#WTF Factor: #SEO Analytics Survival In The Age Of Vanishing Keywords

Posted in Analytics, SEO

This post shares new and traditional measurement options to sooth the savage SEO.  We’ll also offer a different take on organic keyword tracking, based on page level semantic cluster analysis using Webmaster Tools to mash in keywords, missing as a result of Google’s encrypted search. SO… read the whole post or skim down now for the sexy stuff. OK, let’s get started solving the new success measurement riddle-SEO, brothers and sisters! We’ll start with the most basic solutions like ranking reports, Bing data and new vs. returning organic keyword visitors + conversion. Then, we’ll progress to more radical approaches using Webmaster Central, you may not have thought of yet.

Background: Read It & Weep
Since the onset of Google’s encrypted search, which masks keyword data in analytics for users signed into Google.com, the effect has been astonishing. Though Matt Cutts told Danny Sullivan that, “Even at full rollout, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers on Google.com,” the real effect is highly vertical-specific. For instance, aimClear Blog lost keyword data for nearly 23% of organic visitors for November of 2011. We’ve seen significantly higher percentages on client sites.

Google actually has no actual privacy argument for masking the data because AdWords PPC passes keyword data just fine. Yep, big G has finally confirmed their long-rumored disdain for SEOs. It’s gross, really. Still, there’s no use crying over spilled keywords, so let’s just move along and find ways to operate in this more challenging environment.

Obviously this development makes measuring SEO success a bit more of a challenge, but not insurmountable. To Google’s credit they’ve also provided important capabilities, though still strategically limited, in Webmaster Tools. Our take is that keyword data is still there to be had with a little ingenuity, though organic conversion at the keyword level is a problem. There are a number of effective Webmaster Tools hacks that provide plenty of insight as to how SEO efforts are progressing, including mashing conversion at the page level, with good (though not empirical) semantic insight from both Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. We’ll talk about that in a bit.

From mild to wild, here are solutions to consider:

Unpersonalized Ranking Reports
I know, I know, I’ve been saying that ranking reports were dead for years now. That all changes (again) with the Google’s masked organic keyword referrals. We like the SEOMoz and Raven ranking report tools the best, but there are others. Unpersonalized ranking reports actually matter slightly now for perspective on SEO efforts and to track progress of keywords in regionalized SERPs.  Such reports provide a general glimpse of how pages are performing at the KW level, trending, etc. Remember though: Actual users consume personalized SERPs and ranking reports don’t give any insight as to deep personalization. Average Position in Google Webmaster Tools provides additional perspective.  Ironically, some executives never stopped believing in ranking reports. LOL, now that they matter a little bit again, there’s nothing to sell. It’s back to the freakin’ future.


Overall & Bucketed Organic Search Traffic & Conversion
Though the method is as zoomed out, using Analytics to measure overall organic keyword traffic and conversion provides some insight. You can also run organic conversion at a granular level for keywords you can still see and run bucketed conversion numbers for those you can’t see.  This is the metrics approach that most businesses will understand and SEOs will use.  Keep reading for additional “basic” methods and then more intensive approaches.

Analytics New Vs. Returning Visitor/Organic Keyword
We think clients understand when SEO efforts yield new visitors from organic keywords, whether or not we can see all of the keywords responsible for traffic.  The report is easily accomplished using the Visitors report with keywords as the secondary dimension. Clients also seem to understand bucketed organic conversion from new visitors. Again, granular reports are available for whatever percentage of search traffic is not masked and the rest can be bucketed as a lump. This report is easy for aimClear Blog because we did not run PPC during for these days, so it’s all organic search traffic. That said, it’s not hard to use Advanced Segments to filter out PPC traffic.

Bing Organic Keyword Traffic
This is not sexy (skim down for sexy), but for larger sites, don’t rule out the usefulness of Bing as a measure of SEO performance. Yes, the search engines are different. Yes, Bing’s volume is not as great. However, at present Microsoft is not masking organic keyword data. We’ve looked back at Bing organic keyword conversion data vs. Google and, while different, it’s clear that in an age where we can’t see Google organic KW data, it’s better to have Bing data at hand than not.

Google Webmaster Tools: Keyword Impressions, Diversity & Average Position
Even before Google pulled the transparency plug, savvy SEOs were already using Webmaster Tools to measure increased keyword diversity, organic impression count, and rising or declining CTR (click through ratio). Such metrics are also very valuable because they’re apples-to-apples with PPC measurement, which provides a common denominator to calculate how organic traffic dilutes the cost of pay per click.

The screenshot below is the “Top queries” tab of the “Keywords” report. To measure success, keep track of organic keyword volume (Impressions), diversity (Queries), and rank (Avg. position). Monitoring CTR in light of rank gives SEOs wonderful insight as to how well the tag creative performs. We’re speaking of course of the title tag, which is essentially a headline in the organic SERPs. To the extent that meta description tags actually make it to the SERPs these days, the CTR/Avg. position also speaks to the effectiveness of the description which, when displayed, is the body copy of the organic ad. Sadly, Google does not display all impressions or clicks. This is in keeping with their philosophy of giving webmaster crucial information but not enough to easily impact SERPs by SEO. Boo.

