Google recently announced that AdWords will no longer support true “exact match” keywords. Instead, Google will basically force advertisers to always bid on what Google is calling close variants, which include things like spelling errors, pluralizations, and so forth.
For most professional search marketers, this isn’t great news. The reason being that previously within AdWords, we always had the option to bid on these close variants – but we also had the choice not to. Now Google has removed this “power user” option and is requiring advertisers to always include close variants.
This has some SEO impact as well. Many search engine optimization experts used the Google AdWords keyword planner to research search volume for target keywords. Many SEO tools and platforms also relied on this data. And although we were never really sure how truly accurate the keyword data really was, now we’re even less sure.
The bigger picture issue here however is probably more interesting. The landscape change we’re seeing now is the gradual death of keywords. It’s been an ongoing process over the last few years in digital, with multiple changes to the SEO/PPC landscape gradually pointing to this inevitable change in user behavior and therefore marketing strategy. In this post, we’ll explore the move away from keywords and where it will lead the future of SEO and online marketing.
Keyword Data Vanishes from Analytics
Perhaps the most obvious and well-known move away from keywords is the introduction of (not provided) in Google Analytics. In the old days, you could just open up your analytics platform and see exactly what keywords were driving clicks from Google. Now, this data is almost completely gone, replaced with a single bucket of non-data which Google labels “not provided”.
This change occurred when Google switched over to secure search by default. With HTTPS in place, keyword referring data was no longer available to analytics platforms. And while Google initially told us that this change would only impact a small percent of total searches, it now impacts the vast majority. Basically, marketers don’t know what search terms are driving clicks from Google anymore.
Of course, there are still other ways to get keyword data, for example, from Google Webmaster Tools. But the data in WMT is not as accurate or robust as real analytics data. And beyond that, who knows how long WMT data will still be offered – Google’s certainly under no obligation to provide it. The move to (not provided) was a clear sign from Google that they don’t want marketers focused on keywords.
Hummingbird Changes the Game
Google Hummingbird is the most recent major algorithm overhaul launched by Google. It was a very substantial update which Google stated would impact more than 90% of all queries. Hummingbird was the largest update to Google since the Caffeine update in 2010, and it was heavily focused on changing the way that Google understands keywords.
Some important statements about Hummingbird included things like, “Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query, the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account” and “The Hummingbird approach should be inspirational to anyone managing and planning content – if you aren’t already thinking like Hummingbird, you should be. In a nutshell, think about why people are looking for something rather than what they are looking for. A content strategy should be designed to answer their needs, not just provide them with facts. ”
In other words, Hummingbird worked to move Google’s focus away from looking at specific keywords, and more towards understanding the user’s intent behind the terms. It is an update the reduced the relevance of raw keyword optimization and shifted the SEO focus towards content marketing.
Overall, Hummingbird is probably a good thing for the SEO industry. It reduces some of the thin and sketchy optimization strategies that focused on gaming Google, and put the emphasis where it should be, on creating great content for users. However, it is also a clear sign that keywords are becoming less and less relevant, and that marketers need to adapt.
Pigeon, Local SEO, and Rank Tracking
In a recent Search Engine Land article, Greg Gifford argued that the recent Google Pigeon update should allow local SEOs to abandon rankings reports. The Pigeon update, which focused on local search results, has caused major changes in local rankings, and these heavy fluctuations could push many SEO agencies towards simply ditching rankings reports.
This isn’t the first time the industry has called for abandoning rankings reports – far from it. SEO experts have been trying to break away from rank tracking for years, as results have become more customized, harder to track accurately, and less useful for measuring true marketing success. Some popular SEO platforms like Raven Tools have also completely removed rank tracking features, preferring to report on more actionable and reliable web metrics.
However, many SEO clients refuse to follow this trend. For many businesses, their positions on Google are the clearest indicator of SEO success. And although SEO experts may disagree, we can understand the interest that businesses have in judging SEO results through the classic and obvious signal of Google rankings.
But even SEO clients and small businesses should soon start to change their thinking. As search becomes more personal, more mobile, and more focused on natural language and user intent, tracking keywords becomes less relevant. Metrics like traffic, conversions, and ROI are the real indicators of online marketing success, and both SEO agencies and clients need to adapt to this trend and modify SEO campaigns and reporting accordingly.
Ultimately, as search becomes more sophisticated and spreads across devices and mediums, the old school keyword-based paradigm becomes less and less relevant. SEO success in the future will be defined by content quality, user engagement, and findability in a holistic sense. If you’re a small business in the DFW region, including cities like Dallas, Arlington, Plano, or Fort Worth, and you’re interested in learning more about the future of SEO, the Tech-Critic team can help. Contact us today to get started.