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Imagine SEO Without Keywords

To the uninitiated, SEO seems like an entirely keyword-driven industry. ‘The first step in SEO is keyword research’ — I myself wrote this within in the past year on this very blog. But the SEO game is constantly changing, and I’m seeing a trend here that makes me wonder if we’ll soon be asked to run SEO without keywords altogether.

It’s starting with Google, which is as we speak currently busy encrypting 100% of Google search results within a secure socket layer. What this means is that if you’re using Google Analytics (or any other analytics program), you’re soon going to see this over and over again: Keyword: (not provided). It’ll appear everywhere that your analytics used to tell you what keyword someone used to surf into your site from.

There are already plenty of articles out there telling SEOers how to deal with the change to Analytics. What I want to talk about is what happens as Google expands this policy to cover other kinds of keyword research as well.

Big Brother Won’t Let You Watch Each Other
For example, right now, any number of tools have access to Google’s Keyword Planner, which can give you a good idea of how much traffic a given keyword gets, and access to Google itself, which conveniently tells you at the top of each page how many pages on the Google-crawled Internet match your search. Between those two numbers (traffic and competition), you can get a good idea of which keywords are viable candidates for targeting for SEO.

But what if Google took those numbers away from us? What if they stopped showing us the number of competing pages, and they made Keyword Planner something that you could only access if you had a certain amount of PPC spend each month? It sounds silly now, but then, before Penguin we thought it was silly that a single ‘goof-off’ webpage could lower an entire site’s SERP results, too.

So if you were an SEO type and you weren’t allowed to use keywords for anything, what would you do? Interestingly, when I asked myself this question and really thought about it, I came to the conclusion that I was already doing most of it to one degree or another.

One Example: Content Marketing
If you can’t focus on a given keyword, you’re going to have to market with broader content, focused on getting the user’s attention rather than on SERP boosting. That means you’ll need social marketing, because the first two weeks of any content’s lifespan are dictated by social signals.

After that first two weeks, you’re still going to need backlinks to get eyes on your content. Sure, you’re going to largely be guessing at what anchor text to use, but whether they’re optimized or not, backlinks are still going to be vital.
The process, then, looks a lot like it does already: figure out what the public will want to consume, produce it, pimp it on the social market, build some backlinks, and pray it all works out in your favor. You can even pick a keyword phrase and use that in your content just like today — you just won’t be able to know for certain that it’s “the right” keyword.

In short, even if Google manages to find a way to make keywords go the way of the dodo, we won’t be running out of things to analyze or tactics to execute — not for a long time.

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