Digital Marketing Strategy

‘Strips All Referrers’ Problem With Mobile Safari

Usually, when you click from one web page to another, the web browser sends ‘referrer’ information and reports the URL of the page that you clicked from to arrive at the new page. For instance, if you do a Google search for ‘digital cameras’ and click on naaptol.com from the list that appears, Naaptol would be able to tell that you arrived at the page via a Google search for digital cameras. This is because the referrer, or “Caller ID for the web” as it is sometimes called, usually contains the information you searched for.

“Dark Google”

In 2011, Google made a change to SSL search by encrypting searches that are performed by users using Google.com on a secure connection. Google explained that was a measure to protect personalized search results it delivers. But it affected publishers: sites that people go to by clicking on a search result on Google page would no longer receive “referrer” data revealing the query terms that those visitors searched for to reach their site. The only exception was in the case of ads. Publishers have become familiar with ‘Not Provided’ – all traffic with withheld search terms typically appears as with the Google Analytics keyword “not provided.” Industry watchers and SEO experts dubbed these developments “Dark Google” and wondered it if was the end of Google Analytics.

Apple’s iOS 6 change Impacts Google Search on Safari Mobile

Then last September, Apple made an iOS 6 change that impacted Google search from within Safari. And Google was not prepared for this. Users searching on Google using Safari in iOS 6 would appear to publishers as ‘direct’ traffic instead of ‘search’ traffic. Now, search engine marketing expert Danny Sullivan says he has found the reason why mobile Safari searchers seem like direct traffic rather than traffic via Google search.

Google made in the meta referrer tag last March so that information was passed to its browsers via the meta referrer tag rather than via its Web server. So the page has referrer data embedded in it. Mobile Safari does not support the ‘meta referrer’ tag and that’s why it makes website visitors look more like ‘direct’ rather than ‘search’ traffic. Many other browsers seem to have the “strips all referrers” problem too. However, Desktop Safari is not affected as it supports the meta referrer.

The results, says Sullivan, is that many publishers may see a fall in traffic which could be because the traffic is not being attributed correctly and not because search traffic has actually dropped. BuzzFeed had reported that many leading publishers including Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post saw a dip in their Google traffic. Even Google’s traffic seems to have dipped lower than Facebook, and BuzzFeed says Google had only itself to blame!

The Solution

Sullivan offers two solutions:

  • Mobile Safari can support the meta referrer
  • Google can resume using web server based reporting to pass information to browsers in place of meta referrer tag based reporting. However, this could result in all referrers being stripped if a user visits an insecure site outside Google’s protected search environment.

It would seem that the better option is for Mobile Safari to support the meta referrer. If not, search engine optimization companies may find that Google Analytics or other analytics programs do not report SEO trends accurately.

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