SEO IS [Officially] DEAD: [not provided] at 100%

Posted by on Sep 25, 2013 in Google Updates

Okay, it isn’t really dead, but every SEO has used the headline once, right?! This will be the only time I do.

Evolution takes many forms and affects many different facets; animals, environments, styles, and technology all evolve. Google is a business, you may have heard me say it a time or two, and as such—they evolve as well. Since October of 2011, [not provided] has been the thorn and bane of every self-respecting SEO. Well, Google has decided to do their best Dark Knight Bane impression by breaking the backs of many businesses and optimization specialists by imposing SSL protocol for all organic search. This change effectively makes all searches [not provided].The Death of SEO

Yeah, SEO is dead.

Dead in the way we knew it. BUT (there is always a ‘but’) it is not dead in every sense of the word. As with any evolutionary change, there will be the loss of many weaker forms of SEO. Individuals and agencies that focused solely on ranking and keywords may be at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, the need to optimize remains.

This update is a change in the way Google’s search platform works. It does not change the why or how the search currently works. Google is a business and is really free to make changes as they see fit. We can argue about ethics and their old policy of “Do no Evil,” but in the end, they are in it for the money. That isn’t a bad thing. They employ a lot of people and have cultivated thousands of businesses by their very existence. We, SEOs, may not agree or approve of the things they do with their systems, but in the end we are just players in a larger game.

That being the case, what happens now? What do we do next, with the loss of one of the most important optimization elements?

Keep working.

Good SEO isn’t about monitoring ranking. It isn’t about optimizing for robots and algorithms. It’s about creating a great web experience for everyone involved. A good SEO knows this, HAS known this, and for the majority of their career or through the work of an agency, focused on this; optimizing web assets and developing strategies that help put good content in front of the right people, for the right reasons. The organic search data was just a great way to find out what was working and what wasn’t. It never made SEO work or defined SEO.

SEO has evolved itself.

As an SEO, I have often avoided several things; calling myself an SEO was one of them. SEOs got a bad rap due to some in our industry doing shady things (black hat and unethical practices) and from the fact that we didn’t explain ourselves well enough. So people believed we were snake oil salesmen and women. I often refer to myself as an Internet Marketing Specialist or Search Engine Specialist. My job, my career, my work all center around the world of Internet content. I, and the web consulting network that composes C.SEO, is not singularly focused on just ‘SEO’ but search as a part of a greater whole. SEO is not a standalone function, but a component of marketing. A car is only as powerful as it’s engine but as useful as a brick without wheels. I am not an SEO, I and many others are Internet Marketing strategist, technologist, scientist, and a number of other ‘-ist.’

Why Google, WHY?!

So, why did Google do this? There is no official word on the matter as of yet. Normally there are announcements, tweets, or some sort of notification put into the ether; in this case, Google and Matt Cutts (Manager of Webspam at Google) have maintained radio silence. Hopefully and most expectantly, there will be details concerning this change. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan attached PRISM to this change in search, offering up the idea that Google went to secure searches in the name of privacy. As Google’s Chrome browser is also utilizing additional securities in the name of user privacy.

Personally, I believe this is part of a bigger, strategic business move. From a technical standpoint, the encryption of the launch coincided with an update to the Gmail platform that resulted in outages. In the update, the interfaces for some users changed throughout many Google properties.


Old Gmail Header

The older Gmail interface header


New Gmail - September 23, 2013

The new Gmail interface as of September 23, 2013


Aside from the way the Gmail boxes are styled (notice the ads on the top are no longer present), the homepage of Google has changed as well.

The New Google Homepage

The ‘New’ Google


The Older Google Homepage

The ‘Old’ Google


What to do now with [not provided]?

Rand Fishkin makes a great point when he says,

I think it should be very troubling and concerning if you’re a web user as well, because marketers don’t use this data to do evil things or invade people’s privacy. Marketers use this data to make the web a better place. The agreement that marketers have always had—that website creators have always had—with search engines, since their inception was, “sure, we’ll let you crawl our sites, you provide us with the keyword data so that we can improve the Internet together.


It is that last part that matters, ‘improving the Internet together.’

Rand goes on to discuss the steps and opportunities search marketers can do to re-focus reporting and concerns without search referral data. In the long run, he talks about CRO, Conversion Rate Optimization. Focusing on conversions has always been a great component of search optimization, it is now a (one of many) primary indicator of success.

CRO is the work of not only the web design, content, and UX, but search marketing as well. This is where the concept of evolution comes in. If the work that an SEO has been done in the past has been in a vacuum, then looking at CRO will not be as much of an indicator as it could be when optimization work is done in tandem, in conjunction with, and in the development of design, content, and social development.

Correlating [not provided] and figure out what’s in there.

It isn’t impossible to make the correlation between [not provided] and keywords; it is just 10x harder now.

For two years, since the introduction of blocked keyword data from Google, most SEO agencies and consultants have worked out their own ways of identifying keywords trapped in [not provided]. Our weapon of choice was always using Google Webmaster Tools (GWMT) in correlation with Google Analytics (GA) data to identify what traffic came from what keywords.

The process for making these connections is:

  1. Select a time-frame to investigate that is suitable for both GWMT and GA. Now that data in GWMT will exist for 360 days versus 90, there is more opportunity for this to work. (Was this change a foretelling of things to come, hm?)
  2. Extract the data for the period from both GWMT and GA. In GA you will pull all search data and referrals.
  3. In a spreadsheet you highlight the all the GA data that you know, meaning all the keywords you have data for, change the color of the text.
  4. Combine the GWMT list with the GA list of keywords.
  5. Sort.
  6. Eliminate all duplicate as highlighted by the GA keywords.
  7. What you will have left are the keywords recorded in GWMT that don’t have a match in GA.

At this point there is a lot that you can do with what you’ve discovered. You can then look at the GWMT keywords to see what pages are showing for these keywords. In regards to CRO and relevancy, you can then look at the pages in GA to see what the traffic did on the website and how much value the users found on the given page. That last part is something we did before, but steps 1 through 7 weren’t necessary before unless the percentage of [not provided] was above 20-40%, depending on the client. Now, everybody is getting this treatment.

Another way to get insight into the [not provided] is to leverage the filters in GA. Econsultancy’s Dan Barker outlines a great way of filtering the missed data based on GWMT reporting in GA. The disclaimer with Dan’s solution is that while the filter is in place, it alters the way your data is reported, so if you do it wrong, you will be looking at incorrect data. See the full walk through in his post Steal Some Not Provided Data back from Google.

The Wrapper

If you’ve been doing SEO ‘the right way’ and reporting based on the right things, this change from the search masters is an inconvenience but not one that ends careers. Optimization is still necessary, what has evolved is the way we as search marketers report on: the work we are doing, why we are doing it, and what our clients should expect. Focusing on conversions and the relevancy of content grows through a better understanding of how our work influences the Internet.

The Internet never ceases to evolve, but there will always be those that bemoan the evolution of their industry. This is an opportunity to re-evaluate processes, focuses, and reporting. Data will always exist, just like energy, it all depends on how you use it and where you get it from.

A. Chris TurnerAbout the Author: Chris Turner is also known as ChocolateSEO. CSEO is Chris' Nashville search marketing and consulting service offering a variety of services to help you, your company and any website maximize web-based marketing opportunities. He is the father of three girls, one boy (finally) and husband to the wonderful Savannah. Join the author's circle: Chris Turner on Google+.