Google Cuts Keyword Data from Analytics: What This Change Means for You

Last week, as Google celebrated its 15th birthday, the search giant made two announcements that caught many by surprise.

One was that Google quietly switched to a new algorithm called “Hummingbird” about a month ago. This was a significant change that had (perhaps surprisingly) little fallout, so we’ll save that for another blog post and refer you here to learn more.

The other announcement that drew attention—and a big reaction from the SEO community—is that Google will soon be encrypting all search data in the widely used Google Analytics reporting platform. This means that detailed data about what organic search keywords were used to deliver visitors to your website will no longer be available.

Google has taken steps in this direction over the past two years, replacing actual keywords with “(not provided)” for searches performed by logged-in Google users and those using browsers with certain privacy settings. According to Google, their actions are in support of protecting their users’ privacy. Some may see this as a positive, but for SEO professionals and anyone wanting to improve their website’s performance and visibility, it also presents some challenges.

What does the change mean for you, as a business owner? Here are a few essential takeaways:

1. Your search engine success still depends on good content.
One thing hasn’t changed: Google still favors good, valuable content. Content that’s highly relevant to who you are and what you do. Content that will make people who find it stick around long enough to read, share, and link to it.

2. Do I still need to sweat over keywords?
Are keywords still important? Yes, but only in that they are strong descriptors of what people will find on your site. Last week’s announcement should not change the way you approach keyword use. The old SEO strategy of cramming many instances of the same keyword on to a page stopped working on Google long before now. Your writing should include variations of logical, descriptive phrases that relate to the central theme of the page they’re on.

3. How will I know which keywords are working well on my site?
This is where things do get challenging. Numbered are the days when we can look at Organic search reports to see which keywords are driving traffic, whether the traffic is bouncing, whether it’s converting into leads… There are less straightforward clues to be found in other reports available through Google Analytics, and these reports will no doubt be getting more scrutiny as we analyze site performance. For example…

  • We’ll still know something about the volume and engagement of organic search traffic (in broad strokes), from the Search report under Traffic Sources.
  • Content reports can teach us something about how successful the themes of the content on each page are.
  • If your Google Analytics reports are connected to Webmaster Tools, you’ll still have insight into some search query data, through the Search Engine Optimization reports in Traffic Sources. Webmaster Tools shows the top 2,000 keyword phrases sending traffic to the site, along with average position, and approximate impressions and clicks.

4. Will I be able to see paid keyword performance?
Yes, and therein lies a bit of controversy. Google will continue to provide detailed keyword performance data for customers using its pay-per-click search platform. If you’re using AdWords, you’ll have the advantage of some insight into how the keywords you’re bidding on are performing, and how the visitors who use them interact with your site. (Many have cited this allowance by Google as hypocritical in terms of its proclaimed mission to increase its users’ privacy.)

What’s the end result of all this? Reporting practices for the many people who rely on Google Analytics will no doubt undergo some changes in the weeks ahead. Ultimately, we’ll continue to find useful data to help shape our SEO efforts; we may just need to dig a little deeper to get to it.