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, Powerpointninja.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.