The SEO industry has been in a frenzy this past year over Google’s decision to switch to secure search. What happened, and what’s the big deal about it? Is the industry really changing?

Before secure search

Let’s first talk about how things worked before the switch. By default your Google searches were sent over the network in plain text. If someone on your network (especially a public Wi-Fi network) was using something called a “packet sniffer”—which sounds like a name you’d get called in grade school, but is actually just a type of software—they could see what you were searching for in real-time if they wanted to. But more importantly, websites were able to tell what keywords you searched for in order to reach them.

Secure search means that Google forces all searches to be encrypted behind the scenes via SSL. You’ll notice that if you go to http://www.google.com, you’re redirected to https:// and the lock icon appears in the address bar. Now network snoopers and advertisers won’t be able to see what you’re searching for since it’s no longer sent via plain text. But the bigger impact is that now websites can’t track your search terms either.

This was a surprising move on Google’s part, and what’s even more shocking is that Google is following their own rules and allowing their own data-collection freedoms to be restricted. Their Google Analytics service is locked out from the keyword data the same as all of their competitors. Their own first-party tools don’t get free passes!

From a policy standpoint, it’s admirable. It’s a win for consumer privacy, something we’ve all felt has been gradually slipping away these past few years. But for website owners and marketers, it felt like a punch in the gut.

After secure search: (not provided)

If you administer the Analytics account for your company’s website, you’ve probably noticed the increased number of “(not provided)” entries in your organic keyword tracking—this means the user was using secure search. This number will only go up now that Yahoo! moved over to secure search last week and Bing will likely play catch-up within a few months.

Keyword-centric optimization has for a long time been the cornerstone of a good search engine marketing strategy, so SEO professionals are re-evaluating how they do things now that secure search is the future. If you follow the industry at all, they’ve been throwing around terms like a post-keyword world, contextual and conversational searches, and all sorts of other stuff.

Except, here’s the thing: keyword data is still available. And it’s probably not going away anytime soon. It’s honestly puzzling how few of the articles I’ve read about the keyword apocalypse mention Google Webmaster Tools, but it’s still plugging away showing keyword data just like it always has. If you’ve validated your site with Webmaster Tools, just open up the console, go to Search Traffic and click Search Queries.

Keyword data in Google Webmaster Tools

Now, Webmaster Tools is certainly a different animal. The paradigm for Google Analytics is that it’s a website-centric method of collecting data. Once users have arrived on your site, Analytics can collect and report on a lot of useful information about them whether they came from Google or somewhere else.

Webmaster Tools, on the other hand, is Google-centricit’s Google’s own usage data that they make available to you. They don’t know anything about your site or the behavior of users once they leave Google, but they do know some other very useful things:

  1. The keywords people are searching for when they find your site
  2. The number of times your site was seen in search results
  3. The number of times people clicked on your site from the search results
  4. Your average position ranking for search terms

That sounds an awful lot like the information we used to look for inside Google Analytics. Here’s a partial screenshot of our own website’s keywords panel within Webmaster Tools:

Google Webmaster Tools keyword data

If we’re doing keyword optimization, this is all the information we need in order to determine which search terms are bringing people to us and which terms we need to put some more effort into.

The future of keyword optimization

So is keyword optimization dead? Not by a long shot. Here’s what’s still very much alive and kicking:

  • Keyword research to help determine which search terms and variations people are using. (Note that Google’s Keyword Tool has been replaced by the Keyword Planner, but it serves the same purpose.)
  • Your site’s search performance metrics for specific keywords, by way of Webmaster Tools.
  • Everything else inside Analytics, including acquisition data.

Here’s what is actually dead or dying:

  • The old ways of tracking keyword effectiveness. You’re going to have to learn some new routines.
  • Strong integration with Google Analytics—although the Webmaster Tools data does appear inside Analytics if you have the accounts linked (it’s under Acquisition → Search Engine Optimization). You can still build custom reports within Analytics using this data.
  • Data from non-Google search engines that use secure search. (Though you can always log into Bing to see their keyword statistics tool—as with everything else they do, it’s almost exactly like Google’s.)

So has the industry experienced anything remotely deserving of the term “keyword apocalypse? No way. That kind of alarmism will definitely attract attention, which might be why so many search engine marketers are using it, but it’s just not true. Move along.