It’s pretty well understood that Google and a handful of other players develop the technology, facilitate access and guide policy around how users access information on the internet. Correspondingly, marketers’ ability access data about their users is also granted and affected by the companies that operate the world’s web search engines.

When the company that owns nearly 70 percent of the world’s market share makes significant changes, the ripple effects can be felt by anyone who relies on the internet (and its massive user base) to do their jobs.

Higher education marketers take note: This year, Google has created such significant change that online marketing and SEO will never be the same. To better understand the context, the changes themselves and how marketers will roll with this new reality, it’s best to look at two of Google’s biggest announcements this year.

Keyword encryption (100 percent not provided)

The first and most drastic change Google has made to its search products is the implementation of encryption (known as SSL) for all search queries users type into the search engine. Historically, Google has passed the keywords users choose onto the sites that receive the click. Marketers access that information via Google Analytics. This information made it possible for webmasters and marketers to conduct a range of keyword-driven optimization strategies to boost their webpages’ position in search engine results pages for the most important keywords.

If you’ve been looking at your referring keywords in Google Analytics over the last two years, you’ve likely seen the number of “not provided keywords” increasing. This a change that Google has rolled out over time. Initially, only search terms used by Gmail users who were logged into their accounts were encrypted. However, with Google’s latest announcement, the search giant will encrypt ALL Google users’ queries. Marketers can now expect even less keyword data.

Given the importance that keywords have played in SEO in the past, this is a transformational shift in the way SEO is done and will change the way we all work moving forward.

After a recent controversy involving allegations that Google aided the NSA in data collection, many concluded the reason Google is encrypting searches is merely to save face (demonstrating their commitment to protecting user privacy). While this incident was indeed bad press for Google, I think this change has more to do with another big shift from Google: Hummingbird.

Understanding Hummingbird

Google rolled out an update to its search engine in 2010 called “Caffeine.” This was a structural update that helped Google accommodate the growing size and complexity of information on the internet. Caffeine enabled Google to create a 50 percent fresher index through more speed in retrieving results as well as better integration between crawling and indexing.

The most recent update, dubbed “Hummingbird”, is a change to the nuts and bolts behind what users see in their results pages. The theme of this update is context. Google is employing a larger set of data and indicators to present relevant results to its users. Search results post-Hummingbird are now based on more than simply the keywords queried, but how those queries are constructed, users’ location, social connections and search history. Altogether, Hummingbird is Google’s response to the worldwide growth in mobile web usage.

For example, as users search more and more from mobile devices, the amount of voice search has increased. To improve the experience here, Google has put a lot of work into its voice recognition software. To understand the intent behind a voice search, Google had to make changes to their “query syntax.” As searches become more conversational, Google is moving away from relying on keywords as its primary method of interpreting what users are saying.

In the long run, missing precious keyword data (now hidden by SSL) might not make that big of a difference. Google is serving answers to users based on a far more expansive set of contextual clues than simply keywords. By combining search terms with a users’ location, past searches and social connections, a marketer who optimizes just for keywords isn’t employing a complete strategy anymore.

To this point, Google engineer Matt Cutts said that the future of Google, “is about things, not strings.”

What does this mean for my institution?

While this may seem like a game-ending move for web marketing, let’s not go packing our bags on Google just yet. Armed with the understanding of the challenge ahead of us, we can begin to pick up the pieces and figure out new ways to create better online experiences for our users.

Get keyword referral data from other sources

  • While Google is the dominant player in search, Bing and Yahoo search engines have nearly 20 percent of the market share between them. That being the case, marketers can still get some data about referring keywords. Analyzing those based on their value in leading to conversions of prospective students (or other key groups within your target audience) is still extremely valuable information.
  • Looking at internal searches through your site can illuminate issues with the navigability and information architecture of your site. Notice what users are looking for in those searches and optimize based off of your users’ experience.
  • If you use paid search through Google AdWords and other search-driven advertising platforms, you can still utilize all the Googled queries that trigger your ads.

Judge user intent from other context clues

  • Aside from keywords, there is still a bounty of great data from which to interpret insights. For example, the unique click paths that users take across your site are a strong indication of what users are really looking for.
  • Looking at data for a set of users coming from organic search and their entry points should provide a great sense what types of questions and information users are searching for. Pages about specific topics like “MBA concentrations” or a specific professor will be the destination for users who typed those keywords. Alternatively, visits to your homepage will primarily be from branded searches.

In Conclusion

While SEO has changed, Google’s fundamental mission (providing access to relevant information) is still the same. Quoted in a recent Forbes article, a Google spokesperson said, “Our guidance to webmasters is the same as always — we encourage original, high-quality content, since that’s what’s best for web users.”

If you have questions about your own web analytics data, SEO or want to chat about the future of search, feel free to contact us directly or leave a note in the comments!