Navigating Secure Search: From Keywords to Content [BrightEdge Share 14]

Ever since Google unleashed 100 percent secure search, SEOs have scrambled to fill gaps in measurement. In this session at BrightEdge’s Share 14 event, brands like Groupon, Red Door Interactive, and Global Strategies discussed how they’ve shifted their approach in a keyword “(not provided)” world.


Up first was Jordan Kasteler (@JordanKasteler) of Red Door Interactive. He asked, “Why did Google transition to secure search?”

But, first, he provided some background that showed the evolution of search results. He began with the Google Panda update, which aimed to improve search results with quality content.

Then, Google released Hummingbird, leveraging context to provide better results for what people were looking for. Then, it was more about context, less about keywords. In fact, he said, you might not even see a keyword in a Title tag today, yet the page is still being served for a query.

A month later, Google moved to 100 percent secure search, building on a slow and steady loss of keyword data since 2011. There was speculation that Google was trying to push marketers to paid advertising, but Kasteler thinks the real reason is to get SEOs to start thinking about the needs of the user and the intent behind the search.

How have SEOs adjusted to losing keywords? They are now looking to persona development to better understand the audience, he said. They’re also looking to site search data. Finally, they’re looking at landing pages a lot more closely, and the organic traffic coming to those pages through various lenses like device, interests, geography, and more.

During keyword research, instead of just a long list of individual keywords, they’re putting keywords into intent-based buckets, like transactional or informational. Kasteler said they’ve found about 80 percent of keywords out there have informational intent.

“Commercial investigation” makes up about 10 percent of keyword search volume – these are close to the purchase stage. Then transactional keywords are about 10 percent of search volume.

Keyword-based optimization is now intent-based optimization, Kasteler said. That means advertisers should identify needs, create content focused around those topics, and help answer questions of the target audience.

He then listed a few tools for keyword research, including:

  • Google Webmaster Tools. The data is only in 90-day segments, so download and archive, Kasteler said.
  • Bing Webmaster Tools.
  • The BrightEdge Data Cube. You can plug in any URL and see what the competitors are ranking for, he said.
  • Site Search. If you set this feature up in Google Analytics, it will help you understand what people are looking for on the site itself.
  • AdWords’ paid and organic report.

Ken Shults (@KenShults) of Global Strategies was next. He said his firm is seeing about 90 percent of keyword “(not provided)” at this time, calling it “mildly irritating.” Moving onto the subject of keyword research, Shults said AdWords Keyword Planner is the primary source of keyword research at Global Strategies.

When performing keyword research today, his firm also buckets the keywords and then maps the content strategy to it. Keyword-level data and performance are gone, so Global Strategies has been using Google AdWords’ paid and organic reports as well to get more insight.

And while Secure Search may have put a damper on one area of SEO, all is not lost, he said. We still have Google Trends, we still have page-level data, we still have ranking data, and more. The only thing we’ve lost permanently, Shults said, is the connection from keyword to conversions. It’s bad, but not catastrophic, he added.


His advice: define the content the stakeholder cares about. See which pages are earning their rankings, and look at the trending view of pages month over month.

Up next was Gene McKenna from Groupon. McKenna explored a slightly different angle on understanding how audiences come to a site, and what to look for.

He talked about the loss of referrer data, where you might not know if a person came from Google. He said this loss of referrer data affects organic links, including Facebook. It can often happen if a browser is out of date, like Internet Explorer, for example.

That’s why Groupon started looking at referrals they thought might be lumped with direct traffic reports in the absence of true data. The company wanted to find out what percent of traffic that was showing direct was actually from SEO efforts.

What they did next is almost unheard of. They de-indexed the Groupon site and McKenna warned: Don’t try this at home. And even though it feels very risky, Moz conducted similar experiments and found you can get your site back and running fairly quickly, however.

What Groupon found was a correlation. “Direct” traffic dropped on long URLs (like when the SEO was essentially shut off.

The takeaways? McKenna outlined the following:

  • The referrer is a weak link in the SEO reporting chain
  • Watch direct and organic referral, especially when SEO suddenly changes
  • Look at traffic changes by browser type
  • Referrer won’t die, because Google does want you to know how much traffic they are sending you
  • If you want others to know how much traffic you send, implement meta referrer

[Note: In addition, you can check out Groupon’s article on building a custom tracking and analytics platform]

An additional way Groupon is measuring SEO is by looking at deep linking into mobile apps. SEO deep links, McKenna said, can be tracked like paid channels with URL parameters.

Groupon is also looking at attribution. When multiple channels contribute to a conversion, who gets credit? There’s no right answer. Remember, “look-back” periods should match the consumer’s decision-making time, he said.

Related reading

How to lead SEO teams and track its performance effectively: Experts tips
SEO is a team sport: How brands and agencies organize work
Seven SEO tips for image link building to generate more traffic
transformation of search summit 2019