The sunset of keyword-based SEO

In a tacit acknowledgement that (not provided) basically killed keyword-based optimization, Google Analytics over the weekend relocated organic keyword tracking, burying it inside the campaigns menu. Why the change? For years now, fewer and fewer keywords were being picked up by web analytics software. Encrypted search and mobile are the two reasons they’ve vanished from our radar; as you can see, just in the last 30 days, more than 90% of keywords are coming in as (not provided):


So what’s a marketer to do? A few things. First, be sure to set up Google’s free Webmaster Tools for your website. While you won’t get keyword lists per se, you will get the queries people type into Google for which Google displays your site:


If you think about this, this is what Google has said you should be aiming for; not individual words or tiny phrases, but the actual topics for which you’re relevant. With services like OK Google and Siri, search queries will continue to get longer and longer. In the last year, the number of words in search queries for my personal site has increased from 2.99 to 3.44, and the number of queries has exploded from 1,600 to nearly 5,000. Queries are getting longer and more diverse.

Here’s 2013 (scale adjusted to be equivalent) search terms by number of words:

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Here’s 2014:


Did my site suddenly get more popular in 2014? No, but the diversity of terms that people used to find me exploded. There were more 4+ word terms in 2014 than there were all combinations in 2013.

So how do you take advantage of this trend? The reality is that you can’t do keyword stuffing and narrow-focused keywords any longer. You have to expand to focus on the topic that you want to be relevant for. The reason is that you can’t accurately predict what people are going to search for. By writing topically, rather than focused around just a handful of keywords, you’ll be more likely to show up in search for the longer, more complex queries.

Think human! Look at your own search history, as an example. Look at how you search for information that’s relevant, and then model your content based on how you naturally search. Use Webmaster Tools, Quora, and Trends to expand your topic horizons.

The narrow-focused keyword SEO of the past is fading away. Be ready for much broader search horizons!

Updated: Vincent Tobiaz pointed out in the comments that the original screenshot was wrong – keywords got buried in campaigns instead of being removed entirely. Thanks!

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3 steps to diagnosing declining website traffic

I’ll let you in on a little secret. My website hasn’t been doing as well lately. In fact, performance of the site has been downright poor in the last 3 months compared to the past. Are the glory days over? Has my writing substantially declined in quality? I needed to find out what was going on.

The path to understanding your website traffic, good or ill, is straightforward: audience, acquisition, behavior.

The first step is to understand the audience. Which audience are you losing? I fired up Google Analytics and looked at the two most basic segments of audience, new and returning users. Briefly, if new users are declining, it typically means you have an acquisition problem. If returning users are declining, it typically means you have a content problem. If both are declining, you typically have a structural problem behind the scenes. New users have been substantially down:


But then, so have returning users:


Something’s amiss, and I suspect it’s structural. The next step is to look at acquisition. Where am I losing my traffic from?


It would seem I’m losing my traffic from direct and organic search for returning users, which means people have lost bookmarks, forgot to type in my domain name as part of their daily reading, or don’t find me again through search.

Let’s check out new users now. Where am I losing them from?


The same two culprits, but on a much larger scale. I lost half of my organic search traffic. Yikes! I think it’s safe to say we found the problem: search. Both new and returning users rely heavily on search to get to my website.

Knowing that there’s a search problem, the next question is: what kind of search problem. For that, we head to Google’s Webmaster Tools. I looked at the dashboard and it said I have 1,289 URLs indexed under the Sitemaps panel.

Full stop. I know there’s more content on the website than that. There are thousands of pages on this site. What gives?

I looked a little more closely. My sitemap wasn’t reporting most of the URLs on my site. It turns out that when I updated an SEO plugin, it munched my previous settings for sitemaps, and was only reporting 1 out of every 5 actual URLs. I resubmitted my sitemaps to Webmaster Tools, and you can see the difference:


That’s a pretty substantial difference right there. 75% of my work wasn’t indexed by Google because it didn’t know about it. Now it does, and I’ll expect to see an increase in the number of pages crawled and indexed in search results in the near future, which should translate into bringing people back to my website.

When you face a situation where you’ve got declining traffic, follow the same framework. Which part of your audience is ailing? Where do they come from? What do they do? By following that structure, you’ll quickly identify what’s broken and the solution to fix it may leap out at you.

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How much does brand name matter to SEO and marketing?

These guys will be fighting an uphill branding battle

I was asked recently, “how much does name matter when it comes to setting up a new company? Is it more important to have a distinguishable brand, or more important to be found in generic search?”

This is an excellent and more complex question then you might first think. Being known for something is important; when you’re tackling a space which is very crowded with generics and commodities, having a distinguishable brand matters a great deal. Ideally, the brand is something that is not already in heavy use in the space. Ideally, the brand is also easy to spell and passes the Siri/Google now text where you read out the brand name and domain name to a computer and see if it gets the website address correct. An easy to pronounce, easy to spell brand name is an easy to share brand name.

Naming a company after a generic category would mean that you might capture some portion of generic search about it, but you’re better off creating product pages that are appropriately tagged and structured for a generic search while working to make a distinguishable and distinct brand.

Let’s say you own a coffee shop. You might attempt to create a coffee shop named Boston Coffee Company, on the assumption that people searching for coffee at Boston would find it. However, since Google has given more prominence to existing brands there is a good chance that you would lose what little search ranking you’d get to companies like the Boston Bean Company.

Rather than challenge at a company brand level, you might be better off creating a distinct brand-name for your coffee shop, but have individual coffees that are reflective of the geography and the market you intend to take. You could have, for example, the Jamaica Plain coffee, the Roxbury espresso, is the Newton cappuccino, the Dorchester doppio. This will accomplish your goal of geographically named/obviously named products and services for the purposes of search, while still retaining a sense of individual identity.

A real-life example of this? Look at the brand name of the bread in the photo above. Are you likely to forget it? It’s also easy to find in search, and the domain name is easy to find and share via word of mouth.

Remember also that one of the key drivers of search is inbound links. One of the key drivers of inbound links is public relations work, building word of mouth and endorsement through third parties and media outlets. A clever, fun, easy to pronounce brand name that’s unique will likely be better remembered and linked in stories about you.

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