Good Riddance to Keyword Referral Data

Search engines are moving away from keyword-based rankings; time for data to reflect this.

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Written by editor on October 10, 2013

On behalf of the SEO community, I would like to thank Google for defaulting all searches to secure search removing search keywords from Google referral data.

It has been obvious for a while now that keyword-based SEO is coming to an end. It has been less and less effective.

And Google and Bing have been signalling their desire to move from keyword search to semantic search for years now. They have been adding features that reduce the influence of keywords, like knowledge graph and local results. And they have been preparing for voice search on mobile where searchers are less likely to use keywords and more likely to ask questions.

Trust me, if you aren’t sick of reading “strings not things” in every single SEO blog post, then you will soon be because it is all SEOs are going to be talking about for the next year.

Search engines are a lot better at understanding words. Pages optimized for deliberately misspelled words don’t generate traffic the way that they used to. You don’t need to cram every single variation of a target keyphrase on a page just to rank for it. Indeed, you might get penalized for covering every single variation. And above all, search engines are a lot better at understanding synonyms.

The Problem With Keywords

The problem with keyword-based SEO is that it is too easy to understand.

Cheap SEO contractors understand it.

Spam bots understand it.

And, most importantly, management understands it.

The result is the low-quality, keyword-optimized pages that forced Google to dish out the ol’ Panda beatdown.

Panda is a bandage for the inevitable plague of keyword-driven pages created by keyword-based search results.

Semantic search is the cure.

As Google and Bing move closer and closer to delivering on semantic search one hundred percent of the time, they do a disservice to marketers by helping them optimize for keywords.

Keyword data has some use. But it is increasingly specialist.

If you are optimizing for keywords now, then you are doing your clients or your boss a disservice because keywords, like polar bears, rely on rapidly receding ice.

The Problem with Keyword Data and Naive Decision Makers

As I hinted previously, I have struggled trying to get managers to understand that thinking in strictly keyword terms is bad for visitors and will do more harm to the user experience, and ultimately your search rankings.

Individually, a keyword-targeted page does well.

A set of pages that systematically targets every logical keyword combination is going to result in Panda-bait while degrading the user experience.

Management sees the first scenario and rightly concludes that 1+1 equals 2.

Then, they logically conclude that 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 equals 10. And the most effective way to get there is to invest the minimum required effort into each page ten times.

And yet in SEO, thanks to Panda penalties and search signals based on usage metrics, this is not the case.

3+3+4 equals 10.

4+6 equals 10.

But Google finds staring at all those ones and arriving at ten to be as difficult as I do.

1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 =/= 10

Providing keyword data only abets this faulty, but logical simplification.

Removing this data makes it easier for me to provide long-term value without interference from well-meaning managers.

Replacing Keyword Data

Ignoring the fact that keyword data isn’t gone and there have been hundreds of articles written on where to get it now, I still would like to see Google and Bing do more to enable marketers trying to optimize for semantic and social search.

So far, Google has offered carrots like rich author snippets. And Bing has surfaced pages liked by your Facebook friends.

But what they haven’t done is give you tools to understand ROI of marking up your data with semantic data. Or the ROI of building relationships with customer segments.

When you tell your boss that you want to markup the pages so you can get rich author snippets, then you should expect some obvious questions from your boss like the following:

  • How much more money will I make?
  • Is it a productive use of your time?

Right now, there is no good answer to those questions.

You can point to some studies suggesting that rich snippets increase rankings and clicks, but you can’t measure the effect which means you can’t answer hard questions about the return on investment.

Google and Bing need to provide data on where clicks are coming from.

Right now they split search clicks into paid and organic when searchers see way more than just paid and organic results.

This is inadequate and, until we get that data, marketers are going to have a hard time justifying doing all of that semantic stuff that search engines crave.

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