5 years ago

The death of SEO and why keywords are possibly being removed to push paid traffic

NB: This is a guest article by Pedro Colaco, president and CEO of GuestCentric.

Here is a piece of so-called Inside Baseball analysis that is slowly affecting large swathes of the travel industry, in particular hotels.

In 2011, when encrypted search was made default for logged in users, there was a great concern over repercussions in SEO as encrypted searches obliterate keywords.

While the source of traffic is still “Google”, keywords are “not provided” into any conversion analysis. This change is dramatic in terms of hard data.

But at least the SEO community could take comfort from the prediction that it would only affect a very small percentage of overall searches.

However, encrypted search has been on the fast track. We are now seeing websites with over 20% of their Google visits coming from “not provided” keywords. This trend is recent and worrisome.

Some websites that had only a few percentage points in June 2012 are now at over 20%!

This trend will only worsen, as Google-backed Chrome has added search encryption to its omnibox following Firefox and Mobile Safari.

With encrypted search no longer being exclusive to logged in users, the amount of encrypted searches is set to increase and the ability to track the results of organic search queries to decrease.

If a conversion analysis down to the keyword doesn’t take into account those that are using encrypted protocols, the SEO analysis will become skewed towards only those that don’t use encrypted search.

This seriously cripples the ability to predict online behaviors and the SEO solutions that present the best results.

The rise of encrypted search makes it difficult to make accurate and trustworthy SEO predictions and assessments as it is only being applied to a limited percentage of overall searches.

But why would Google take away from SEO? And how will this change SEO strategies, and the results one can get from them?

The paid search alternative

Two years ago there were already some taking note of how encrypted search had been high enough for them to take notice, but it nonetheless soon fell out of notice with justifications that encrypted searches would be proportional to regular searches.

But these assumptions missed the essential point that SEO can’t be justified as accurate if its methodology is only being applied to a limited percentage of the overall searches. And no one predicted the recent growth in encrypted search.

One possible alternative to get keyword reports is paid search. Curiously, Google will send the complete keyword information, which includes the query of the user, to the advertiser whenever a user clicks on an ad on the Google search engine, whether using encrypted search or not.

But this comes at a cost.

If you don’t want to have to first run ads in order to figure out which keywords have the best ROIs, you’ll have trouble using the Analytics reports to look for keywords to optimize for.

There are ways to get more information on, for instance, long-tail keywords to optimize for. These, nonetheless, make you rely on other Google tools, like Google’s Keyword Tool, or paid services even more.

In the new necessity of substituting previously available data by acquiring Google tools and running AdWord campaigns, might lay the Google’s strategy behind this move.

Google, don’t be evil!

Google justified its implementation of encrypted search as a way to “provide users with a more secure and private search experience”, but if that is the case why is the information still being provided to paying advertisers?

There’s also the possibility of Google’s goal being to stop so-called SEO poisoning.

This is a perfectly reasonable explanation, but one should take into account that the way in which malicious websites promote themselves is ever changing (just like the security measures to stop them).

Furthermore, if the ultimate goal was to stop SEO poisoning, shouldn’t all search be encrypted?

One obviously can’t be sure about the strategy behind Google’s adherence to search encryption. But, when its actions are seemingly inconsistent with the reasoning presented, one cannot help but question Google’s motivation.

As encrypted search increases, one will increasingly be required to resort to pay for keywords in order to test the market and somehow establish keyword conversion rates for their website.

This will translate into more costs, and more time dedicated to website tuning, as it makes SEO a lot more dependent on trial and error. If the keyword you run an AdWord campaign for turns out to be more irrelevant than expected, then you’ll have to try again until you succeed.

Check it for yourself

Regardless of being able to pinpoint with certainty Google’s strategy behind the push of encrypted search, the values of encrypted search coming to your website are nothing to ignore.

Don’t take our word for it, check it for yourself.

Step 1 – Go to “Reporting” on your Google Analytics page.

Step 2 – Press on “Advanced Segments” and “+ New Custom Segment”. “Include” a “Source”, “Containing” “google” and then “Add “AND” statement”. Making it look like this:

Almost there!

Step 3 – “+ Add a dimension or metric” that is “Keyword” and “Containing” “(not provided)”. This should look like:

Step 4 – Name the segment in the “Name:” field and press “Save Segment”.

Step 5 – In “Advanced Segments”, in “Custom Segments” you can select this new segment and “Apply”.

To better see the effect of encrypted search you can even create a custom segment for Google.

Step 6 – Press “+ New Custom Segment” on the “Advanced Segments” section, and “Include” a “Source”, “Containing” “google”.

Step 7 – Name the segment in the “Name:” field and press “Save Segment”.

This way you can select both on “Custom Segments” and “Apply” to see the effect of encrypted search in something like this:

What now?

