At Google, the keyword is inching towards its inevitable, overdue demise.
But then again, maybe it’s already dead. Over the past few months publishers have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of traffic from Google that’s been stripped of keyword referral information.
The trend, not-so-affectionally dubbed “dark search,” is a tough sell for publishers, who want as much data as possible about what’s driving traffic to their sites — including specific search terms. And Google isn’t doing them any favors by hiding that information.
That sounds bad, but it’s actually good news — depending on who you are.
Sachin Kamdar, CEO of traffic analytics platform Parsely, says that while some publishers may not like being left in the dark, in Google’s view, the shift away from keywords is actually great for the larger web.
“Google thinks that if it can hide the keyword data, it’s going to get rid of black hat [search engine optimization]. People are optimizing for these keywords and not creating quality content,” he said.
Or, to put it another way, Google wants sites to get traffic because they create good, useful content, not because they’ve stuffed their pages with SEO-friendly keywords.
This trend is particularly clear from the chart below, which shows that the percentage of Google search traffic missing keywords has climbed from 52 percent in July to almost 90 percent at the end of October.
Above: The percentage of searches stripped of keyword info has climbed significantly this year.
The “dark search” trend is part of a larger move by Google, which has applied its anti-keyword stance to even its search algorithms. Hummingbird, the new search algorithm Google officially announced earlier this month, is core to Google’s plan to shift the focus of search away from keywords and towards semantics and intent.
Google search guru Matt Cutts described the shift simply and smartly like this: “It’s about things, not strings.”
So what does all of this mean for publishers? Lots of great things, says Kamdar. “Those publishers that are creating content and engaging users are going to be the ones succeeding because they’re going to have less competition from those sites that aren’t creating that kind of quality content.”
Which leads to a key question: Assuming Kamdar’s right, doesn’t the term “dark search” have the wrong connotation?