Google AJAX Search Results = Death To Search Term Tracking?

Buzz has been growing over the past 4-5 days about what appears to be a new Google search results test that, if widely implemented, might spell doom for SEO rank checking software and some other tools. Many are concerned that it could kill web analytics software, too, but that may not be the case.

Google appears to be testing AJAX-based search results on a limited basis. Users who are able to access the test see different URLs for Google searches. Rather than the standard www.google.com/search?q=keyword, URLs in the AJAX test use a hash mark, like this: www.google.com/#q=keyword.

Michael VanDeMar wrote about this test last week, and a commenter on that post points out that the test was active in The Netherlands as far back as November.

What Does It Mean?

If Google rolls out AJAX-based search results on a wide scale, there could be some big ramifications. As Michael VanDeMar and the commenters on his post point out, SEO rank checkers and other tools could be rendered useless. (Google would probably like to kill such rank checking software, as it has long viewed these tools as taking computing resources it would rather use for human visitors).

While some might not cry for those still stuck in the rank checking mentality of the past, a post today from analytics software provider Clicky says it would also have dramatic impact on web analytics tools, those that measure activity from visitors who come to your web site:

“This change breaks search/keyword tracking for every single analytics app in existence…. the fact that Google is even considering doing this, with blatant disregard for the fact that they will be breaking every single analytics, stats, and log analyzer product on the planet, is just amazing.”

Both the Clicky post and this one from Aaron Wall suggest Google may be setting up Google Analytics as the only software that will be able to track keyword referrals from AJAX-based search results. Says Aaron:

“…what happens to existing tools? Plugins? Rank checkers? Stats and other referral tracking packages? All tools that rely on Google passing data in order to work…. Perhaps the only place you’ll be able to get this data is Google Analytics? Is this the next step – a lock-in? It has happened before.”

But analytics tools might be able to account for a hash mark in URLs; it’s just that most of them don’t handle it right now. Nathan Buggia recently wrote about URL fragments (the portion of a URL after a hash mark) on Jane and Robot. In that post, Avinash Kaushik — Google’s Analytics Evangelist — provides a javascript snippet that will allow tracking of URL fragments after the hash mark. If a short piece of Javascript is all it takes to track what comes after the hash mark, most analytics software providers should be able to update their software to accommodate a chance to AJAX-based search results. (see postscripts below)

We’ve contacted Google for an official confirmation of the AJAX-based test and a comment on its potential impacts, and will update this post if/when we hear back.

Postscript #1: Sean from Clicky, who authored the post we linked to above, has added some clarification for us.

“Yes, Javascript can be used to track the #hashmarks at the end of the URL. This isn’t the problem though. Javascript has a variable called “document.referrer” that contains the URL of the referrer for the page you are currently looking at. Web browsers don’t store the hash in this variable, so there is no way for us to get it.”

To clarify further, the javascript workaround mentioned in the Jane and Robot post only works to track URLs with hash marks on your own site; it doesn’t work to track hash marks from a referring page.

Postscript #2: A Google spokesperson shares this statement:

“We’re continually testing new interfaces and features to enhance the user experience. We are currently experimenting with a javascript enhanced result page because we believe that it may ultimately provide a faster experience for our users. At this time only a small percentage of users will see this experiment. It is not our intention to disrupt referrer tracking, and we are continuing to iterate on this project. For more information on the experiments that we run on Google search, please see: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2006/04/this-is-test-this-is-only-test.html.”

Postscript #3: Google’s sent us an updated further statement that’s stronger on them seeking on a solution to analytics issues.

Currently AJAX results are just a test on Google.  At this time only a small percentage of users will see this experiment. It is not our intention to disrupt referrer tracking, and we are continuing to iterate on this project and are actively working towards a solution. As we continue experiments, we hope that this test may ultimately provide an easier solution for our customers and a faster experience for our users. For more information on the experiments that we run on Google search, please see http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2006/04/this-is-test-this-is-only-test.html

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Top News

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • http://www.joblr.net Mikkel deMib Svendsen

    The problem is that browsers don’t pass on what comes after the hash-mark – so it’s not, as far as I can see, enough for the analytics providers to update their scripts. If the last part of the URL is not in the refeerer frield there is nothing to collect.

    See also:
    http://smackdown.blogsblogsblogs.com/2009/02/02/what-will-really-break-if-google-switches-to-ajax/

  • http://smackdown.blogsblogsblogs.com/ mvandemar

    Matt Mikkel is right,

    Nathan Buggia recently wrote about URL fragments (the portion of a URL after a hash mark) on Jane and Robot. In that post, Avinash Kaushik — Google’s Analytics Evangelist — provides a javascript snippet that will allow tracking of URL fragments after the hash mark.

    In Nathan’s article, he is referring to hash marks in the landing page url (ie. ones you can set in ppc campaigns, for instance). The referring url, which is what actually contains the keywords, still does not pass that portion, regardless of what Javascript you use on your own pages.

  • http://www.mmmeeja.com/blog/ andymurd

    Mikkel is right about it screwing with analytics packages but I think rankcheckers will be OK.

    Google get a ton of traffic from their OpenSearch plugin (the search box at the top right of your browser) and rankcheckers should be able to easily mimic that. I can also imagine a lot of people blocking javascript from their search page so my guess is that there will always be a CGI interface to Google search.

  • http://coderrr.wordpress.com coderrr

    http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=465803

    Here’s a crazy hack they could do to use ajax queries while preserving the current referer url:

    Whenever the ajax search is performed an invisible iframe is loaded at: http://google.com/search?q=search+term&donothing=true.

    The donothing=true tells Google’s webserver to perform no actual query and return a blank page. This should happen extremely quickly. (It could be performed after the ajax results have been fully loaded as to not affect response time)

    Then when a user clicks a search result, Google does a javascript redirect from the iframe (use javascript to add a new tag with a window.top.location= in it) and you get a referer just like you would before… with a negligible performance hit.

  • bmungovan
  • StandardsGirl

    I have not seen this question answered and while I have a post into Jim Thatcher, I thought I would ask here.

    So how would this effect accessibility tools? http://www.webaim.org/techniques/ajax/ Would the most used web search in the world suddenly become mostly inaccessible? How is Google intending to address this issue? Have you asked? Thanks!

  • StandardsGirl

    BTW I know they have the accessibility index. Would this be what people with accessibility issues would use in place of the current index? Or can you make AJAX completely accessible?

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