Google finally did us all the service of stopping the charade of keyword privacy concerns in analytics packages, and finally removed them entirely from their search referrers this week.
Rand Fishkin, CEO of Moz (the worlds best selling SEO toolset) wrote a piece on his personal blog, calling it the first existential threat to the industry.
It was even reported right here on the Huffington Post UK by a guest blogger as the "end of Analytics".
Why have they done this to us?
To trust in Google's own reasoning - user privacy - would be naive.
They can't declare privacy issues on one hand, while selling the same data through adwords, scraping personal email contents for advertising purposes, mapping the whole world's SSID data & wifi passwords, so lets drop that pretense.
The reason is blatantly financial, and I for one, welcome it.
Sure, it would be great if they could just do it without sugarcoating the truth, but they need to deal with their (already increasingly flaky) reputation, so I get it.
The Cost of Google Analytics
Google Analytics (excluding Premium GA) has always been a free product.
Its main competitors in the commercial arena are the likes of Coremetrics, Webtrends, Omniture etc. All of which cost a significant amount of money. If you're running sites big enough to warrant the investment, you're probably paying a seven figure sum for access annually to them.
Google have provided us a robust, market leading platform in many respects, absolutely free. Most analytics features that are standard in the other platforms were developed in Google Analytics. Their interface is market leading - having worked on all the platforms I can assure you that GA is the most intuitive, and quickest to perform reporting and dashboarding with.
We don't know how many sites use GA at the moment, but for the sake of discussion lets say its between 10 and 100million, and closer to the second of those two figures. That requires significant infrastructure. It requires significant data storage. It also requires significant maintenance.
None of those costs would have been covered by the premium product they offer, so its safe to say that Google have been running their class leading analytics offering for a decade, at significant loss financially.
The Value of Google Analytics
But its time to get real folks. Products like this need supporting with real revenue. Its fair to say that Google would not have enjoyed the market success that their product deserves had it always been a paid model, and pivoting on the core attraction and moving to a subscription format would doubtless cause mass hysteria in the online marketing and analytics communities.
But why the heck should a public company continue to sink millions and millions of dollars into a product that is both market leading, and free, and not get anything out of it?
We're going to Learn the Value of Keywords
This is truly valuable data, and Google are not deleting it. They aren't throwing it away, that I can guarantee absolutely. They are just obfuscating it.
I don't know how long it will take, whether its six months, or two years, but that is a highly monetizable resource, and google have a fiscal and legal responsibility to their shareholders to maximise profits.
We will see it coming back, but that will be in a different format and through a paid model.
In the meantime however, they are simply educating us. We have had this amazing data for ever, it's always been free. That was a situation that was irrational and simply could not prevail.
So Why is this Good for Marketers?
Since the mid nineties when search engines first came into existence, all of these datapoints have been free to the webmaster.
Keywords, analytics, link data, rankings data and so on. All of them were at one point, free.
That has driven our industry into the thinking that you can perform SEO for virtually nothing, and that it could be resold as a commodity, becoming driven by price alone.
This move will kill commoditisation of SEO.
A different format?
Of course, just masking the referrer strings, and then parsing them in another fashion into GA wouldn't be possible - the antitrust actions from the other analytics platform providers would guarantee that.
That's why we needed the whole privacy charade in the first place.
My money right now is on increased integration between GA and Adwords, and when those two products are essentially melded into one, re-introducing it through "advanced organic keyword reports" or similar.
There should also be a minimum spend threshold to see this kind of data. This would fulfill a marketers requirement to understand the value of the traffic that Google are sending them, while ensuring that they are also receiving a return on investment for providing the data.
So Who Loses Out?
So we've stripped the "little guys" ability to report on SEO. We are still left with a whole load of other ways of getting this data, but they require a bit more effort, and a whole lot more rationale, and significantly, resource.
That may well cause a significant business issue to many companies and freelancers that require keyword reporting to demonstrate the value they bring to websites, but frankly if that was the only thing they were doing, these weren't truly professional operators anyway.
We should see less of the "lowest common denominator SEO" that has dogged this industry for the past decade - simply put its going to be much tougher to scale effectiveness reporting on minimum viable product working practices.
I've no doubt that we will get our keyword data back eventually, and at a price, but in the meantime its about to get a whole lot harder for some of us - and if you can't adapt, you're not an SEO.