For years, marketers have analyzed Google keywords to understand what topics their customers search for most and how they search for them. This week, Google made a fundamental change to how it refers website traffic, obscuring the search phrases that drive consumers to brands’ websites. Like a thick fog rolling across the San Francisco Bay, this change has left many marketers with the sensation that they are flying blind. As those who have flown through stormy weather know, however, you can fly just fine through fog, as long as you have the right instruments guiding the way.
Smart content marketers pay significant attention to search and social. Search is the leading way that people actively discover new information. We search for content more than 21 billion times each month in the United States, and more than 115 billion times around the world. When we click away from the search window, 85 percent of the time we click on the organic content links on the page, not the paid advertising links.
Social is the leading way that people discover information passively. We share content 36 billion times each month. We pass along content other people have shared another 90 billion times monthly. When consumers click away from social, they click on the content links their friends have shared or passed along.
In short, search and social have become the de facto gateways to the consumer. Thoughtful marketers now know that quality, original content is the key to reaching people.
How It Works
Marketers have competed for natural search traffic for years. They analyzed Google keywords to understand how their consumers and prospective buyers search for information, and learned how consumers discovered their sites. They optimized site structure and current content to appear higher in search rankings. They then identified topics of interest to their customers that they had not addressed, and created content to meet those information needs (again optimizing that content so Google would list it at the top of search results). Finally, they used a number of methods to measure their success.
To analyze how their content performs in search and how their consumers actually navigate to their sites, marketers used a number of approaches:
- Tagging: Website and content analytics platforms, including Google Analytics and Omniture (and our own platform at Skyword), use tracking tags to identify the source of traffic to that site. Historically, these platforms have captured the URL of the site that referred the traffic (the “referring URL”) and aggregated that data into different reports. For traffic coming from Google, this URL would be something similar to google.com/search?q=keyword. The q= is the actual keyword that was searched for. One of the most useful reports showed the specific keywords that consumers were searching for when they came to the marketer’s site.
- Scanning Search Results: Services like BrightEdge or Conductor (or, again, Skyword’s own platform) take a different approach, running thousands of searches everyday across a broad set of keywords. These systems then examine where marketers’ content appears on search engine results pages (SERPs), and reports that search performance to them.
- Google Webmaster Tools: Google also offers a set of tools to webmasters that provide them with some broad, aggregate data on search performance.
What Has Changed?
To protect consumer privacy, Google will be encrypting the referring keyword data when it hands search traffic to marketers. Analyzing data across Skyword’s clients and the hundreds of thousands of pieces of content we track for them, we saw that Google currently encrypts about 82 percent of traffic (up from just under 30 percent as recently as last week). We expect Google will continue to encrypt traffic until this method of measurement is no longer available. We were flying on a clear day, with direct visibility into what people were searching for, but Google has just introduced dense fog.
Content marketers that rely on Google Analytics, Omniture, or content marketing platforms that derive all of their search data from those systems are suddenly flying blind. They have limited visibility into which of their content marketing efforts are succeeding or failing. Absent that data, they cannot guide their future work toward greater success.
What Hasn’t Changed?
Well, let’s start with the big picture:
- Search is and will remain the primary means of active information discovery. People searched 4 billion times yesterday. They will search about 4 billion times today. They will search about 4 billion times tomorrow and the day after that.
- When people click away from search results, they will still click on the content links 85 percent of the time. So natural search will drive the same value (the equivalent of billions of dollars in traffic each month) to brands that it did before.
- Search optimized content will still appear higher in search results, just as it did before. Those markers that create SEO content will continue to win an increasing share of that natural search traffic.
In short, smart marketers will continue to compete for natural search traffic, just as aggressively as they did before Google’s change.
On the search logistics side:
- Data from systems that scan search results, like Skyword’s content marketing platform, Conductor, or BrightEdge’s search analytics platforms, are unaffected. We will continue to run those searches every day, we’ll continue to gather information about where a brand is ranking and where their competitors are ranking, and we’ll provide insight that will guide content marketing efforts in the future.
- Google’s Webmaster Tools will also provide aggregate data for websites, showing the top 2,000 terms that are driving traffic to a site. This data provides a broad snapshot of where a site is succeeding, but does not provide the refined data down to the page level that was available on Google Analytics and other sites before. It is also limited to 2,000 terms, preventing marketers from understanding or competing for the long tail.
How Marketers Can Navigate the Changes
Marketers that understand their customers’ information needs, and respond to those needs by creating original, quality, search-optimized content, will still drive significant reach and engagement via natural search.
The impact of Google’s change on your organization depends, in part, on how you have been flying. Brands that rely on tag-based systems alone (Google Analytics, Omniture, and social platforms that lack robust search functionality) will have some data in aggregate.
Beyond this aggregate data, however, they will be flying blind. They will lose the specific keyword-level and page-specific analytics that allow them to develop search-informed content strategies and maximize natural search traffic.
Seeing this change coming, we built a sophisticated search results scanning capability into Skyword’s content marketing platform more than a year ago. Because of that technology, marketers using our platform can still identify keywords to target, optimize their content for search, measure how their content performs against those keywords, and evaluate search performance down to the individual article level. Marketers not using Skyword will need to consider a service like BrightEdge or Conductor to track their content search performance, in addition to whatever platform they may use.
For example, the report below, showing keyword rank success for a content marketing platform (site wide and down to the individual keyword and article level) will perform unchanged.
Likewise, we will still be able to recommend keywords where you ought to compete for traffic, and identify those where you would not see significant benefit, as illustrated below.
Equally important, we will still be able to guide writers and editors to create and optimize their content to maximize search performance. And this optimization will still be just effective as it was before.
Soaring Above the Fog
Google has introduced a new weather pattern and obscured some of the data that content marketers love to see. Natural search traffic remains just as valuable today as it was yesterday. And the fog doesn’t mean your natural search traffic can’t take off. Brands that are equipped with the right technology can compete for that traffic just as successfully as they did before. Perhaps more so, for a while, since brands not similarly equipped will remain grounded or be flying blind.