The Future of Keyword Research in Organic Search

Whether you have been in the Search industry for six months or six years, we all understand the value of keyword research.  Simply put, the activity of search begins with a keyword query.  As a user, you type a series of words or phrases into a Search bar (regardless of which engine you use) to find information.  Typically you are looking for information or for an answer to a problem or question that you may have. Search engines then do their best to return the results that they deem most relevant to your keyword query.  (On a side note, anyone else think it is funny that when you search for the word “search” in Google that the top result you get is for Bing?)

The activity of search is based on keyword queries and quite often a search query typically begins with a question.  Activity on a search engine will always begin with a keyword query.  This will not change.  Even if the engines use voice recognition, the question or query asked will always contain a relevant keyword or phrase.  So keyword research will always be an important piece of your online marketing efforts.  However recently this has been tested.

There has been a lot of discussion on the importance of keyword research in light of recent moves by Google to control the amount of keyword data that they provide via Google Analytics.  Since October 2011, Google began encrypting searches if users were logged into their Google account.  What this meant is that sites that users clicked on no longer received “referrer data” that communicates what terms people searched for.  According to Google, “… as search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver. As a result, we’re enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users” (more on secure search).  So as site owners or search marketers, we lost a lot of keyword intelligence.  In fact, last year there was a study from Optify that suggested that 39% of Google Search Referrers are now “not provided”.  (The study is available through Optify’s press area). Wow nearly 50% of terms are being withheld by Google?  With Google going “dark” on the amount of keyword referrer information that they provide, we lost some of the ability to gain intelligence about how people arrive at our websites.  Was Google right in this move?  Personally I don’t think so.  This data is invaluable.  This data is not used to simply manipulate the search results but can be used to help determine what your messaging should be on your site’s pages as you try to provide information to your target audience.  Danny Sullivan makes a good argument on this topic:

My view is the search-side of Google wanted to better protect people from eavesdropping, especially in advance of Search Plus Your World, which potentially would expose more personally-revealing search terms. But the ad-side of Google demanded an exception so that advertisers wouldn’t be upset nor Google’s ad retargeting business harmed. The bottom line won. A privacy hole was left open for advertisers.

Sullivan goes on to state “I find it one of the most disturbing and hypocritical things the company has ever done.”  I tend to agree.

Having said all of this, there are ways to potentially unlock the “not provided” data, but none of them have proven to be 100% accurate. Regardless, the move by Google to not provide keyword level data has had an impact on reporting but also on how we conduct keyword research.

The Future of Keyword Research

So what does this mean for the future of keyword research?  Well quite honestly the need for keyword analysis and keyword research has never been more important.  If, as part of your organic search efforts, you are focusing on the “wrong” terms, you may be missing a huge opportunity to intercept your potential target audience.  Google restricting keyword referrer data has had a negative impact on keyword intelligence that we previously had access to.  Specifically, here are three areas that have been impacted:

  1. Reporting on brand vs. non-branded traffic trends – we do not know what the breakdown of branded vs. non-branded keyword traffic are within the “not provided” bucket.  This has had a direct impact on the monitoring of branded vs. non-branded keyword activity.  Is branded traffic down, or is it simply being attributed to “not provided” activity?  Using branded vs. non-branded traffic as a KPI has diminished as a result.
  2. Monitoring the # of keywords that are driving traffic – this can be a key metric as to how many different keywords are driving traffic to the site.  This metric can provide, at a high level, some insight into long-tail keyword activity.  Comparing this data YoY can be an indication that search activity for phrases is down, or conversely that perhaps your site has lost visibility in the SERPs (search results pages) for relevant keywords. During times of algorithm changes, monitoring the # of keywords driving traffic can be a quick way to see if the algorithm has had an impact (good or bad) on your website.
  3. Understanding the amount of traffic from Organic Search your site receives – just how much traffic is being attributed from organic search?  Take this issue for example, recently it was communicated that Google searches through the Safari search box are going through “Secure search”.  To make matters even more complicated, rather than being dealt with as “(Not provided)” traffic, all iOS6 traffic is being misread as direct traffic.  So technically traffic that should be attributed to SEO or organic search is now going to Direct.  Again another direct impact on traffic from organic search.  If you use this as a KPI in measuring the success of your SEO efforts, you are now missing a slight piece of the pie due to traffic attribution changes.

So while the impact has been noticeable it has not diminished the importance of keyword research.  From a keyword perspective, focusing on the proper keywords is still as important as it has ever been.  In fact, keyword research is critical as you map out your content and your website.  You really have to build your keywords into the DNA of your messaging.

How to Approach Keyword Research Now and in the Future

I will say it again; keyword analysis and keyword research will always form the foundation of your online marketing campaigns or at least your Search campaigns.  Do the recent changes by Google impact how you perform your keyword research?  Not really, the focus should be on the searcher’s intent and around the information that they are looking for.  They may search for a combination of branded or non-branded terms.  They may apply geo-modifiers to their search queries, they may even misspell some of their queries.  The fact remains that they will still begin their search with a word or phrase.

Keyword Research Tip #1: Keywords & Search Intent

Some strong advice when it comes to conducting a keyword analysis is to understand what your target audience is looking for.  Leverage your keywords to intercept your audience.   There is benefit in associating keywords with your personas to gain an understanding of the search activity of your target demographic.  As marketers, it really is important to consider searcher intent when developing and optimizing your web properties.  Ruth Burr over at SEOmoz recently had a good post on this exact topic.

Keyword Research Tip #2: Realize that keyword research is on-going

If you have not yet figured it out, keyword research is ubiquitous.  People will not and do not search for the same thing.  Search activity change throughout the course of the year and not just based on seasonality.  Trending topics change frequently, your industry might change frequently.  The keywords, questions and phrases that people search for will continue to fluctuate.

Keyword Research Tip #3: Semantic Search is the future

Think about semantics and how differently people search for information.  Let’s say that you were searching for a new television.  What are some of the keywords that you might search for?  LCD, plasma TV, 1080p, TV reviews, HD television, 80” TV, best TV 2013, 3D TV, big screen TV, picture quality etc.  Or you might search for some brand names: Samsung 3D plasma TV, Panasonic TX-P37X20 TV, Sony Bravia, Sharp Elite TV, and the list goes on and on.  Think of all the different keyword variations that people might search for when looking for a television.  Factor in connotations or anything related to TVs that may be associated with a related word or phrase and you can see how important semantics comes into play.

The Importance of Keyword Research

The future of keyword research is bright, my friends.  While people have been calling for the demise of keyword rankings reports for years, that insight will remain valuable, we simply do not need to put the emphasis on them (ranking reports) as we once did.  Ensuring that you have visibility in the SERPs for your keywords is still important however.  The importance of keyword research comes down to this:

People have always used search to find answers.  This is no different in the digital age.  The fact is that users will always have questions and so long as they use a search engine to find answers to these questions, they will continue to enter keywords and phrases to obtain the information that they seek.  Whether appended with a hash tag or simply typed into a search bar, keyword usage and thus keyword research will continue to be the mechanism needed to engage with your audience.