Changes implemented by Google in September 2013 have accelerated the recent trend of marketers receiving less keyword level data. This creates new challenges for understanding how SEO performs as a marketing channel, and its role in the wider channel mix.
What has changed?
In October 2011, Google launched encrypted search. Users logged into a Google account (such as Gmail, Google Drive, or any other Google product) and would be redirected to a secure version of Google, ie https://www.google.co.uk.
For these users of Google, websites are unable to view the keyword the user entered into Google to find their site. In short, the website receives no keyword level data.
Until now, this primarily applied to users logged in with their Google account. However, during September, Google made changes so that this affects all users, regardless of whether or not they are signed into Google. This has had a significant impact on the amount of keyword level data not being provided to websites.
When it first launched, the amount of SEO traffic with no keyword data was around 15 percent. Over the first couple of years, this grew steadily until the average in August 2013 had increased to 40 percent across our accounts. However, with the recent change, this has now accelerated to 80 percent.
This means that, as of early October 2013, for 80 percent of SEO traffic, websites do not have keyword level data.
Why has Google made this change? Does it impact paid search?
Google has made this change for privacy reasons. It is important to note that this change only applies to natural search traffic and does not apply to paid search traffic (Adwords).
Adwords accounts for 98 percent of Google’s revenue, and applying the same privacy changes to Adwords would essentially break the Adwords product, as advertisers would not be able to determine the ROI on their accounts at an ad group level. As a result, investment in Adwords would likely be reduced, creating a significant risk to Google’s overall operating profits.
While the changes applied to natural search may be received with an element of cynicism, this rationale does at least provide a context to understand the search engine’s policy.
Does this change affect both adservers and web analytics?
Adservers (eg Doubleclick) and web analytics (eg Google Analytics) receive the keyword data via a piece of information called the ‘http refer’. In both instances, when the user comes via the encrypted version of Google, the ‘http refer’ contains less information and no keyword data is contained within it. As a result, both adservers and web analytic packages are impacted in largely the same way. Neither receives keyword level data when the secured version of Google used.
How does this impact my specific tool?
While no adserver or analytics package can receive keyword level data, there are some subtle differences that should be known.
Omniture continues to track the source of the visitor as natural search, but not keyword at level. Encrypted clicks will appear as ‘keyword not available’ in Omniture 1.6.
Google Analytics (including Premium)
Google Analytics continues to track the source of the visitor as organic search, but not at keyword level. Encrypted clicks will appear as ‘(not provided)’ in keyword reports.
By default, Doubleclick for Advertisers (DFA) does not track encrypted queries and, therefore, of all tools mentioned in the document, sees the biggest impact. However, DFA does have the functionality to track encrypted queries, and the SEO team at Arena UK was the first global partner to test it. The functionality has not been rolled out into the public DFA product yet, but it is our expectation that it will in coming months.
Until it does, one should be aware that there will be an impact on other channels being tracked in DFA. Other paid channels such as Display and PPC are likely to have an increase in post impression and click conversions attributed on the last click model, as there will be fewer natural search cookies dropped.
Atlas does not have official natural search tracking. Arena has developed proprietary technology to allow for this, but that technology is subject to the same barriers as any other tracking tool. The technology does, however, detect that the user has arrived from the encrypted version of Google, and under those circumstances will pull the landing page on which the user has landed. This allows Arena to provide landing page/line of business click data.
Media Mind does not have official natural search tracking. Arena has developed proprietary technology to make up for this, but since our client accounts are currently using this adserver solution, Arena has not developed encrypted search landing page functionality.
Google Webmaster Tools
Google Webmaster Tools is neither an adserver nor a web analytics package, but it is another source of organic search data provided by Google. Previously, this data has only been available via Google Webmaster Tools dashboard. This has now changed and the data is also available via Adwords.
The quality of Google Webmaster Tools data has always been contentious, with one of the primary reasons being that, rather than providing actual numbers for keyword level data, data is bucketed. So if Google Webmaster Tools reports that there have been 10,000 clicks from a given keyword, the actual number could have either been 8,000 or 12,000. Such discrepancy renders the data less useful for optimisation. However, when the data is accessed via Adwords, absolute numbers are provided, making it far more useful.
Another criticism of Google Webmaster Tools data is that there is a short time limit on the data available. Google has also pledged to extend the data retrospectively available from the current 90 days to a full year. There is no confirmed data for this, but Arena expects it to happen in October 2013.
It is our recommendation that advertisers link their Adwords and Webmaster Tools accounts and use this data as their primary source of keyword level data insight for SEO campaigns.
How does this impact SEO/PPC integration?
The impact is that less data demands more integration.
In the case of testing PPC and SEO, there are new challenges. Most commonly, clients determine the success of SEO/PPC tests based on conversions. This is no longer possible with the loss of keyword level data. Instead, SEO/PPC tests will have to focus on clicks, with data from different sources. Paid search data continues to be taken from Adwords, and the SEO is taken from Google Webmaster Tools. Please refer to the previous section to understand some of the considerations that should be made when using Google Webmaster Tools data.
SEO and PPC must now become more integrated than ever before. Paid search retains keyword level data with attributable conversions, and it is important that these insights are shared with SEO teams to shape the overall search channel strategy.
How should SEO be tracked in light of the changes?
Like any other digital marketing channel, SEO should be accountable and treated as a performance channel. The objective of natural search for direct response clients is to drive acquisition, and these changes ultimately do not impact the ability to track this.
Historically, it might be said that the industry has been too fixated on rankings as a KPI, which doesn’t always align with the ultimate goal of achieving acquisition. It is fair to say that the changes of encrypted search do indeed create more of a dependency on ranking performance, but their use should be carefully thought out to ensure that the insights they provide are pragmatic. There are tools available such as Searchmetrics, which provide additional visibility metrics calculated over millions of keywords, which can provide a better account of performance.
In the instances in which clients split out keyword performance by line of business, Arena recommends adopting a different approach. Rather than splitting out the click data based on keyword matching rules, this should be done based on landing page.
Another frequent reporting requirement for clients is to split out brand/generic performance. At a click level, this will still be possible, although this data will have come from Google Webmaster Tools. However, it will not be possible to split conversions by brand/generic. To understand conversion among this split, insights should be taken from paid search.
To summarise some of the key requirements:
- Link Google Webmaster Tools to Adwords to attain access to the higher quality keyword level click data.
- Increase communication between paid and organic search teams to ensure knowledge sharing, especially around keyword level conversion performance.
- Review the role of rankings data as a KPI for your campaigns and consider increasing use of third party tools such as Searchmetrics.
- Adopt a landing page approach to understanding line of business click performance.