change happens. We like to be dramatize major changes, but we saw this coming and now we just need to adapt to the new SEO environment. In the long run, Google is only making us better content creators, so let’s ease up the apocalypse-talk and start strategizing the new generation of search marketing. Have you come across any interesting SEO changes lately? We’d love to hear how you’re tackling the new Google algorithm!