Jan 22, 2014 8:00:00 AM

Google's Change In Search Algorithm: Why You Should Rethink Your Content Strategy

Posted by Matthew Campion

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For over three years now, new google algorithms are responsible for companies losing data surrounding how people interact with their website - data that helps them make better marketing decisions.

The culprit? Google’s “encrypted search”.

It all began in May of 2010. Google announced "encrypted search” – meaning that those who chose to search in “secure” mode (by typing in https:// instead of the usual http:// in front of a website’s URL) would not have their keyword data reported to the website on the receiving end of their visit. (SELand)

Instead, if you checked your analytics platform you would see “(not provided)” where their keyword phrase ought to be. At the time, the impact was extremely low and few businesses even took notice.

It wouldn’t stay that way.

In October of 2011, Google made it known that anyone logged into a Google property – including YouTube, Gmail, Google+, Google Docs and more, would be searching “secure” by default. They assured everyone that this would only impact a single-digit percentage of search data.

Google’s official word was that this was for security reasons – they claimed this was keeping searchers safer. The interesting thing? Keyword data from clicks on paid advertisements is still reported.

That was a lie. In March of 2012, Firefox opted to make all of their searches encrypted. Chrome followed suit in January of 2013 – and finally, in September of the same year, Google announced they were working to make their engine secure – of course, with the exception of ads. (SELand)

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But why was keyword data important, anyway?

Keyword data was an immensely helpful tool in understanding how people were finding your website in search engines. You could use keyword data to:

  • Identify areas of strength in visibility, as well as new and emerging opportunities (for example, if you saw a sudden flux in traffic in an unexpected niche of keyword phrases)

  • Sort search engine traffic between branded and unbranded keywords, helping to understand the ROI of the SEO work that was being performed

  • Test  whether or not stronger positioning for a set of keywords actually translated into any traffic

  • Determine which organic keywords were driving the most conversions. That’s a huge one, because knowing which phrases people were converting on helped website owners improve their relevance and user experience surrounding those keyword

Without access to this data, business owners need to look to new sources of information to try to understand how their websites are performing – and SEOs need to find new ways to attribute incoming traffic and conversions to the work they’re doing for clients.

But the impact of these changes stings more than just digital marketers or SEO’s. Software companies that had built tools surrounding keyword data now found themselves with broken tools and without a revenue stream.

What do these algorithm changes mean for the future of search?

Before we can answer that, it helps to know what else Google has been working on for the past while. Months back, Google rolled out a new core engine to their algorithm called Hummingbird. Hummingbird is designed to provide more relevant answers to informational and long-tail (highly specific) queries.(

We can see, over time, that Google has been showing more and more varied information in their results – now, a search for Justin Timberlake shows the “Knowledge Graph” in the sidebar of the results page, with information on everything from his biography to his upcoming albums and shows – without ever visiting a website or leaving Google.

This kind of search result, combined with the loss of keyword data, points to something important.

Google wants website owners to be less focused on keywords.

This is a positive step, in many ways. Shifting the focus from keyword phrases and rankings to overall user experience and added value is a great move – but the trouble is, keyword data helped well-meaning marketers do exactly that.

For example, the concept of “creating great content”. It’s much easier to create great, relevant content when you can understand what your customers are looking for, what they found interesting on your site and how they responded.

The good news is, you can still get much of that data – but not nearly as easily. The methodologies have changed.

Now, it’s important to monitor the onsite metrics of your landing pages – especially those that rank well in search engines. If you need keyword data, you can run ad campaigns to help get some insights into how people are searching; an imperfect (and perhaps costly) solution, but a solution nonetheless.

You can still access imperfect (and oft-confusing) data from Google Webmaster Tools surrounding popular phrases your site comes up in search results for, and cross-reference that information with the data you can still get in analytics surrounding user experience.

But, all of this to say – it’s time to put more emphasis on what happens when users are on your site, and creating exceptional experiences. It’s time to shift focus to inbound marketing, attracting and nurturing leads, whether they came through SEO, offline advertising, paid ads or referrals.

It’s time to put a serious focus back on adding value.

Encrypted search has helped to usher in a new era of online marketing, where the metrics we measure are more aligned with human experiences and created value.

Google's new algorithm means that it’s not all about keywords and traffic anymore – and that’s a good thing.



Topics: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Keyword Data

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