Last week was a big week for anyone with an online business. A change that had been hovering on the horizon for quite a while finally took place, as Google made secure search the default, meaning that individual keywords that people were searching for were no longer being passed to any analytics tools - with the exception of keywords generated by Adwords - including Google Analytics itself. The customer might have arrived by searching for a brand term, like “John Smedley"‚ or for a particular product, like “blue cashmere sweater". This distinction used to be of major importance to retailers, and they will now need to learn to live without it.
The thing is, this is not a bad thing. For the better part of a decade, we have all been inundated with phone calls from companies selling SEO services. Some of us have fallen for their promises, and wasted thousands of pounds on what transpired to be purely temporary solutions. In the game between Google and SEO agencies, there was only ever going to be one winner. With Penguin, Panda and now Hummingbird, each of the most recent Google algorithm updates, a large chunk of any search engine optimisation that had been done previously was unravelled and many ecommerce companies had to pay a new agency to disavow old links and remove negative penalties.
The confidence in SEO, and the returns from it, have been diminishing in recent times, and with this new update we have finally reached a stage where there is simply little value in much of it. Sure, there are some basics - like having the relevant text in the H1 tag and in the page url - but anything more complex, or in the slightest bit sneaky, is not needed and not wanted. Those old school SEO agencies, and their high monthly retainers, can finally disappear into history. They will fight this of course, and argue that just because we cannot see the keyword results, it doesn't mean that we should stop doing search engine optimisation. However the fact remains, if you cannot measure, you cannot optimise.
For their part, online retailers have been trying to shift to websites that are focused around creative design, with an experience akin to a magazine. In a highly competitive industry, they need to attract customers not just because of a well curated product range, but also because the way it is presented is visually pleasing, and functionally effective. However in the old days, like two weeks ago, this was not necessarily the best option for the business, as SEO-focused sites were likely to have higher customer acquisition rates. It was possible to create a beautiful site with a great customer experience, but be beaten in search engine results by a rival who just went after cold, hard SEO.
Without the ability to monitor keywords, optimising becomes about monitoring landing pages. Instead of trying to find the best long-tail keywords and connect visitors with what they searched for, websites can focus on determining which content led to the largest number of new customers arriving on the site. Google is now very good at smoothing keywords and working out the nature of the topic being discussed. The fact that we can't see the keywords isn't a problem, now that the topic is the only thing that matters.
With the right analytics tool, ecommerce marketing managers can now focus on putting out great content - whether that's a creative blog post, visually impressive landing pages, or individually crafted product pages - and measuring that content's effectiveness based on their own categorisation. They need to be looking at which blog posts on certain topics, or by certain authors, are successful at drawing in customers (and note that they need to measure the final desired outcome - measuring visitors in isolation is useless for an online retailer, it's conversion and customers that they need to measure). They could see whether particular listings pages did the same.
Google's primary stated goal, other than to “Do no evil", is to organise all of our information. One of their founding principles was to support democracy on the web, and that information needs to be available to everyone. In the end it comes down to whether we all - over and above our commercial aims - want to improve the sum of human knowledge. The whole concept of keyword-based SEO went against that, and was a temporary blip in the process, while Google worked out an algorithm that could genuinely and semantically comprehend, in a human way, the nature and topic of each particular page. The fact that this neatly intersects with Google's insatiable thirst for profit - i.e. driving more people into their Adwords machine - is a very happy and perfectly logical outcome for them.
So it's time to forget the old SEO and focus on giving people what they want. And isn't that exactly what an online retailer is all about?