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The missing iOS6 referrer data

While online marketers in all Google-dominated countries are still struggling with all those “(not provided)” keywords, Apple has made changes to iOS6 that cause visits coming from their devices through Google search count as “Direct Traffic”.

blindfolded typewriting

Blindfolded Typing Competition – Photo by Foxtongue

What happened?

  • In an effort to ‘make search more secure‘, Google has enabled the https protocol for its search engine if a user is logged in to Google.
  • To make browsing more secure with Google Chrome they introduced a hard-coded list of sites which should always be opened using the https protocol into the browser. Among them plus.google.com which resulted in a loss of referrer data from Google Plus. This was later fixed by using plus.url.google.com as an intermediate URL.
  • Mozilla switched the standard search provider of its flagship browser Firefox to Google’s encrypted search with the launch of version 14.
  • Google wants to make the web faster, this is particularly true for mobile devices which are prone to use higher-latency connections.
  • Apple switched its mobile Safari browser to use encrypted Google search by default starting with iOS6.

So everything gets faster and more secure, isn’t that great?

Sure, that all sounds great. Unless you’re an online marketer trying to extract some meaning from your analytics data. So many browsers switching to encrypted Google search as a default results in a substantial loss of keyword information. You still know that your visitor came from Google but not what he was searching for – unless you’re buying AdWords ads and this visitor clicked on one of them.

And now it gets even worse: a substantial amount of your “Direct Traffic” are actually iOS6 users coming from a Google SERP.

WTF?

This is the result of two of the above mentioned improvements being combined:

  1. Apple deciding to default Safari to Gogles SSL search and
  2. Google wanting to speed up the web and therefore optimizing their “mobile” pages for speed.

Why does Google’s speed improvement program affect the referrers? Consider how a link in an encrypted SERP in a desktop browser looks like:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc...

And now compare this with a result link from a Google search when the client is an iPhone:

href="/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1...

On desktop browsers the result on an encrypted SERP links to a non-encrypted Google URL (with an empty q parameter, the ‘q’ usually denoted the queried keyword) which will then forward the user to the destination page while serving as the referrer URL.

The iPhone result link is a relative link which has multiple effects:

  1. The HTML code of the SERP is smaller resulting in a potentially quicker transmission of the data
  2. The intermediate page (/url…) is linked using a relative URL and therefore lies on an encrypted URL which results in no referrer being transferred in requests to non-encrypted URLs. These visitors appear as “Direct Traffic” in your analytics data.

The funny thing about Google’s handling of mobile clients is that they do transmit the keyword if the target URL is also using https.

Is it only iOS6?

No, it’s not. Vanilla Android versions 4.1 and above (AJ Kohn confirmed it’s actually 4.0+), potentially also 4.0, also use encrypted Google Search by default when using the Android search box. The same is true for mobile Firefox on Android. But Google Chrome for Android uses a standard http URL to access Google Search although I am logged in to Google on that browser.

I don’t know how branded Android versions handle these things. I guess it’s not so relevant yet as few providers or hardware manufacturers have rolled out new versions of Android. So right now it affects mostly the Nexus devices and even these do not hide referrer data if Chrome is used to search on Google.

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  1. Pingback: How To Increase Organic Search Traffic by 4.6% in 32 Minutes

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