Back on Sep­tem­ber 26, I pub­lished an arti­cle on how Google’s shift to secure search would impact your key­word data in Adobe Ana­lyt­ics (Site­Cat­a­lyst) reports. Unfor­tu­nately, I’m back with another post on how your search data will be impacted by some recent changes at Yahoo.

If you haven’t already heard, search expert Danny Sul­li­van announced that Yahoo is fol­low­ing Google’s lead and tran­si­tion­ing to secure search. Yahoo will be rolling out secure search across all of its prop­er­ties world­wide by March 31st. Today, Yahoo​.com already uses secure search (https://​search​.yahoo​.com) for search queries per­formed on its main site.

Yahoo’s move to secure search will have two effects on your search-related data. First, you will no longer receive organic key­word data for your Yahoo search traf­fic. As a result, another key source for under­stand­ing what organic key­words vis­i­tors are using to find your web­site will dis­ap­pear. Yahoo indi­cated that they will still pro­vide key­word data for paid search traf­fic to its PPC adver­tis­ers sim­i­lar to what Google is doing for its AdWords advertisers.

Sec­ond, you will no longer receive refer­rer data from Yahoo, which will result in a drop in Yahoo traf­fic in your Refer­ring Domains and Refer­rers reports. It will also impact your Mar­ket­ing Chan­nels reports as your Yahoo traf­fic will now be lumped into the direct traf­fic (“Typed/Bookmarked”) bucket. (UPDATE: Yahoo has changed its approach and now passes the refer­rer data. You can ignore this sec­ond effect to your reports).

Some peo­ple may won­der if there’s a workaround to detect whether some­one is com­ing from Yahoo with­out the refer­rer data, but unfor­tu­nately, there isn’t. All dig­i­tal ana­lyt­ics tools need the refer­rer data to accu­rately iden­tify where traf­fic is com­ing from—no exceptions.

Note: Even though Yahoo​.com has switched to secure search, I’m still see­ing Yahoo as a refer­rer in my per­sonal web­site, Pow​er​point​ninja​.com. Even­tu­ally, once this change has been rolled out to all of Yahoo’s servers, I antic­i­pate Yahoo dis­ap­pear­ing from my Refer­ring Domains and Refer­rers reports.

Dif­fer­ence between Yahoo and Google’s Approaches to Secure Search

There’s a sub­tle but impor­tant dif­fer­ence between how Yahoo and Google are han­dling secure search. Today, most land­ing pages use HTTP (hyper­text trans­fer pro­to­col) instead of HTTPS (secure ver­sion). When a secure web­site such as Yahoo con­nects with a HTTP web­site, the search key­words and refer­rer data are not passed between the two websites. (UPDATE: Yahoo has changed its approach and now passes the refer­rer data—only the key­word data is removed). However, if both web­sites use the same pro­to­col (HTTPS) then they can share this data. There­fore, tech­ni­cally if you want to retain key­word and refer­rer data from Yahoo (or Bing which has recently intro­duced optional secure search) you could migrate your entire web­site to HTTPS.

How­ever, before you con­sider tran­si­tion­ing to HTTPS as a poten­tial solu­tion, be aware that it’s not a sim­ple step and would require research, plan­ning, and test­ing. HTTPS has often been per­ceived to be much slower in serv­ing con­tent than HTTP. How­ever, with today’s server tech­nol­ogy, you may not be sac­ri­fic­ing as much per­for­mance as you thought.

Inter­est­ingly, shift­ing to HTTPS wouldn’t mag­i­cally fix your miss­ing key­word data from Google. The lead­ing search engine uses a mod­i­fied, non-standard approach for its secure search. Google actu­ally passes the refer­rer data to HTTP sites (via redi­rect) and just strips the key­word data. Even if you migrated your web­site to HTTPS, Google would con­tinue to remove its key­word data (boo!).

To sum­ma­rize the cur­rent search land­scape, Danny Sul­li­van pro­vided the fol­low­ing sum­mary of what search engines pass to websites:

  • Yahoo: secure search is the default, (UPDATE) Yahoo refer­rer passed but search terms stripped, except for advertisers
  • Google: secure search is the default, Google refer­rer passed but search terms stripped, except for advertisers
  • Bing: secure search is optional, no refer­rers passed

Over a short span of time, our abil­ity to ana­lyze organic search traf­fic has eroded sig­nif­i­cantly. Prob­a­bly one of the most frus­trat­ing aspects of this tran­si­tion is hav­ing to edu­cate our inter­nal stake­hold­ers and teams how we no longer enjoy the same insights into search as we’ve had for the past 15–20 years. It comes as a shock to us in dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing as we’re used to receiv­ing MORE data, not LESS.

Not sur­pris­ingly, ana­lysts aren’t com­plain­ing that they have run out of things to ana­lyze. There will always be an ever-growing moun­tain of dig­i­tal data to explore and exam­ine. How­ever, it is dis­ap­point­ing to see this valu­able keyword/referrer data dis­ap­pear and poten­tially hand­i­cap what was once a mutu­ally ben­e­fi­cial rela­tion­ship between search engines and websites.

3 comments
ronmartin05
ronmartin05

I'm gonna drop the ultimate Adwords PPC secret right here: Individual sitelinks differentiated, tagged, and tracked within Google Analytics. Yep, I'm serious - that's the secret. Are you doing it? If so, you know what I'm talking about. If not, I bet Simon can help you over the phone, give him a ring at 256-398-3835. You can do all kinds of powerful testing and optimization when you've got sitelink tracking in place and it can really set you ahead of your competition.

joechristopher
joechristopher

Hey Brent, as of February 4th, it doesn't appear to be behaving this way.  r.search.yahoo.com is the referrer (with no keyword) for both http and https sites from secure or non-secure search.yahoo.com

analyticshero
analyticshero

@joechristopher Nice! I verified the same on my website. We had expressed concerns to Yahoo about dropping the referrer. It looks as though they listened to the industry community and retained the referrer for websites. Thanks for the update.