(not provided) Keywords

Changes as Google turns 15

As Google celebrates their 15th birthday, several changes have the SEO world in a bit of an uproar. First, all organic keywords will soon be listed as (not provided) in Google Analytics. Second, it is cheaper and easier than ever to get started with Google’s paid advertising. If that’s not enough, there are rumors of a new algorithm change afoot as well. It seems very clear that Google is pushing everyone towards paid advertising.

"I think this is Google abusing their monopolistic position in the United States. Unfortunately, I don't really see a way out of it."-Rand Fishkin, Moz.com 

 I have been casually observing the amount of (not provided) keywords in my analytics accounts rise over the last year. Earlier this week, Google announced that all keyword data would eventually be (not provided). This cripples SEO strategies as we know them and the backlash from the SEO industry has been noteworthy. This is not a new problem, however. Hoarding information behind a veil of and SSL connection and listing organic traffic generating keywords as (not provided) has been a thorn in the side of SEO's for some time. Furthermore, Google originally promised that (not provided) keywords would only be listed for a marginal amount of organic traffic. I don't think Google is an "evil" company per se, but Google has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder equity. The economic advantages of making it more difficult to strategize for organic ranking are painfully obvious; the obvious choice for advertisers and marketers who wish to target keywords is now to purchase them. This happens exactly one week after I got an email that says becoming a Google Adwords Certified Professional will now be free (it was $50 to sit for the test before). Coincidence? I think not...

Keywords and content strategy are cornerstones of digital marketing. In a rather suprising release of a Whiteboard Tuesday, MOZ.com laid out the new strategies for targeting specific keywords. The methods in this video for keyword research are somewhat Frankensteined together and notably less effective than judging empirical evidence from traffic; that creates a more difficult scenario requiring more experimentation. The market will have little choice but to adapt to Google. Or will it?

What Happens Next?

I agree with Rand Fishkin; optimizing pages is not a black hat activity and actually makes it easier for users to find what they are looking for. I predicate my assumption below on the premise that search engine optimization is a positive thing for user experience. That was the goal, Google; was it not? If this assumption hold true, then Google has opened a window of opportunity for a competitor to create a better user experience with much less effort. 

Bing has been slowly gaining momentum, and I'm interested in their selling points for paid advertisements. Bing is not in a position to battle Google in terms of volume. Google maintains the lion’s share of worldwide search traffic and 83% of Internet users are exposed to Google’s display network. To say nothing of the fact the 800 million users visit Google's YouTube every month, making it the third most popular web property. As a response, Bing has been forced to innovate by creating competitive ad optimization options. This is exactly the type of logical strategy I would expect from Microsoft; better insight into optimization and hence better ROI will attract larger budgets. Competitive advantages match corporate strategy and Bing leverages allowing paid advertisers to view more information.

Now advertisers can optimize organic traffic on Bing much more effectively as well. If the above premise that optimization is good stands, and all other variables are held constant, it stands to reason that the search engine that allows better optimization will provide a better user experience. Again, I'm not talking about exploiting the gap between computer comprehension and user experience to display less relevant pages higher; I'm talking about gaining insight into searcher intentions and tailoring a website to match. 

If I have learned anything as a digital marketer, I have learned that people online will gravitate towards the best online experience. That’s why we do all of this. If I'm right, then Google is crafting their own demise by continuing to force more and more advertisements at the expense of user experience.

Making keyword optimization less effective, offering free advertising certifications, and launching a new simplified interface for ad design will likely attract a lot of short term revenue. But if the overall user experience suffers, Google might be killing their goose to get a golden egg.