The (Not Provided) Keyword Panty Twist

by Susan Wenograd  |  Published 1:39 PM, Thu September 26, 2013

not provided stressSo, as you may or may not have heard, Google is now keyword hoarding and you won’t know the organic search keywords that are driving traffic to your website. I referred to this as a “jerkstore” move on Twitter – it is, but it’s not surprising and it’s not industry-ending. It sucks, but I think folks who are crying the sky is falling are being a little dramatic.

Since when has anything in the digital world stayed the way it was?

The Good Parts

It will shift focus to value over time.

Here’s the thing, if you’re providing real content and great value, that should overshadow the keywords you’re using or ranking for. Period. Worry about THAT.

SEO was a race to see who could rank for this keyword or that one. Nowhere in that do I see it being about providing the most relevant content possible. In many cases, especially early on, if they brought value it was kind of a “Whoa, neat” as opposed to something that should be expected.

The keyword band aid has been yanked off.

The move to 100% not provided is kind of like Miley Cyrus – we’ve seen the signs for months, but we’re now fully in her gyrating stage presence at the VMAs.

I don’t say that not having keyword data is a good thing, but in some ways, it does have an upshot. It will separate the holistic SEO thinkers from the tactical ones that just produce a ranking report to the client and declare victory. It will enable the ones who truly take all aspects into consideration, when it comes to organic, to flourish a bit more.

It refocuses what websites should do.

Websites have business goals: Sell more stuff, drive subscriptions…whatever it is you’re doing. I have never seen a business where they ultimately said “We need to rank #1.”

Yes, I get that businesses see correlations between their rankings and their traffic and sales. That exists. But ranking #1 is a piece of a much bigger pie, and I’ve seen too many places get hung up on being #1 even if their user experience makes my eyeballs bleed.

Websites are for selling and furthering your business goals, not for always being #1 on Google.

It increases the reliance on paid search expertise.

Shameless, selfish reason. There, I said it.

The Bad Parts

There are some. It does suck.

Retraining Clients

For years now, clients have gotten used to having reports with certain things in them. Benchmarks around ranking and the keywords you’re ranking for have been a bedrock in many SEO agency/client relationships. With that gone, the lines have been cut without a compass. Agencies will have to fundamentally address not just reporting, but SEO in general with clients. Expectations have to shift.

Google’s a company. They want profit.

I’ve always felt Google falls into this weird little space. They’re a company, but where’s the line of what they own and what they don’t? Is there truly an implied agreement that because users fork over their data, Google owes a certain amount of transparency?

I’m way, way more knowledgeable in paid search than I am in SEO, so in some ways, I think I’m more used to dealing with the “profitable company” evil twin of Google. I was enraged over their migration to Enhanced Campaigns, and knew they were doing it for profit and no matter how pissy I get, ultimately I use their product, and they ARE in it to make money. It’s capitalism, paid media, and their golden child profit center.

What’s weird with organic is that, well, I don’t think it’s traditionally felt like a capitalistic landscape with organic, because Google has such minimal competition in that regard. At least, it never felt as capitalistic to me. It was kind of this strange agreement in a large world of the internet. That time is passing. Google has reminded us they have the data, not us.

Suspended Channel Knowledge

It kind of sucks as a paid person, because I did leverage the organic data as much as I could in deciding priority when it came to bidding and budgets. With that gone, my world isn’t turned upside down, but it was a nice-to-have, especially if a client has a limited budget that needs to come out of the gate swinging.

While the keyword data isn’t something people should live and die by, it was truly a nice-to-have that has been around for years.

Branded vs. Non-branded Keywords

I think this is the most common complaint I’m seeing, and I truly do get it. Companies want to know if the money they’re paying an SEO company is going towards anything, or if they’re just getting organic traffic b/c of their brand. In other words, getting people they’d be getting anyway, as opposed to acquiring new ones through relevant search terms.

There are a lot of theories.

About why Google did it. What they will do in the future. Why there wasn’t more warning.

We won’t know anytime soon, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. If anything, this serves as a reminder that Google isn’t a public service. Having some safeguards in place can’t hurt or be a bad thing. Maybe it even increases the likelihood that places will stop screaming about being on page one, or ranked number one, and start treating their digital marketing as a more holistic effort. There’s been ongoing frustration over the past year that organic results are getting pushed further and further down the page in favor of paid real estate. That plus this latest disruption could really start launching search in a different direction.