Will SEO lose accuracy and overall efficiency of methodology because of encrypted search? And if so, what channels can take its place in digital marketing strategy?

It is time to think and discuss thoroughly the place that SEO should take in hotelier’s digital marketing strategy.

If SEO methodologies are becoming ineffective in their solutions without incurring into even more costs than before, then hoteliers need to seek out other channels that may provide better bang for the buck.

NB: This is a guest article by Pedro Colaco, president and CEO of GuestCentric.

NB2: SEO strategy image via Shutterstock.

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries.



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  1. Yevgeny Senkevich

    I definitely agree that Google want to take away the power to tamper with SEO search results to some degree. We are seeing a trend where Google is trying to monetize as much as possible, we saw a recent example with the Google Product Listing Ads being added to the SERPS. This is taking away click volume from SEO and is getting the real estate more and more crowded. I spoke recently to Scot Wingo who is the CEO of Channel Advisor and he thinks “Free Traffic” is declining and “Paid Traffic” is increasing. This is a growing trend that will continue to grow over the years. You can read more on my blog here http://webatonic.com/blog/

  2. Tourism Tim Warren

    Great article. A little technical for me… but your overall point got through. Thanks.

    Glad I am upping my travel social media marketing channels so I am not relying on just SEO. 🙂

  3. Kevin May

    Kevin May

    As an aside, had TWO high-profile travel companies at the Travel Technology Europe event in London last week tell me that they were considering ditching their search agencies as the volume of work required vs ROI these days is far different to what it was, say, three or four years ago (not least because the GOOG real estate on P1 SERPS).

    To paraphrase: “The value of SEO has changed dramatically, so we no longer need an agency as the vast majority of the work we still need to do can be produced in-house.”

    What does this mean for the SEO agencies, I asked. Many are scrambling around trying to prove their worth, came the reply.

    Seems extremely unfair to me, but this is certainly what some in the market are saying.

    • Jeremy

      Makes perfect sense: in my experience there are WAY TOO MANY so-called agencies out there who seem to base their business model on action/reaction to, for want of a better term, the “Google Dance”. These agencies will have a tough time proving their worth – and quite rightly so!

      Before: throw some KW-Research and Link-strategies out there – and get ranked.
      Now: Holy Mackerel! We’ve got to do some real work, Batman!

      A real SEO agency will never have to worry 🙂

      As an aside, as we all know – those of us in hospitality-infested waters at any rate, there’s a lot riding on price. As with other areas in marketing, it’s just so sad when real skills are forced to label themselves as “commodoties” – and are then, as such, forced to compete on price alone.

      As Laurel once said to Hardy: “That’s another fine mess you got me into”

      Be brave, and churn out your best work, and charge accordingly.
      The customers ARE there 😉

      • Jeremy

        Good customer: “How can I get my message out there?”
        Bad customer: “SEO these pages for me”

    • Matthew Barker

      Interesting point Kev. Pedro’s article and the following discussion has clearly indicated the enormous degree of change that is going on with the mechanics of SEO.

      As Jeremy rightly says, there is a certain camp that still sees the problem as figuring out how to game the algorithm and then there is an emerging camp that appreciates the nuances of “inbound marketing” and the role that SEO plays within that, not as a stand alone element but as intrinsically linked to every other digital activity, particularly in terms of owned and earned media strategy.

      SEO agencies that have sold brands on outsourced link building & meta tags are a thing of the past, and good riddance to them.

  4. Fritz

    Maybe people also need to part from the mind set “SEO equals Google” – the SEO game has become much more complex than just trying to influence rankings at Google by getting links – the whole “viral” game and influence from social sites (where people are spending a lot of their time) requires the field of SEO to evolve from what is seen right now: to getting traffic from different engines and not only depending like a drug addict on Google!

  5. Jeremy

    Here’s a thought:

    Why is it even called SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) when clearly *nobody* really knows what the selection/ranking criteria of the Big Players are?

    Jus’ sayin’.

    Sure, “Keywword Research” has its part to play, but let’s not forget we’re a lot further down the line than we were in 2000. If you belong to the SEOers who (basically) ‘game the system’ by trying to feed the SE’s algorithm in a beneficial manner, whether that be white- grey- or blackhat, then I can see why you’re a-howlin’ at a percieved lack of relevant data.

    Any others of you get a grin on too when you see folks discussing “keyword density” and what their meta-tags are sayin’?? Hear this: dem days are OVER, word!

    SEO is Dead! Long live SEO!

    Just like wayback, real SEO begins way off the page – away from computers – and is a core part of your company’s marketing plan. Getting the various ‘cores’ to align, and then to also make digital sense – all happens without the internet. It’s called ‘hard work’ and is the result of open and frank discussions with all stakeholders.

