When iOS 6 rolled out late last year, Safari defaulted to Google’s SSL secure search site for their search bar. Many ana­lysts ini­tially made the assump­tion that Apple altered iOS 6 so that Google refer­rers are com­pletely removed from searches.

Adobe cus­tomers have noticed decreas­ing search traf­fic regard­less of how much effort they put into SEO. This decrease could poten­tially be explained by Safari and iOS 6. Given the vol­ume of the shift, I inves­ti­gated fur­ther. It turns out that the prob­lem of hid­den refer­rers is not unique to iOS 6.

Test­ing

To test, I searched “what is my refer­rer” on Google and clicked the first link each time. For iOS 6, I used Safari and Chrome (v.26) on an iPhone 5. To test Android, I used the Inter­net (default) and Chrome (v.26) browsers on an HTC One X. I also tested with a Nexus 7 using Chrome (v. 18). I con­ducted all tests both logged in and out of Google, but this did not affect the results.

On iPhone, I found that the refer­rer was removed in three dif­fer­ent uses: search­ing from Safari’s search bar, search­ing from https://www.google.com or using iPhone’s Spot­light to search the inter­net. Only when search­ing from http://www.google.com was I able to see refer­rer data, includ­ing the search query. These results weren’t iso­lated to Safari because I found the exact same results using Chrome (v. 26) on iPhone.

On Android, I found sim­i­lar results with a cou­ple excep­tions. Using an HTC One X run­ning Android 4.1.1, the default browser behaved the same as Safari. I saw no refer­rer data when using the search bar, Google wid­get, or when search­ing from the https site. I only received refer­rer data when using the http site. With a Nexus 7 run­ning the Chrome browser (v. 18), I received no refer­rer data from https or the Google wid­get, but the Chrome search bar pro­vided full refer­rer data. The big­ger excep­tion came when I used Chrome (v. 26) on the HTC One and received a refer­rer of google​.com, but no query.

The table below sum­ma­rizes test­ing for a bet­ter idea of how refer­rer data is affected on Google.

Table

So, what exactly is happening?

On a desk­top, Google passes searches through a redi­rect, which removes the search query and pro­vides a refer­rer of www​.google​.com. On mobile searches, this redi­rect is not hap­pen­ing. When nav­i­gat­ing from an https page to a non-secure http page, no refer­rer data is passed.

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 5.17.36 PM

Danny Sul­li­van of Search Engine Land pointed out that Google removed redi­rects to improve the mobile expe­ri­ence. When I used Chrome (v.26) on the HTC One X or the Google app on iOS 6, I received a refer­rer of www​.google​.com with­out a search query. This implies that Google has imple­mented some redi­rects to obscure search queries on mobile devices. Once Google imple­ments redi­rects on all mobile searches, you will receive a sim­i­lar refer­rer, but you will not see the query.

Now, how to fix it

To stop los­ing Google mobile search traf­fic data, try using an https land­ing page. While you may get some push­back from your IT team, this would solve the prob­lem (until Google makes another change). You would be able to see the refer­ring domain and query. In the exam­ple below, I search “pay­pal” from Google SSL, land on https://www.paypal.com, then type “javascript:alert(document.referrer)” into the URL address bar to see my refer­rer. I see Google is my refer­rer and I even get the query.

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 5.15.42 PM

Sum­mary

  • Miss­ing refer­rer data is not iso­lated to Safari; it is affect­ing Chrome on iOS 6 and Android browsers as well
  • Refer­rer data is lost when a search on Google SSL (i.e. https) links to a non-SSL page (i.e. http) because Google does not redi­rect most mobile searches
  • To fix the prob­lem, you can imple­ment https land­ing pages to be able to gather refer­rer data from mobile searches on Google
  • Redi­rected mobile traf­fic on Google would result in a refer­rer of www​.google​.com, but no search query data (sim­i­lar to desk­tops today)

How are you deal­ing with empty refer­rer data for mobile? Let us know in the com­ments below.

 

 

 

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