In the Keywords report, filters are cool for culling keyword trends subsets segmented by image, mobile, smartphone mobile, videos, web, geography, and queries with more than ten impressions/clicks. Use this feature to distill data by various subsets to gauge performance along different lines of inquiry.


Filters are also super cool to create “concept groups” of keywords to track.

It’s notable that filtering down to a small enough subset of keywords seems to mitigate the transparency problem. All impressions and clicks are shown in this example.

Google Webmaster Tools: Top Pages Impressions, Diversity & Avg. Position
Click the “Top Pages” tab for (to my mind) the most useful report of them all.  This incredibly actionable report shows which pages in the site performed best organically and, better yet, a list of keywords responsible for the success. The reason this report is so actionable is because clicking on the little “+” or the link to any page expands to a list of keywords driving traffic to that page (second screen capture).

Of course, Google limits transparency by reporting <10 as opposed to actual numeric data. Are you catching the theme here? Google gives webmasters data, enough to help them keep sites from sucking, while not revealing enough actionable information to allow SEOs to really mold the page semantically, thus maximizing the importance of spending money on Google PPC products.

Over in Analytics, obviously we can’t measure organic keyword conversion for the “Keyword not provided” bucket. Measuring granular organic keyword conversion, for visitors with masked data, is simply not possible using any software. However, it’s useful to matriculate organic traffic and conversion at the page level, using analytics, with the keywords Webmaster tools reveals as primary drivers to that pageThis does not tell us empirically which keywords are responsible for that page’s conversion, however it does give us decent insight as to the keyword cluster causing conversion. Mashing up:

  • Page Traffic & conversion from keywords you CAN see in  analytics+
  • Overall traffic & conversion at the page level in analytics +
  • Page level keywords you can mostly see in Webmaster tools =
  • A decent understanding of the “keyword not provided” bucket in analytics

In other words, Webmaster tools provides a snapshot the missing keyword granularity in analytics. Welcome to the age of measuring organic keyword clusters at the page level to prove #SEO. There are barriers, like what data is available on the Webmaster Tools API or exportable. You need to build your own data extraction API to use such a tool.  It was clear to us as we explored this issue, exactly where Google made sure to limit the usefulness of Webmaster Tools data.  Moving on…

Again, filters are your friends when it comes to page level measurements, along similar lines as the Keyword report filters.

Moving On
It’s apparent the encrypted keyword change is a paradigm buster that makes measuring SEO more of a task. Still, the problem is far from unbeatable and we think everybody should relax. There is useful data for those willing to work at methodology. Most notably, digging into the semantic “cluster” concept at the page level, with good though not empirical  insight from Webmaster Tools, is the way to go. Happy measuring!


Spaceman Image: © Byron Moore – Fotolia . com

  • Gail Gardner

    Marty, does this masking affect ALL analytics solutions or only Google Analytics? If a blog or business was willing to forego using AdWords and removed all Google code would the use of another analytics solution – either a top end solution like Omniture or Webtrends – or an open source alternative like Piwik.org – be of any benefit?

    Hopefully by now more SEOs and clients are catching on to Google’s true nature though many never will. When Google first introduced conversion tracking in AdWords and later made Google Analytics free I warned clients that by giving them this data it could be used against them to favor big brands over them in organic results or raise ppc costs on converting phrases. Unfortunately, even if any small businesses heeded that warning, if enough of their competitors did not Google would probably have the data to target them, too.

    Compare your Google Analytics data for time periods prior to July 28, 2011 and since that date. That is when more of the traffic shows up under highly generic keywords like marketing or business instead of for keywords that are targeted enough to mean something.

    • Marty Weintraub

      @Gail Gardner: All analytics solutions, sadly. There is no work around because the data is simply not there. Your points are well taken and it’s ALWAYS nice to see you in aimClear blog my friend.

  • Brian Greenberg

    This is so silly that Google is making companies do this. I’m still hoping they decide to bring back the transparency. Thank you for the post… great information.

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  • Charlie

    Hola Marty,

    I´m seeing the same 20% or more “Not provided” on the top of the keywords list and it doesn’t make me really happy.

    Data coming from Google isn’t visible from any other analytics programs, and I think that is the REAL problem. Google+ can be a direct influence for people to navigate in open sessions…

    Maybe this is just the first step of Google for all of us. The SEO industry will have to migrate to use more “intuition” when doing a keyword research.

    Greetings from Costa Rica!

  • Alan Charnock

    Google will never change its policy back to providing keyword data, the only way I can see this happening is if people pay for it in the future.

    • Marty Weintraub

      @Alan Charnock: What ‘s most surprising is that we had the organic for so long for free.

    • Marty Weintraub

      @Alan Charnock: It won’t work :).

  • Pierre-Jean Colliot

    It’s more like 30% or more “Not provided” on my french editorial network.

  • Gail Gardner

    Sorry, Alan. I agree with Marty – that won’t work. Google doesn’t care what we think. They have a plan and we don’t count in it. I’ve written a ton about Google and where they’re going as have many others. Just check out the Google posts in my blog and follow the links to many others.

  • Cas

    I don’t buy ads and I am certain that many people don’t either. I would rather pay a flat monthly fee for all the keyword data than to try and get it through paid ads.