Google’s confirmed shifting of all keyword data for organic search to Not Provided has rocked many Internet marketers and SEO community. Does this mean gloom, doom and disaster for marketers, or are there other tools and strategies that will now need to be adopted?
Why the Uproar?
In order to fully understand why this shift is causing such uproar, you need to look at the way many Internet marketers function. In the old days, before the search engines actually got smart, it was much easier to play keyword games with the system in order to rank highly in the search engine rankings. Let’s look at a few of the steps along the way.
The Early Days of Keywords
When marketers first recognized the importance of keywords, the thought was that more was better. Since the algorithms seemed to favor sites that were densely packed with certain keywords, having a lot of those terms meant you did better in the rankings.
The idea was that if you were looking for information on cocker spaniels, a page that mentioned cocker spaniels once was probably less relevant than a page that listed it five times. In a perfect world, with copy written for humans to read, that would probably be true. But once people learned that this worked, they began including the desired keywords in a way that was completely unnatural. They would mention cocker spaniels in every sentence, to the point that their content became ludicrously unreadable.
Certain Black Hat marketers even went further, including the phrase in hidden text, repeating it over and over and over, with all of its subtle variations, in an attempt to fool the search engines into thinking that they were more relevant than they actually were.
Algorithms Get Smarter
Of course, the search engines caught on to this pretty quickly, and began to look for ways to spot unnatural usage. Sites that stuffed keywords were penalized or banned. Through trial and error, and some anecdotal evidence, marketers tried to find the sweet spot, the keyword density percentage that got the best possible results without crossing the line that would get them penalized. Of course, opinions differed, but you could count on seeing estimates in the 2 or 3% range mentioned.
As the search engines advance, they are becoming much more adept at finding keyword stuffing, bad writing, unnatural linking strategies and duplicate content. The push is to find really high quality content that is meaningful and useful to the people doing the searches. After all, the engines reason for existence is to help people find the needle in the haystack known as the World Wide Web.
Of course, it is much easier to produce formulaic content of dubious value than to actually come up with something useful and meaningful, so many SEO companies and online marketers would still prefer an exact formula that they could plug into to get the highest rankings possible.
Why Formulas Don’t Work
Of course, the algorithms are a closely guarded secret, and rightly so. If Google published an exact formula specifying the way to search ranking number one, what would happen? Every Internet marketer in the world would plug their content into that formula and all of the pages would rank exactly the same. And when everyone is tied for number one, the achievement becomes meaningless.
Of course, that is an overly simplistic view of the algorithms. They have to weigh hundreds of factors, some weightier than others. Hitting an exact match for first place would be an unachievable goal, but that would be the target that marketers would shoot for. But that is the exact wrong goal to be shooting for.
What searchers are looking for – and thus by extension, what the search engines are looking for – is meaningful, useful, informative content. Even if the content has all of the formulaic pieces in exactly the right place, the overall whole could be useless garbage. What Google has been saying all along is, “Write good content and the rankings will come.” While that may not quite be true, they are certainly trying to push websites in that direction.
The Keyword Crutch
With keywords at center stage, much SEO is focused on ranking for certain terms and measuring and monitoring, down to the minutest detail, how a page ranks for each target. Unfortunately, this often shifts the focus away from what is truly important – useful content.
As an example, consider some of the statistics kept in professional sports. Take a professional baseball player’s batting average as one example. If a certain player has an outstanding average, perhaps the best in the entire league, does that mean that he is on a winning team? Of course not. Baseball is a team sport, and while each player is an important part of a winning team, no one player can possibly carry an entire team by himself. By focusing exclusively on the one player’s batting average, all other aspects of the team could be neglected, mean failure for the entire organization. The best hitter in the league doesn’t equal the best team in the league, as history has demonstrated over and over.
The same thing can be said for target keywords. By focusing on one statistic – search engine rankings for a targeted keyword – many marketers miss the bigger picture. Sadly, this practice has become so widespread that some would argue that the vast majority of the information on the web is just so much useless noise. The evidence clearly points that way. Even looking at the first two or three pages of the search results for any given search will show you that the majority of sites just aren’t worth the time and effort of even a quick scan.
This narrow focus doesn’t just waste searcher’s time. It can also hurt the businesses and organizations that it is trying to help. By focusing so much time and attention on keyword ranking, many marketers actually forget the underlying purpose of their websites. And so the whole team loses.
Up until now, keyword data has been pretty easy to quantify, so it is a nice, neat, measurable statistic. Web designers could point to the data and proclaim success. Unfortunately, as many business owners will attest, the success hasn’t carried over into sales and other business objectives.
Taking Keywords Out of the Picture
By taking all of this keyword data off the table, Google may actually be doing businesses and website owners a huge favor. By spending so much time and effort into keyword research, many marketers have lost sight of the big picture. Without all of this search term data to focus on, marketers will need to find other measures of success.
Several suggestions have already appeared, as well as ways to continue to measure your website’s success. But the fact that this data is harder to come by and doesn’t have such a clear and measurable factor, it may be harder to quantify and present to decision makers.
Where to Focus Your Efforts
Instead of focusing efforts on individual keywords, Google is trying to lead marketers down a different path. Some would say it is the path they should have been following all along. The key is to add value to your site so that users can benefit, and the search engines will reward that behavior.
1. Develop a great product or service. Provide something of value that people can actually use, whether that is something tangible, a service or just plain, old information. As the movie said, “If you build it, they will come.” We could qualify that a little to say, if you build it well.
2. Produce good content that shows the value of what you are offering. Provide something of value, not just a high ranking page designed to funnel people off into another portion of your site. Even if the purpose is to sell something, do it with style and class.
3. Build relevant and legitimate links to your site. If you are following points 1 & 2, these should come naturally. You’ll still have to work at it, but each link will be more valuable and carry more weight.
It may mean a whole new way of thinking, but it may well be that we will one day look back on 100% Not Provided as the best thing that happened to online marketing. There may be some growing pains, but those who adapt may well become even better marketers than before.