SEO Is (Un)Dead: Is Google Sounding Its Death Knell?

With the recent news of Google encrypting all searches, the search industry is in an uproar. Google has announced that it’s encrypting all searches; this means the search engine will no longer provide keyword specific organic search data. 

In other words, when you log into your web analytics solution in the near future, the term “(not provided)” will include 100 percent of your search volume. You’ll no longer be able to understand what organic search keywords are driving traffic to your website. For webmasters who have signed up and connected their Google Webmaster Tools to Google Analytics, some of the keyword data—albeit not all—will be available. Up to this point, if you’ve had $150,000 USD lying around you’ve been able to pay for access to the data in Google Analytics Premium. Although searches are encrypted moving forward, it’s likely this data will still be available in the paid version of Google Analytics (pay-to-play model).

Does this move mark the end of SEO as we know it?

First, let’s take a look at Google’s ad revenue over the last several years.

total-ad-revenue

Google totaled $43.6 billion in total advertising revenues in 2012, and it may be on track to exceed that in 2013. This growth is fueled partially by awareness of their advertising programs, updates Google has made to AdWords, and yes, the ROI companies are receiving from advertising with Google. Here’s a look at the updates Google has made to their AdWords platform:

adwords-revenue-update

Beyond these items listed above, Google has made many other unmentioned incremental changes to the AdWords platform. But what about the recent encrypted search changes that have left many marketing managers and webmasters in the dark? Here’s a look at the timeline of those changes:

DateTotal Advertising Revenues (in millions)Encrypted Search Dates
May 2010[2010] $28,236Google introduces encrypted search
(Reference: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/search-more-securely-with-encrypted.html)
Oct 2011[2011] $36,531Google begins search query encryption for logged in users
(Reference: http://searchengineland.com/google-puts-a-price-on-privacy-98029)
Jul 2012[2012] $43,686Firefox encrypted search
(Reference: http://searchengineland.com/firefox-14-now-encrypts-google-searches-but-search-terms-still-will-leak-out-127831)
Sep 2012[2012] $43,686Safari iOS6 referer data gone
(Reference: http://searchengineland.com/ios-6-removes-all-google-search-referer-data-134560)
Jan 2013[2013] TBDChrome encrypted search
(Reference: http://blog.chromium.org/2013/01/google-search-in-chrome-gets-more-secure.html)
Sep 2013[2013] TBDGoogle quietly encrypts all search queries
(Reference: http://searchengineland.com/post-prism-google-secure-searches-172487)

There are two popular theories why Google has recently chosen to encrypt all search queries: one is that the move is a reaction to recent accusations that Google is sharing too much search data with the NSA. The other is directly related to increasing ad revenue. Since Google is likely to continue sharing data with the NSA, the second theory is probably closer to the truth.

How do these changes increase ad revenue?

Google’s undying hunger for year-over-year revenue increases for investors drives their actions. It’s created a host of tools available to marketing managers and webmasters that help them improve their rank in its search engine and Google has made many of these tools freely available. But as marketing managers and webmasters use these free tools to improve rankings in Google’s search engine to gain company visibility, Google is missing out on a potentially substantial portion of income.

If you’re a marketing manager who relies on SEO as one of your marketing channels, the items you focus on for ROI are measurable—time, cost of efforts, traffic, keywords driving traffic and rankings. When Google takes away the related organic keyword search term data, the measurements become obfuscated. Marketing managers have a much more difficult time attributing ROI to specific keywords driving traffic.

The keyword specific data for paid search, on the other hand, is not encrypted. Any marketing manager who uses paid search will have access to the keyword data driving traffic for their marketing campaigns. If both paid and organic search data are accessible via Google Analytics and Google takes away much of the keyword-specific search data for organic (encrypted) but leaves the other search data for paid (unencrypted), a marketing manager might turn away from organic search to paid search as a solution for ease of access to measurable ROI. And, Google could once again satisfy investors—and everyone lives happily ever after. Right?

What do you give the search engine that has everything?

The ad revenue bubble Google has created is going to burst. This latest move may generate ad revenue increases YoY for just a little bit longer, but the rug has been pulled out from under marketing managers’ and webmasters’ feet. By encrypting all searches, there’s no longer a rug to pull. Sure, you could continue to try to manipulate rankings through transition rank, but if webmasters can’t attribute traffic from organic search keywords due to encryption, they can’t see how rankings affect keyword specific traffic.

So, listen up, Google engineers: You may be at your desks, wiping your hands, crossing your arms saying “Well, that’s the end of search engine spam as we know it.” But you should think about the damage that’s been done to your reputation. You’ve made the people who rely on you, your customers, take a back seat to bottom-line profits. You’ve lost sight of your company vision. Once you’ve done that, it’s only a matter of time before a competitor sweeps in and scoops up all your backseat customers.

Next steps: SEO resuscitation procedures zombie-meme

Fear not. All is not lost. Components of SEO are (un)dead, and will be extremely important moving forward. Rand Fishkin talks about what to do next in his version of Whiteboard Tuesday (as opposed to his normal Whiteboard Friday), and how to find data from other sources. John Doherty also talks about utilizing Google Analytics to build your marketing funnel.

There’s still hope for SEO. Now more than ever, a solid understanding of the role SEO plays in earned and owned media will help power a strong inbound marketing strategy.

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