The Coming Keyword Apocalypse

After thinking further on the coming keyword apocalypse, I’ve realized that my previous thinking has been too narrow.

I have, in other places, talked a lot about how the decline in keyword data may affect the future of search engine optimization. For those who haven’t been following, Google has decided to restrict what information is passed on to the website when a user searches and clicks on the link. By encrypting user searches, the search phrase itself no longer gets passed on.

At first, Google only implemented this for logged-in users. The difference was that now about 50% of search traffic was reported in Google Analytics, or whichever web metrics application you use, as “not reported.” I did some tests that showed that the traffic we did have information on was fairly similar to the not reported in other measurable behaviors, suggesting that the data we did have was enough to extrapolate to all visitors.

Then, Google raised the stakes by encrypting ALL search traffic. This change is being rolled out over the next month, and already we’re seeing the percentage of “not reported” going as high as 85%. Eventually, it is likely that we won’t have reliable information about the search phrases people are using.

I took this as a problem. There is still some data available, via Google webmaster tools and, for those who use it, AdWords. But this information is not as robust or useful, as it cannot be segmented and tracked through Google Analytics.

But I was thinking about it all wrong. I read this article, and realized that the thing that is changing is not just how keywords are being reported. It’s how search phrases are being used in the first place. With the advent of personalized and localized searches, we’ve already known that the search phrase itself doesn’t fully predict what a person might see. But now, with Google’s latest update, the search phrase is becoming less of a factor; one part of a longer dialog that incorporates past searches as well as a recognition of the entities being discussed.

The truth is that we need to break away from optimizing just around a set of keywords, anyway. We need to look more at the whole user experience, starting with the conversations and behaviors they are having with the search engines, and then how that conversation becomes an invitation to visit our website.

Search engine optimization may not be the correct word anymore, but the field is not dying. It is growing in complexity and impact.

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