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How to Counteract “Keyword Not Provided”

Adam Stetzer

First, Google gave us Penguin, the algorithm update that made all of us work harder and smarter to get good rankings on Google. And now, encrypted search, aka “keyword not provided,” is rapidly approaching the 100% mark.

Essentially, Google is taking away all access to keyword data. If you’ve relied on keyword rankings to measure and prove your client’s SEO success, well, now you can’t.

Hence, SEO has gone from complicated to ridiculously complicated.

Some would have you believe that this roadblock is, once and for all, the demise of SEO. It is not. All websites that want traffic — essentially ALL WEBSITES — still need to optimize for search engines. Content marketing and other SEO tactics will not cease just because Google is withholding keyword data.

Google Forces An SEO Detour

SEO firms have always had to contend with Google’s covert maneuvers and contradictions. For 15 years, Google has made the rules, then rewarded some for breaking the rules and/or pushing the boundaries. Others are penalized for the same behavior. With “keyword not provided,” there are no boundaries to push; we have to work around it.

Sending traffic to a website has always been the goal of SEO, but it’s not enough. At my agency, we’ve continued to provide keyword traffic reports because it is a nice bit of data to have. But we turned our focus to the more important metrics of leads and conversions a long time ago. First, though, we have to perform a website intervention.

About That Website

A client with a bad website is destined to be a loser for your SEO business. Unless the client (or you) fix the obvious problems, you will eventually bear the blame for a failed SEO campaign. Advise the client to clear up any issues with the website structure, title tags, lousy content, etc. Encourage the client to invest in a complete overhaul of the website, if that’s what’s really needed. If you’re a website designer or a website reseller, that’s another service you can sell to your SEO client.


PPC Retargeting

About 98% of people who visit a website come and go without a trace. A significant number of those visitors weren't ready to complete a conversion, but did intend to come back later. Problem is, they often don’t – unless you run a PPC retargeting campaign.

We feel so strongly about the value of PPC Retargeting that it’s built into some of our SEO plans (set up and management are included in the plan).

PPC retargeting is an effective way to get highly qualified traffic to your client’s site, capture leads and improve conversion rates.

PPC retargeting ads are shown only to people who have been to the client’s website. Accidental visitors, and those who decided they weren’t interested after all, are unlikely to click on a retargeting ad. The people who do click are interested in the company’s products/services and very likely to convert. Typically, retargeting campaigns have high click-through rates from highly qualified visitors, and high conversion rates.

Who’s Calling?

Not everything happens online! People still pick up the phone and call. In many industries, a large percentage of leads come in via phone call. An SEO agency that does not track phone call leads gets zero credit for those leads. Why look like you’re failing when you’re not? Track web leads and phone calls and show your client that SEO is effective.


Instead of dwelling on the keyword data that we’ve lost, take advantage of what we do have. Google still gives us some analytics data that can be used to prove the value of an SEO campaign. We still have keyword ranking data and monthly keyword search volume. Use the available data and implement the tactics I’ve described to drive leads and conversions – improve those metrics and your clients will need no other proof that SEO is working.

Author bio:

Adam Stetzer, Ph.D. is President and Co-Founder of HubShout, an online marketing firm specializing in back-office fulfillment. You can follow his column on SearchEngineWatch or watch daily videos on the HubShout YouTube Channel.

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Suzanne Lanning
Without SEO, you get less views, but without good website design and psychological planning... For writers who have only ever gotten by on keyword usage to pass all the SEO tests, "it's about to get real."
Good points. Like anything, SEO is stronger when multiple components of web design and planning come together. Without SEO, you get less views, but without good website design and psychological planning (as far as "calls to action" go, et cetera), those clicks will lead no where and the conversion is lost.

Ideally companies with websites looking to improve should look for companies that can help them on multiple fronts of online development, rather than trying to go to 10 different sites for assistance.
The number one goal of a website are conversions- whether it be a phone call, online purchase or another metric. SEO tactics such as implementing relevant keywords into the title tags and page content can definitely help google analytics metrics increase, even with hummingbird.
Remarketing is a good idea - Nice addition to the suggestions - Capturing leads that might have fallen off is a smart way to synergize with any form of online marketing
The burden, or responsibility, is going to fall heavily on writers who have talent. It's always been necessary to draw traffic with quality content. But content is going to have to go above and beyond, be better than ever before, and really help pull traffic in to websites. For writers with talent, it's going to be a fun ride. For writers who have only ever gotten by on keyword usage to pass all the SEO tests, "it's about to get real."

The evolution of SEO, only the cream will rise to the top. Bring it on!
Looks like even though keywords are not provided there are lots of other metrics and tactics to focus on. Better than focusing on what we don't have.
I think this only represents a bad thing if we let it. Like all changes before this, "keyword not provided" simply gives us more drive to do better for our clients in thoughtful, innovative ways. In the end, that means better things for SEO providers.
I appreciate how useful websites are rewarded. It not only enhances your search, but also forces the internet at large to step up its game.
This happens every time Google goes and changes things around. So the keyword thing falls by the wayside for now, and we focus on PPC. But who knows? Maybe they are in the process of tweaking algorithms yet again to make the keyword thing more fair for everyone. We can certainly expect another update at some point.
This really does seem to be throwing a huge wrench into the overall philosophy of SEO. I really don't understand how Google can be eliminating access to keyword data can be beneficial to either Google or the end user. I am glad to see that there are SEO professionals who can "go with the flow" so to speak whenever Google changes its mind.
Woah, I had no idea Google was withholding keyword data now? So.. how does someone know which keywords to target and which ones will yield the best traffic? Why must you make it so difficult, google?!
It is interesting to see how Penguin is such a game changer for SEO. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see that there are still a variety of techniques that websites can use to attract viewers. If anything these updates are forcing SEO to become more efficient and creative which can only be good for clients.
Great read! "Not Provided" has plagued people for ages - any tips to counteract its effects are essential to continuing efficient SEO.
Google is making a lot of changes. E-mail campaigns took a similar hit when g-mail began re-routing ads into the "Promotions" folder.

