How A Google Change May Mistakenly Turn Search Traffic Into Referral Traffic

Google’s about to make a change to how it reports referrer
information for those using its Chrome browser. As a result, some
analytics programs may begin listing search visitors as if they instead
came directly from Google without doing a search, though major packages
will probably adjust OK.

The change
was posted on the Google Webmaster Central blog yesterday, and it took
some follow up to really understand what’s happening. Come along, and
I’ll explain more.

Google & Blocking Referrers

Referrers are sort of a Caller ID for web browsers. They tell a web
site where someone came from. For example, if you click on a link from
one page to visit the next, the page you were on is passed along as
referrer information that can be seen using web analytics tools.
Sometimes this is also called “referer” information, due to a
long-ago misspelling around the referrer standard. “Referral” is also
sometimes used.

Last October, Google began blocking referrer information from being
passed along by those searching on its search engine, if they were
signed-in and using a secure connection.

Google said the change was made to better protect privacy. It turned
out to be a precursor to preventing “eavesdropping” of especially
private searches that might happen as part of Search Plus Your World.

However, despite saying the move was to protect privacy, Google went
out of its way to continue passing along referrer data to paid
advertisers. Other loopholes also remain. The move is incredibly
hypocritical. See the articles at the end of this story to understand
more about the blocking and the hypocrisy in greater depth

If Google is already withholding search term data for signed-in
users, then what else could it really pull back? How about reporting
even if a search happened.

Beginning in April, Google’s going to begin using the referrer meta tag to
report what it calls a “simplified” referrer. The tag will let it
override the real referrer that would go out, even what’s left of that
referrer after search terms have been stripped.

How The Referrer Meta Tag Turns Searches Into Referrals

Consider a search for “hotels.” If you do that search and click on
one of the top listings, say for Travelocity, the actual URL you’re
going to looks like this:

The URL doesn’t lead directly to the site. Instead, it redirects
through Google itself, in a way that Google can record what’s in the URL
to better track the click.

I’ve bolded how Google embeds in the URL information that someone
searched for the word “hotels” and clicked on the first listing in the
results, which in turn took them to the page at Travelocity, also shown
in bold.

If this search is done when someone is signed-in using a secure
connection, Google drops the search term portion. It basically looks
like this:

An analytics program can tell that a search happened by seeing the
“q=” part in the URL, but the actual term itself has been stripped out
by Google. So while Google Analytics can’t report what the search words
were (and thus says “not provided”), it still can tell that a search

The new change takes out everything but the start of the referrer. Do
a search on using Chrome, and this is all that will be

Because there’s no indicator that a search happened, an analytics
program may interpret that people have come from a link on
rather than doing a search there. This means that search traffic would
mistakenly get recorded as what’s called “referral” traffic.

Search Traffic Vs. Referral Traffic

To understand better, here’s my traffic breakdown to my personal blog Daggle from yesterday. This is from Google Analytics:

You see that 76% of my traffic was from search, people who did some
type of recognized search and visited my site. Google Analytics doesn’t
know the actual search terms for nearly a third of these visits (yeah,
wow, right?). See how “not provided” makes up 35% of all keywords in the
lower chart? But Google Analytics still knows that they were searches,
so they get counted into the overall search total.

After that, about 14% of traffic is from referrals, people who
clicked on a link from one site that lead to my own. Another 10% of
traffic is direct, people who either directly entered the URL of one of
my pages into their web browser or who came to my site without any
referrer information being reported (which isn’t necessarily direct
traffic, but it gets counted that way).

With the change, Google Analytics or other analytics program would
count some of my search visits as if they are referral visits, unless
they adjusts for this. The slice of search traffic would start to drop,
even though my search traffic could potentially be going up.

Google Analytics Will Adjust, Other Vendors Being Told

If you use Google Analytics, Google says there’s no reason to panic.
Google Analytics is supposed to figure out how to count things
correctly. The same may be true for other vendors, by the time this
happens. Google told us:

We’re using the meta referrer standard which allows us to
choose the origin and still send a referrer to http sites from https
search results (without going through a redirect on an http host).

Google Analytics will also adjust for this change, and we’re in the
process of reaching out to a number of other analytics vendors to notify
them about this in advance.

Only Impacts Chrome & Really A Time Saver?

The change will only happen for those using Google Chrome, as that’s
the only browser that supports the meta referrer tag, Google told us. As
for why bother doing this at all, the blog post says:

This results in a faster time to result and more streamlined experience for the user.

I’m a bit doubtful about the savings. It’s not like Google is
stopping the actual click tracking that it does. Everything you click on
still gets redirected, which causes a tiny delay. The meta referrer tag
only means that those using the Chrome browser will pass along a
shorter URL for where they came from.

Surely that’s not saving much time? I asked Google how much this really speeds things up:

We don’t have data to share right now. However, this does allow the user’s browser to avoid making an extra connection to (which the browser may not have already established since the search was on

I’m still confused about why the browser would make an extra
connection back to Google after someone has left, because of anything to
do with passing along referrer data. I’ll check on that.

Pleading Again For More Data In Google Webmaster Central

Overall, there’s probably no reason to panic, if you use a major
analytics provider. But it’s something you should check on. It’s also an
unpleasant reminder that Google keeps messing with the referrer data
that it provides to publishers in a way that messes up their trending.

Google’s answer to all these changes is that people should make use
of Google Webmaster Central to pull in missing search data. But that
data only goes back 30 days. That does nothing to restore the trends
that have been destroyed since withholding began.

I’ll repeat what I said earlier this year about all this:

I think Google should do more than 60 days. I think it
should be providing continuous reporting and holding that data
historically on behalf of sites, if it’s going to block referrers.
Google is already destroying historical benchmarks that publishers have
maintained. Google’s already allowed data to be lost for those
publishers, because they didn’t begin to go in each day and download the
latest information.

So far, all Google’s done is provide an
Python script to make downloading easier. That’s not enough. Google
should provide historical data, covering a big chunk of the terms that a
site receives. It’s the right thing to do, and it should have been done



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