    Letting, for example, Google in on your act – once you know what that act actually is – is a *small* piece of the overall pie. Does anyone here know the one about the eggs and the basket? (It didn’t end too well.)

    My advice: wake up, talk, diversify.

    (Feel the love? It’s Valentines!)

  6. David Urmann

    Pedro – you mention “SEO analysis will become skewed towards only those that don’t use encrypted search ”

    My question is does this even matter? Do we have any evidence this population is different from the larger population.

    • Pedro Colaco

      It matters, because as you know, encrypted search has different behaviors. E.g. if you are logged in, you will see different results than when you are not logged in. And if the encrypted search volume becomes material, you lose touch with that and may end up believing that consumers are searching and clicking on keywords that may actually be less relevant for your business.

  7. Matthew Barker

    With respect Pedro, does it really matter why this is happening? The fact is that it is happening and has been since late 2011. It could well be that Google has done this to improve their Adsense margins, but so what? Any brand that is so dependant on Google Analytics organic keyword data is not in a healthy position to begin with.

    As has been outlined in the above discussions, this issue really has no bearing on traffic acquisition costs. It’s relevant to changing methodologies perhaps, but not to the fact that organic search continues to be a valuable source of revenue for travel brands and a major plank to the travel marketing funnel and converged media strategies.

    There are plenty of resources out there for making that happen, of which “SEO is dead” articles are not a useful part.

    • Matthew Barker

      *Adwords, not Adsense

    • Pedro Colaco

      Respectfully disagree. Travel is a hard-fought industry where every penny counts. Traffic acquisition costs are massive when it comes to this industry. And if because I have less information, or less tools, or less knowledge, and suddenly I now have to pay an SEO consultant for my independent hotel/boutique brand website, that matters a lot.

  8. Witold Wrodarczyk

    Google AdWords Terms, agreed by all advertisers, require websites to provide specific privacy policy so Google’s hands are clear in this case. Someone else guaranteed that the users “were informed” that they are watched.

    However, there is no T&C you sign when entering Internet or organic search listings.

    Google has nothing against seeing what keywords users use in Webmaster Tools but not all things GA can show. Good SEO is good for Google too, because it provides better user experience of Google organic search.

    Russian Metrika by Yandex provides videorecording of all visits. Yes! You can see what they type and all mouse moves. But they have completely different legal and social environment.

    Google is aware of the legal and PR danger and this is their policy how to play with it. And they care more about general public rather than SEO community.

  9. Andrew Macdonald

    There is some good information here but I don’t agree with the overall theme of this post. The main thing I dislike is the “SEO is dead” headline that keeps being thrown around to try and grab viewer attention and always ends up being meaningless. In my opinion, I don’t see how loosing 20% of keyword data equates to SEO being dead. Just look around, SEO is bigger than ever and companies are investing more heavily now than ever because it has become essential that SEO is done right in order to succeed in this channel.

    I don’t see how still having 80% of keyword data still available “seriously cripples the ability to predict online behaviors and the SEO”. I can still make plenty of conclusions with 80% and in fact, what other marketing channels do you have access to this level of data?

    Our websites have experienced the same trend with increasing ‘not provided’ data over the last year or so but it seems to have plateaued and even dropped off in recent months so I think it is unjust to start talking about being over 50% in search traffic.

    Personally, I don’t know anyone that has invested more into PPC as a result of having less keyword data. I am not an expert on this issue but I would have thought the reason they offer the encrypted search is because of all the privacy issues and lawsuits that Google has faced in recent years?

    • Pedro Colaco

      Thanks for your comment Andrew. The title editorial is a side issue (my original post title was “On the demise of SEO: is Google removing keywords to push paid traffic?”).

      I think what is important is the death (or if you like less “attention grabbing”, the evolution) of SEO as we knew it.

      It is critical that SEO processes evolve, and that is the reason for the article. To spark the conversation, and to alert people for possible roadblocks ahead.

      And I do believe that there are two material facts that have not been discussed enough in travel forums:
      1- Encrypted search is becoming material (we are seeing 40% encrypted traffic on some sites), and we need alternative traffic analytics strategies.
      2- Why is Google doing this and will it have an impact on traffic acquisition cost? Privacy seems to be an excuse, as if privacy were the issue, then wouldn’t they easily remove all keywords from Ads also, that are being sent encrypted?

  10. Matt Barrett

    How ironic that this post should attract the sort of spammy comment from Mr Denzele Washington that is becoming the scurge of the internet.

  11. Kevin May

    Kevin May


    Have asked Pedro at GuestCentric to respond to some of the comments. Standby………

  12. Denzele Washington

    Well done. This information is really good for people like us. There is so much way to do SEO but we can do only a little. Because we can’t tell how they check ranks on web pages.

