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The War on Organic Data

There’s a war going on my fellow SEOs and Search Marketers. Has been for a couple of years now. The war on organic data.

The Google War Room

It was a war that started off very covertly, almost without incidence, as noted by Jon Henshaw over 2 years ago on Raven Tool’s Blog. Google, by way of depreciated APIs, quietly pulled SERP [Search Engine Results Page] ranking data. Which then led to more and more companies scraping the results from Google and placing an extra burden on their servers. And, perhaps Google was banking on the fact, though somewhat quietly kept, Google Webmaster Tools has had “ranking data” for over 3 years now. Maybe this was Google’s evolutionary step? Nonetheless, it was the one of the first assaults on organic data; Google’s conscious and deliberate action to close off a major pipeline to SEOs and Webmasters. It registered as nothing more than a blip to most of the community, myself included, but the SEO tool companies probably had a good idea where it was headed. Maybe they decided to just “wait and see”?

2011: Google Kicks in the Door

A year after Google shut off the Ranking Data APIs, they got brazen. They gathered up the troops and kicked the down the door to the SEO house, fingers
hugging the triggers. It was akin to enacting Google’s own personal Patriot Act. They black-boxed the organic search data. “NOT PROVIDED”. Users who were signed-in or using SSL Google searches would appear as “not provided” in your organic search keyword data to help “maintain the Google's 2011 Assault on SEOsprivacy”. All under the guise of privacy. Immediately this change was said to only affect less than 10% of data in analytics. “Single digits”, was the quote from Matt Cutts.

2012: One Year of “Not Provided”

Danny Sullivan’s excellent write up “Dark Google” tells the story. Single digits? It’s hard to imagine that Matt could say it and keep a straight face. I don’t know about you, but my sites are consistently between 1o% and 15% “not provided”. And, in some extreme cases, they range near 25%. 25% shielded keyword data for a small business is pretty big, and pretty crappy. That’s an awfully large gaping hole to be missing out on. How can they [small businesses] help it that people are signed-in or starting off in “https” search? That’s a ton of valuable data that small businesses could be using to help them analyze customer behavior, to help them write better, more targeted content to their customers, and to help them expand and refine their consumer funnels to convert more and stay afloat in an economy that still moving sideways. I think of it this way: if Google suddenly lost 15% of its collected search data overnight, don’t you think they’d be pretty pissed off? Just, “poof”, and it’s gone.

Losing That Data Might Be the Best Thing For SEOs

I know that it sounds backwards, but hear me out. Also, let’s put aside the obvious here: of course this move was intended to get every business involved in Paid Search (not just the those who spend millions over millions every year). Because like SEOs, Google knows it’s the thousands of small accounts [mid-tail/long-tail] that add up. If you ensure the data that was once free has to route through a paid resource, you’re going to get a large swath of folks to jump on board and buy-in.

Perhaps it was all part of their design (can’t discount that theory), but losing organic data has forced SEOs and Search marketers to expand their tool-kit to get that data. When you can’t rely on a single source, you’ve got to employ multiple channels (i.e. social, content, CRO, etc.) to piece together the story again. I won’t lie, that’s a stretch (even to the writer). However, there’s a small nugget of truth that this assault on organic data has forced us to become better marketers.

The Organic Data Black Box

2013 and Beyond

The more Google pushes its own products (i.e. Gmail, Places, Google Drive, Insights & Trends) to its social platform (Google+) to create a fluid SUPER-DATA-HIVE, the more users must be signed in to interact. Luckily, Google+ hasn’t quite pulled off the interaction and engagement with users it hoped to (so far). Then add in Firefox moving to Google SSL search by default and iOS6 doing the same. What you get is a “black box” on organic data that is the size of Utah, and is only going to get larger and more vacuous. It is their data to do with as they please, after all. The hypocritical precedent set a year ago by Google will continue onward: “user privacy”. They clearly don’t want to be viewed under the same lens as Facebook.

I think that by the end of 2013 organic site data will reduced to drips from a leaky faucet as SSL search become the rule and not the exception. I can’t say what the end-game is here; whether its Google constructing a service to “buy back” organic data that they anonymize or making SEOs piece together the puzzle from several different platform strands. Or, just so it can be said aloud, push every business into AdWords platform to get “all the consumer data”. It certainly seems like that’s the objective with all these maneuvers: squeeze SEOs organic data into a corner so small that it becomes non-representative of overall searcher/consumer behavior.

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