As you may have read, Google is in the process of introducing a change to the way that search referrers are passed from their search engine to your landing pages. The most recent update, coming this month (April 2012) takes advantage of the referrer meta tag as a way to identify that Google brought a user to your site. When this tag is implemented on a page, the browser can use it to control the contents of the referrer passed to the next page when a user clicks a link (such as an search result), rather than relying upon the traditional all-or-nothing HTTP referrer (which may inadvertently cause personal or sensitive information to be passed to the next page in the referrer).

What does this mean for you and your search channel data? For secure searches within browsers that support the referrer meta tag (of which Google Chrome is currently the only one with significant adoption), Google search click-throughs will report their referrer simply as “https://www.google.com,” (or “https://www.google.co.uk,” or “https://www.google.ca,” or any other Google top-level domain) with no associated keyword data. Again, this will only impact secure searches, and only in browsers that support this meta tag. Secure searches were already not reporting keyword data, per Google’s update last October, but now secure search referrers in some browsers will be even more generic.

You can read even more about this change in a great blog post by SiteCatalyst implementation guru Kevin Rogers. Also note that, while Google has said that the change is being rolled out globally this month, that does not necessarily mean that it will be universally applied by the end of the month. Google search changes often roll out over an extended period of time, and their own blog post (linked above) simply says “starting in April.”

What is Adobe doing about it?

We recognize that channel/referrer data is the bedrock of much of the work that marketers and analysts do in SiteCatalyst, Discover, and other Adobe Digital Marketing Suite products. It is our goal to stay on top of the rapidly evolving world of digital marketing with solutions that will enable our customers to continue to do amazing things. This is why we are pleased to report that we will be accounting for this Google search change directly in SiteCatalyst so that most of you will not need to update your on-site implementation.

Beginning late in the day on 12 April 2012, SiteCatalyst will treat any referrer that is simply “https://www.google.com” as a search in your Traffic Sources reports. This is safe and accurate, because other Google services (where there may be non-search links to your site) are on various subdomains; links to your site on finance.google.com, mail.google.com, plus.google.com, etc. will continue to report as “Other Web Sites” and will not pollute your search data. Keyword data coming from secure searches in browsers that accept the referrer meta tag is unavailable to all on-site analytics solutions, including SiteCatalyst, so these searches will be grouped in the “Keyword Unavailable” entry that you have likely seen appear in your Search Keywords reports since last October.

The overall impact of Google’s change on your search data will depend on browser adoption of the meta referrer tag and the percentage of your site’s Google search click-throughs that come from secure search. As mentioned above, Google Chrome is currently the only major browser which supports this meta tag, although others may follow suit. If 25% of your users are on Google Chrome, and 20% of your Google search click-throughs come from secure search (i.e. currently show as “Keyword Unavailable” in SiteCatalyst), once Google has rolled this change out globally, it may be reasonable to assume that 5% (20% of 25%) of your search traffic will be impacted. It may be more or less, depending on factors such as the correlation between using Chrome and being logged in to Google (which causes you to use secure search automatically).

Of course, non-secure searches will continue to report both keyword and search engine data accurately, as they always have. The current adjustment in SiteCatalyst deals only with requests where the referrer is exactly “https://www.google.com” (or other Google top-level domains), as the only way for this to appear as a referrer value on your site is a.) the use of the referrer meta tag, or b.) the use of the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the Google homepage. Since both of those are indeed searches, this maintains the integrity of your search data in SiteCatalyst and elsewhere.

SiteCatalyst will continue to differentiate paid search from natural search based on the referrer (in this case, https://www.google.com) and a query parameter attached to your landing page URLs. Thus, this change will work for both paid and natural search data.

Is there anything I should be concerned about?

Some users will want to make or request some changes to their SiteCatalyst environments to account for Google’s use of the referrer meta tag.

  1. If you are using Marketing Channels and have done extensive customization to your Natural Search or Paid Search channel rules, you may want to add a clause to account for referrers that equal “http://www.google.com,” so they are counted in these channels as searches. For example, you may need to add a rule which under Natural Search which says “referrer equals https://www.google.com.” However, if you are using the default “Matches Natural Search Detection Rules” for your natural search channel and “Matches Paid Search Detection Rules” for your paid search channel, you do not need to update your Marketing Channels setup in order to take advantage of this update.
  2. The Unified Sources DB VISTA rule and the Channel Manager JavaScript plug-in will need to be updated to reflect Google’s update. Both of these solutions are custom deployments, so I cannot provide specific advice on the changes you may need to make. However. your Adobe Account Manager can connect you with the appropriate information and resources if you are using either Unified Sources or Channel Manager.

What about international Google search engines?

Just to be clear, everything described above applies to all international versions of Google as well. I’ve been using “https://www.google.com” in this post, but our solution also covers “https://www.google.co.jp,” “https://www.google.ph,” and all other Google search engine top-level domains. No matter which international version of Google your users choose for their searches, you’ll be covered with this update.

We are pleased that we have been able to craft a solution that ensures the integrity of your Google search data in the face of the continued evolution of the technology that powers digital marketing. As always, you are welcome to post questions or comments directly on this post and we will address them here, or feel free to find me with feedback on Twitter at @benjamingaines. Thanks!

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