Even with changes, searches (and promotional e-mails) will still happen. Companies can use what they have, and play around with new strategies, to learn how to rank with less obvious data.

In the meantime, PPC retargeting is smart. I'll admit that I don't pay attention to most ads, but I do pay attention if I've recently been to the company's website. Ads are much more likely to catch my eye then.
I think retargeting and even a full-fledged PPC campaign would be worth it for any business to have. Since that's the only way you're going to get real keyword data anymore, it could be beneficial to run PPC to figure out how your users search and convert. Once you have that keyword data, you can adjust your other SEO efforts to tailor to the actionable data you were provided.
Your suggestions about on-site optimization, PPC retargeting, and better tracking are valuable ones. Though "keyword not provided" might not be popular right now, I think it might be able to bring good content back into vogue.
Retargeting is often the best perfoming of the PPC campaigns that I work on. Clicks are cheap and have a high rate of conversion. It makes a perfect complement to an SEO campaign and will almost always be money well spent.
I definitely agree. After these last updates, SEO has to move away a tactical approach, and move more towards a strategic approach.
Need a solid stratergy these days when dealing with Google.
I especially enjoyed the part about those clients with bad websites. Sometimes, if a website is poorly designed, there may be no saving it, not without a complete overhaul.
It's interesting to look at it that way, that Google clearly defines the rules then rewards the rule-breakers. This structure often fosters the kind of innovation that has made entirely new models possible, so perhaps this is only the beginning of something bigger still to come.
Oh, Google, here you go again making people's lives difficult. No more access to keyword data? That's crazy! I suppose it makes sense in the grand scheme of things, but this will definitely add another layer of complexity to SEO. You make a solid point in this post, though, about the importance of metrics of leads and conversions. Way to stick it to Google!
So Google is trying to throw another wrench into the SEO gears. Well, the ways of the World Wide Web are always evolving, and those who know how to work it are always adapting.

Oh, and the part about clients with bad websites not understanding a failed SEO campaign? That's like taking your garbage-filled car to the mechanic and complaining that no one wants to ride with you.
I think anybody who has truly known the value of SEO over the years realized that good content is what matters more than anything else. Not having keyword data provided matters little to those who have been more focused on leads and conversions.
So many good points here. Love that you pair PPC retargeting with your SEO plans. That is so smart and I would imagine good for business when your clients get those repeat visitors to their websites.
A great understanding of SEO and how PPC can also play a part in that strategy. This can be done at a very low cost to increase your conversion rate. Nice read!
As you state, 98% of people who visit a website, leave with no return. What better way to counteract to the most recent changes than capture leads and improve conversion rates. Point being, our focus now needs to be around conversions as opposed to ranking. Adjust to Google and it will adjust to you.
I can't even begin to express how glad I am to see an SEO insider really stress website content. I went to a website yesterday that was so stuffed with keywords and repetitive content that I wanted to turn away just out of principle. Maybe that has something do with why Google is slowly pulling away from keywords?
Seems Google is now doing all it can to limit the risk of privacy lawsuits (aka push ppc more and more). With the direction they are going and Bing doing all it can to get some traffic I wonder how long it will be until most people switch from the increasingly paid Google to the increasingly relevant Bing.
It may be a little more complicated, but the benefits of running a well rounded SEO campaign are well worth the extra effort. As "Black Hat" tactics become less effective, "White Hat" techniques using quality content will more easily dominate (as they should)!
Of course google is going to go through a million more changes; they are ostensibly paying people full-time to both review current software and develop new software and updates. It is up to the marketers now to bob and weave, so to speak. Only the most versatile SEO marketers will be able to adapt to the changes and continue to provide quality services.
Great section about PPC retargeting.
Matthew Beaulieu
Agreed tracking is absolutely critical in a post "not provided" world
The one thing that remains consistent through out all of these Google changes is Content is still incredibly relevant.
Hey Adam! We loved your article and wanted to let you know it was featured in our Monthly Resource Roundup
I have to say that the redesigning of websites is one of the things that's most important. It is so easy to just pick a different website that has better design that works better on mobile devices than it is to stick around and wait for it to work. Redesigns seem to be incredibly important to the whole seo business.
Everyone should be looking at conversions to measure a sites ROI. Keyword analytics are nice to show but I like to call it window dressing. You can get a million visits from certain keywords but if there are no conversions to show for it then its pointless.
It's a detour alright. A detour in which you have to find the end of by yourself. Trying to guess which keywords to use is just like taking turns and hoping you took the right ones in that detour (with no guiding signs). There is still one thing that'll get you through it all though, REAL SEO. No detour will ever beat high quality content.

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