Dark Google, Mobile Safari and the Lack of Referral Data

by Stephen Pitts on June 15, 2013

dark googleAs I am sure many of you have heard by now that Google defaults to a secure search when you are logged into a Google account and removes the keyword referrer data from being monitored in analytic tools. In September, with the release of iOS6 from Apple, the mobile version of Safari (default browser on Apple products) stopped supporting “meta referrer” information so all traffic from the browser would now appear as “direct” traffic as if the user typed the page/domain directly into their browser and was not referred by another site or search engine. This was quickly referred to as “Dark Google” but recently it was found out that it was actually Safari. While earlier this year Google Chrome changed to secure search whenever you search, regardless if you are logged into a Google account or not and now stops providing keyword referrer data.

When Google stopped providing keyword referral data and defaulting users that were logged in into secure search, I was not alarmed or really concerned. I found that it was actually a good thing, as these users were more likely influenced by personalized search (adjusted results based on their behavior and even social network associations). It could very easily be determined that the traffic was still coming from organic search, no muss, no fuss. I really liked the fact that personalized search data wasn’t tainting the rest of the organic referral data.

I do, however, still have a problem with the fact that Google came out and said that it was to “increase the security and privacy of your web searches,” as this is not the case and it isn’t likely that this will be the last thing that was sold on false pretenses. Either way, it is here to stay.

I don’t quite understand why Apple stopped supporting “meta referrer” in the mobile version of Safari or why Google stopped supporting this in March 2012, which would pass the information from the referrer rather than through the browser. There are three potential fixes for this, Google and others could perform this (not likely to get all of the large sites to comply), mobile Safari could go back to supporting it (more likely, but still not holding my breathe) or analytics platforms could go back to log based reporting instead of cookie based or meta referrer based reporting (but that would be like 3 steps back for reporting).

Now, I have no idea as to why Google Chrome began defaulting to encrypted search this year but it would be the second time that I feel they overstated encrypted search:

Serving content over SSL provides users with a more secure and private search experience. It helps ensure that malicious actors who might intercept people’s internet traffic can’t see their queries.

I think Google might be calling website owners other than themselves “malicious actors,” since I believe we are the few who actually use this data. In many cases, to improve the user experience for people that are coming to our website. How are we to know if we should improve our landing pages if we don’t know what got a person to the page?

Data deterioration or simply the lack of all of the data isn’t good and if Google, Apple and others really want to improve the web for everyone else, they should reconsider overselling encrypted search, adopt development standards, like use of “meta referrer,” so that everyone is aware of the lay of the land and we can all get back to why we are here in the first place… providing what people are looking for and striving to do that better!

If you use Google Analytics and are trying to decipher your iOS traffic, there is a good post that will help you to correctly calculate your organic iOS traffic.

Here’s to hoping for a more transparent internet!

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