Is that such a bad thing? I don’t think any of us got into digital because of its long, established history of bylaws and best practices. It offers enormous opportunity for new methods, new case studies, and things we’ll look back in a few years as a groundbreaking learning or new way of doing something. So ultimately, you can spend the time digging in your heels, being pissed that someone moved your cheese, or you can rebuild the walls of the maze, and tell everyone about it next year when you’re lauded for your ingenuity.

You pick.


Susan Wenograd has spent the last 10 years in the digital marketing space in both client and agency side roles. Her career path has enabled her to work in many facets of the online universe, including copywriting, editing, overseeing email marketing, display/rich media advertising, and paid search management.

She has worked with and for many household names including Circuit City, Hamilton Beach Appliances, GMC, Chevy, Buick, Dodge, and Cadillac. She's managed teams from 2 to 20+ people, and accounts spending $1,000 to $1mm+.

Currently, she's Sr. Manager of Digital Marketing for Garden Ridge, a 60+ store home decor retail chain located throughout the south and midwest. She also frequently consults and advises clients on things like paid media and agency/client relationship management.

  • Warren Whitlock

    I know there’s been lots of speculation as to whether this means that Google is greedy, helping us keep the NSA at bay or just messing with us. Does it matter?

    It appears to me that this is right in line with the evolution (and improvement) of search, giving users better results based on finding the best content. We’ve always known that keyword counts aren’t the best indication of quality and often wrong on relevance.

    Further, I hold that anyone crying about this killing their business doesn’t have much of a business. Building a business on free traffic alone is like a barnacle on the hull of ship. Often scrapped off and forgotten.

    • SEO Expert Steve Wiideman

      I agree that a business should never fully rely on one marketing channel. I also know that if their brand is big enough, most of their search traffic (and most of their conversions) will come from branded search terms. We nearly always rank for those, so who cares if we can’t see it web analytics.

      On the other hand, there are businesses that rely on “money terms” as the core of their online advertising, even if they are maximizing email, affiliate, CPM, CPA, social advertising, and offline channels. Example keywords making up for 34% of a business’s overall traffic (that’s a big chunk):

      Search is a primary driver in many cases and losing that critical data without the knowledge of how to configure Webmaster Tools with Google Analytics to get some of it back, can be a death blow.

      But you’re right. At the end of the day, they now need to start exploring better ways get referral traffic from other websites in their industry or niche, give better tips, advice, and feedback in social and forum destinations, and ego-bait the hell out of influencers with reference content even a competitor would link to. That is, if they hope to survive with SEO as their primary revenue channel due to budget limitations.

      • Warren Whitlock

        what budget limitation is there if the marketing spend is making money?

        I hear this “budget limitation” excuse way to often. I contend that anything that makes 10x what the spend better be getting more budget.

        • Susan Wenograd

          Here’s where I run into that issue working client-side: with 5 or 6 digital avenues working together, but people still looking at last-click attribution…who gets the spend credit, and therefore who gets the additional budget? I don’t see a lot of resistance to spending in proportion to sales, but how that gets attributed is still really murky…

          • Warren Whitlock

            I’d say that anyone counting only the last-click is missing the boat.

            The annual spend in the US for brand advertising is something like $450,000,000.00. That not including what most allocate for all forms of digital/online or “direct response”

            I don’t know those other values.. but they are much smaller than the brand spend.

            To go after this, we’re going to need to know what the consumer is doing way before they get to the search that leads to the click. So dropping the emphasis on keywords is going to force us in that direction

    • Susan Wenograd

      I agree with the “does it matter” sentiment…it doesn’t change the fact the landscape is shifting. Will folks behave any differently if it was NSA or just because they want to piss in our cornflakes? Nah. You have to adapt either way.

      My hope is exactly as you say: that the larger outcome would be SERPs with the best content and most relevant results. Sometimes that happened with the “old way” of keyword focus, and quite often it did not.

      I do kind of wonder if it’s like what we saw when Google instituted Quality Scores on keywords for paid search – it allowed the little guys to have some leg up if they were advertising for keywords very relevant for them, but didn’t have the budget to always bid the highest constantly. Its aim was to reward relevance. (Granted, I can still see keyword and search query data within AdWords.)

    • Alan

      Warren you seem to miss the point. There was an unwritten agreement. We let Googlebot crawl all over our sites so that Google can make the billions it makes but then Google would hand us over some of the information they learnt about our site.

      I am starting to get sick of these arrogant, holier than thou responses I am seeing out there in the SEO community. The small operators that make up about 50% of my clients relied heavily on that information. Sure the big operators don’t care. This is just Google once again attacking the little webmaster while leaving the big brands alone.

      I sometimes wonder what these hollier than thou SEO’s actually think of their clients.