Trying to perform keyword research to inform your SEO strategy is tough these days. Why? Because of that huge chunk of organic search traffic swept under the “(Not Provided)” carpet in your analytics.
And it’s getting crowded under that carpet! When Google rolled out encrypted search (more on this later, if you need a brushup on the history of Google encrypted search) a Google spokesperson claimed this change would affect “a single-digit percentage of all Google searches.” But in the past few months, we’ve seen over 50% of hubspot.com’s organic search traffic fall into this bin. That’s a ton of missing insight into what keywords are driving organic traffic.
A lot of SEO has traditionally focused around keywords: choosing keywords, creating content for keywords, building links for keywords, ranking for keywords, and tracking traffic from keywords. But as encrypted search rolls out to more and more internet users, it’s time to start re-thinking how we optimize and track our SEO efforts. Well, there's no time like the present, right? So let's talk about the changing SEO landscape as it relates to keywords, well, right now.
What's Actually Going On With Encrypted Search
For the uninitiated, here’s a brief primer on what you need to know about encrypted search. I’ll explain why it’s not a deliberate choice by search engines to take away our marketing analytics, but rather a side effect of using more secure technologies.
HTTP and the Misspelled Header
Whenever you click a link, visit a bookmark, or generally browse the web, the web browser that you’re using automatically sends certain information to every page you visit. In nerd-speak, these are known as “Headers,” and there are all sorts of different Headers that can be sent by your browser. Some common Headers you might have heard of include “Cookie,” “User Agent,” and “Referer.” (Fun fact: the word “referrer” was accidentally misspelled in the original HTTP specification, and the misspelling has been adopted as the official title for this header for the sake of consistency).
Whenever you navigate from page A to page B, your browser usually sends along the “Referer” header to page B, telling it the full URL of page A. That sentence is worth re-reading, because it’s important.
Re-read it? Cool.
This is the core foundation that underlies modern web analytics. It lets site owners know that, hey, the visitor who just landed on your Pricing page came from twitter.com. Or, hey, 21% of the people who visit your landing page also visit your Thank You page. By passing along the referrer’s information, site owners can see where their visitors are coming from, and where they’re going.
Using Referrers to Track Regular Web Traffic
So this brings us to organic search. In the past, when a visitor clicked on a link in the search results and visited your site, your site would see the full URL from the search engine results page from whence that visitor came. Your analytics software would see that the referring URL contains “google” or “bing” -- and no paid search tracking tokens -- and thus labeled that visit as “organic search.” It would then parse out the keywords from the referring URL to see what they searched for.
3) Visitor clicks on an organic result and reaches your site
4) When the visitor’s browser requests your page, it passes along the full URL of the Google search engine results page as the “Referer” header.
5) Your site’s analytics parses that referrer URL to deduce that: 1) The visitor came from organic search, and 2) The visitor was searching for "red shoes."
Secure HTTP (HTTPS) Throws a Wrench in the Mix
The reason we lose information with encrypted search has to do with how HTTPS works, not anything Google is doing (note the “S” at the end, indicating “secure HTTP”). When browsing a site over HTTPS, your browser strips out the “Referer” header that’s the lynchpin of the entire analytics process.
If you go from page A to page B, but page A is encrypted (uses HTTPS instead of regular old HTTP), then the browser only sends the domain name -- https://www.google.com -- as the referrer, instead of the full URL. As a result, your analytics has no way of knowing what keywords the visitor used to find your site.
Not If, But When
The day when the overwhelming majority of organic search traffic comes through as encrypted is coming soon. The major search engines started slowly rolling out encryption two years ago, and those experiments were largely deemed a success; as a result, we’re seeing wider rollouts of the technology. And while it may annoy marketers, encrypted search offers a number of benefits to the people that use search engines every day -- yes, that means you and I -- including increased privacy and security.
When it was first announced, encrypted search was only offered to logged-in Google users. But over the past few years, encrypted search has become the default type of search in all sorts of different places, from Firefox 14, to Google Chrome, and even Safari in iOS 6. Non-Google users can also now use encrypted search by visiting encrypted.google.com to perform their searches. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me, personally, to see regular ol' www.google.com automatically redirect visitors to a secure version sometime this year. As the days of more and more encrypted search options inches closer, tracking individual keywords and phrases will become less and less useful -- and frankly, just less and less possible.
As I mentioned earlier, at HubSpot, about 55% of the organic search we get each month is encrypted, and we’ve seen that percentage steadily rising by about 4 percentage points each month. Tracking how individual keywords perform for us is quickly losing value.
So, Where Does This Leave Marketers?
As HTTPS becomes increasingly common, we’ll see the value of keyword research drop off even further. Optimizing your website will be less about tracking keywords and rankings, and more about capturing visitors once they've landed on your website.
At HubSpot, the SEO team has recently renamed ourselves simply the "Optimization" team, electing to drop the "Search Engine" part from our name. We're recognizing that optimization is about more than just search engine rankings, and requires a more holistic view of the top of the marketing funnel, including where people are landing on your website, and how easily they're converting. That means instead of spending our day doing keyword research, and optimization around the results of the research, we're doing things like:
Identifying and promoting our highest converting offers
Breathing new life into classic, high-performing content that didn't get the love it deserved when it was first published
Identifying low- and high-converting landing pages, seeing how they align with the rest of our marketing strategies, and ensuring they're being promoted in the right ways to help them perform their best
All of these things help us optimize the experience for our site visitors -- giving them fresh, relevant content that's aligned with what they're searching for -- which then translates into more search engine traffic.
Keyword research is still important in order to come up with high-value terms to create content around, but don't expect to track the results the way you used to for much longer. SEO is changing. Is your organization keeping up?
How have you been impacted by SSL encryption? Has your SEO strategy changed as a result?