The seventh tenant of Google’s philosophy states “There’s always more information out there.” After years of providing marketers and webmasters more data about the performance of their websites, Google recently took a step to reverse data transparency by encrypting organic search terms. Some giants in the SEO industry have suggested the move was in response to the NSA leak in June, while others have written that Google may start charging for this data. Given the company’s progression in search algorithms, the change is most likely here to stay. From Caffeine to Penguin to Hummingbird, Google has been trying to make search friendlier to end users, often to the chagrin of SEO professionals. Instead of relying on creative hacks, by leveraging a strategy that focuses on relevance and using tools to measure and guide decisions, SEO efforts can be preserved for years to come.
We have been in this situation before; in 2011, Google announced it was implementing SSL encryption for users signed in to its services. The company’s core belief is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” Take a moment to consider the weight of this statement, which decrees that search engine optimization should help users first and foremost. The years of quick, spammy meta tags and dirty, “visibility: hidden” keywords are over. SEO work now takes time and practice.
Google’s switch to encrypted search uses Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) instead of the unencrypted HTTP schema. The referring URL is redirected, stripping the search term out of the URL string. Removing these search terms limits visit and conversation data at the organic keyword level. In the past, this data had been used to understand the exact phrases customers used as search queries before visiting a site. Knowing what keywords brought the most traffic gave marketers a target to build pages around.
Herein arose a key issue: SEO should not be understood as an island, but rather in relation to a number of factors both internal to the site and external to the web. Search engine algorithms have become exponentially complex and evaluate a site on hundreds of factors, all weighted differently. Do customers stay on your page? What is your site structure? Are there legitimate links to your site? Therefore, SEO strategy should not simply rely on picking a few keywords and creating a greater density of those keywords on a page, but should rather encompass a holistic approach to attracting visitors. Focusing on only the top three or four keywords is dangerous. Google has been pushing marketers to stop thinking of what is best for the search engine and start thinking about what is best for the user. Taking a user-centric approach to SEO diminishes the importance of knowing exact conversion data and opting to attract visitors on multiple levels. This means keeping in mind Google’s mantra: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
Users are also leaning more on social media as a part of their search process. Finding new products or the best locations can be hard to do when looking at a list of search results on Google. Whether Google improves site rankings based on social media is debatable, but Google+ pages do receive special benefits to improve search visibility. Smaller businesses should especially take note. A local coffee shop may never beat Starbucks in an organic search for coffee, but a good ranking on Yelp or Foursquare could help it edge out the major chain when a user performs a geographic search.
In some cases, knowing a keyword can still be helpful for creating page titles. Often times what a user will search for and what a company may call something will be misaligned. This could be the difference between “Used Cars” and “Pre-Owned Cars”. Those keywords are still reported and can better indicate what a user wants to find. In these instances, a great tool to install – and one that is often overlooked – is a site search. Google has also identified the value of this tool and has been testing a new extension for their paid ads to search a site. Another tool, the keyword planner, can help you pick page titles, but it is important to remember not to simply “set it and forget.” Common search terms can and will change, leading to missed opportunities.
Realize the importance of original content. Google may “know everything” already, but try to give the search engine something new to learn. Adding content to your site that has limited competition will quickly rank you on the first page of search results. Again, using the keyword planner and looking at search trends can help you find topics of high search volume that may not be well served by current pages.
The painful truth of SEO today is that good rankings need to be slowly earned from hard work, not easily gained by quick hacks. We may wish that the days of simply using keywords would return; diversifying your SEO efforts is the best strategy to future proof organic website performance.