Google Changes Referrer Data Again, Co-Mingles Search and Referral Traffic

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Yesterday, Google posted an update on the company’s referrer service to theWebmaster Central Blog. While announcements like this may pass under the radar of a media more engrossed in frenzied topics like Google’s recent backlash over its new privacy policy, if your business employs any degree of SEO to leverage organic traffic and conversions on your website, you need to be paying attention.

What Google Says They’re Doing with the Referrer Data

Google announced that they will be using the “referrer” meta tag to simplify the referring URL information that is automatically passed from the visitor’s browser when the visitor reaches a page organically.

First, you need to understand the lowdown on what “referrer” data really is and what’s been happening with it the last 6 months. A referrer tells a site where someone came from when they got there. This information is aggregated in web analytics and provides juicy data for SEOs to use when strategizing search marketing campaigns.

Now, Google claims that doing so will result in a “faster” and “more streamlined experience for the user.” While the faster part is likely debatable and will probably only work for compatible lightweight browsers (like Google’s own Chrome), there is a tradeoff. Before we look at that, let’s take a little stroll down memory lane to catch up on the last 6 months of search referral analytics, shall we?

Google’s Controversial SSL Referral Encryption

In October 2011, Google started blocking some of this valuable data by making it so that all logged-in users were forced to go through SSL search and that none of the referrer data would be captured by analytics. (SSL, by the way, is secure socket layer, and the difference between http:// and https://.)

As you can imagine, this was a huge loss to the SEO community. In fact, we wrote about it and how the phenomenon of Google+ would lead more users to be logged in, creating a massive data leak, although Google was claiming “single digit losses” at the time.

That turned out to be a laughable understatement, and some sites have reported 20%, 30%, and even 50% referrer data loss as a result of the switch. Paid advertisers continued to receive that data, however, a blow to integrity for Google, who claimed the switch was the sake of privacy. Sure, it was for the sake of privacy unless there was a chance that they could sell that data for money. Okay.

Two weeks ago at SXSW, Vic Gundotra, SVP of Google’s Social Product Division, dodged a question about the SSL data encryption, saying it was a glitch and it was being fixed. This answer didn’t seem to satisfy the crowd, and had the members of the audience been aware of the direction Google was going with the “fix,” they might have become flat-out rabid.

How the New Google Change Completely #$%@s Up Your Analytics, Again

That brings us up to speed. The new “simplification” of referrer information, instead of giving something back to the data crushers, takes even more away. How, you might be asking, is that even possible? It all comes down to how the simplified referrer process works.

Let’s say that you do a search for “designer shoes” and click on a top organic listing. I clicked on, the third result on the SERP. But when I click on that link, it doesn’t take me straight to, which is what the link is connecting to.
Instead, I’m segued through this URL:

This redirect allows Google to grab up all of the data on how I found this site. You can see that the query I used (bolded) is denoted by a q= at the beginning, as that query is ultimately what led me to find the page. Analytics systems use that data to aggregate information on which search terms are leading visitors to your site.

However, if you’re logged in when you do this, the designer%20shoes part is gone, and there’s no query data available at all. That information is stripped out by Google unless you’re a paying advertiser, but at the very least, your Google Analytics or similar analytics dashboard can tell that a search actually happened.

No more. The simplified referrer data will instead take out everything except the following:

This means it’s impossible to tell whether a visitor arrived at your site via an organic search, or simply a link that was posted on Google – anywhere on Google.

Currently, Google Analytics separates Search and Referral traffic, but come April, it won’t even be able to tell the difference.

But Will it Enhance the User Experience?

Our verdict: no. The simplified referral process does not eliminate the redirection; the only change is that a shorter URL is passed on by the browser. Short URLs might be a hot commodity on Twitter, where space is limited, but we’re skeptical that a handful of characters is going to make or break a website’s clock speed.

Overall, it’s not time to panic… yet. Continue to watch your analytics, and keep track of your partition between Search and Referral traffic. Take advantage of the Python script that allows you to download the last 30 days of search query data. We will keep you posted on future developments.

An important caveat: This change will only affect users who are using Google’s SSL-search (, which is automatic for all logged-in users) running “modern browsers such as Chrome” – which means that for now, this is guaranteed to happen on Chrome, and will probably start affecting other browsers as future updates are rolled out.

Are You Ready to Be Found on Google in 2012?
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