  13. Matthew Barker

    Well this is kind of old news since we’ve been dealing with this since late 2011. There are a number of work arounds to various aspects of the not provided problem (eg: http://www.seomoz.org/ugc/how-to-analyze-google-analytics-not-provided-data)

    The fact is that encrypted search & ‘not provided’ has been no more the “death knell of SEO” as any of the other previous much-hyped death knells of SEO. To say otherwise is misleading.

    As Brandon says above there is a lot of useful keyword data in Webmaster tools, but the more interesting point, and one that this article doesn’t address, is how the methodology and practice of SEO is changing.

    The entire concept of a site having universal keyword rankings each of which send a measurable/predictable volume of traffic is going out the window. These days sites have variable “keyword rankings” meaning your placement in the SERPs can depend from user to user on all sorts of factors.

    A successful SEO campaign isn’t hung up on keyword-level data but will instead work to ensure that your landing pages are generating an increasing volume of organic traffic, leads and revenue, which is the important thing after all. This traffic will be coming from multiple related keywords, depending on the size of your KW group and how the content has been optimized.

    This is very easy to do in Google Analytics:
    – Go to Content / Landing page and select the page that is targeting a particular KW group
    – Create a filter for source “Google” and medium “organic” and you’ll see the data for all organic traffic to that page. So long as that blue line is moving up and to the right, you know you’re doing the right thing.

    Here are some very useful articles on the subject of keyword ranking and traffic data:

    • Jeremy

      Way to go, Matthew!
      I’m currently preparing for an industry seminar I’m giving entitled: “SEO is dead – long live SEO” – and I’m smiling all over my face with smugness after having just read your post. You da man! Rest of the world: let’s not get hung up on the technology & reporting AFTER THE FACT. Instead, let’s focus on delivering a great experience in the now. Groundbreaking it is not. But let’s not get me started, eh?

    • Pedro Colaco

      Thanks for the comments. Overall I agree. SEO is in change and we all have to adapt to it. Hence my article – to raise awareness with hoteliers.

      I would like to point out two things:
      1- For the first time, with all the recent changes, it seems that there is the potential for encrypted traffic to be larger than non-encrypted traffic. Therefore, keyword results on Analytics are going to become highly unreliable. This is a major change and people need to start thinking about what to do about it. I will write another post on that topic.

      2- The other point I was trying to raise was “Why is Google doing this?”. To me it’s unclear, but if people start relying on Google Webmaster tools and cannot rely on their own Analytics suite (e.g. Omniture), this is a move towards Google becoming the only source of information. What would preclude Google from starting charging for Webmaster tools?

      @kevin- maybe you can ask someone at Google to comment #2?

  14. Brandon Dennis

    Thanks for the post Pedro. Our clients have been really interested in this topic, which is why we covered it on our blog last week. As you point out, this is a play by Google to make SEOs pay for the invaluable keyword data they were previously given for free by Google (all while bearing the phony flag of ‘user privacy’).

    That said, you still can get the last 1,000 or so keywords that sent traffic to your website through Google Webmaster Tools (WMT). When you log into WMT, click Traffic then Search Queries. There you will see around the most recent 1,000 unfiltered, unblocked keywords and keyphrases that landed on your website.

    Google doesn’t save these words forever, however, so you need to save them while you can. It’s a bit more work, but you can create an Excel spreadsheet and dump your keywords from WMT into it every week (WMT gives you an option to download your keywords, thankfully). Using this method, you can still, today, get ALL keywords that hit your website without paying for them.

    Now, SEO is more than just optimizing for keywords. Co-citation is the next big buzzword in the SEO industry, and this has very little to do with optimizing landing pages for money-words. SEO may steer away from on-page keyword optimization, just as it has already steered clear from anchor text optimization, but there will always be SOME method Google uses to rank pages, and there will always be some people who will try to figure out what it is.

    Also remember that there is always Bing. Even if someday in the future Google decides to block 100% of all keywords in all of their reporting tools, we can always log into Bing and discover which keywords Bing is sending to your website. Are the people using Bing really that different from the people using Google?

    As long as there are search engines, there will always be SEO.

    • Pedro Colaco

      Thanks for the comment. I will be writing a follow-up article on “What to do about it”, and Google Webmaster tools certainly is part of it. This article was about raising awareness on the issue.

    • Geert-Jan Brits

      would it be possible to link the two sources together?
      What I mean is: do occurences in both GA and WMT have timestamps (or something else) that makes it possible to unambiguously link visits from GA to visits in WMT?

      If so, this would make it possible to completely ‘enrich’ the visits in GA, back to what they were a couple of years ago.

      Just thinking out loud here.


      • Brandon Dennis

        Yes and no. You can link your WMT and Analytics accounts, and then Analytics will start to report keyword trends from WMT, however Analytics still filters results from WMT and delivers (not provided). This forces us to manually download the data from WMT ourselves and save it in our own databases.


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