How “Not Provided” May Make BuzzFeed Think Google’s Search Traffic To News Sites Is Down

google-not-provided-200pxWell look at that! Search traffic to news sites has dropped over the past eight months, according to how BuzzFeed tracks referrals to sites within its network. A change of user behavior? Or perhaps more the result of “Dark Google” and “Not Provided?” Come on, I’ll explain how Google may be making itself look like it’s in decline.

Where Has All The Google Traffic Gone?

BuzzFeed said that it looked at traffic to 200 publishers in its network and found a marked decline in Google traffic from September 2012 onward. The network includes sites like Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post. My mind is blown that the Huffington Post is somehow in the BuzzFeed Network, by the way. Do they aggregate each other?

Here’s the key chart:

buzzfeed network

Look at that: Facebook ascendant, Google in decline! That seemingly matches up with what some news publishers have said in the past few years, that social is a bigger driver of traffic to them than search. But they rarely qualify that even in these cases, it’s usually not that search went into decline. It’s that while search keeps growing, social has turned into an entirely new audience stream they didn’t have before, one that’s also rocketing up. The pie got bigger, so that both the search and social slices grew.

But that chart suggests the opposite, that Google is plunging, Why. Why? Why!

BuzzFeed tries to puzzle it out. Is social growing? Is SEO no longer king? Is SEO just harder? Is “Dark Social” masking even more social gains?

Blame Google For Google’s Seeming Decline

Try Dark Google perhaps being to blame. That’s how Google, back in October 2011, started withholding from publishers the search terms people used to find them on Google. Withheld, that is, unless you’re an advertiser.

Google has some strong arguments that this is all about privacy, but there are plenty of loopholes that are still left open. Meanwhile, Google got caught off-guard by something unexpected. Apple.

See, when Google stopped showing search terms, it still at least did things in a way that let publishers know that traffic came from Google Search generally. What it didn’t expect was that Apple might seize upon Google’s “private” search for use when iOS 6 came out last year.

How Mobile Safari Turns Google Traffic Into Direct Traffic

When Apple did that — in September of last year — Google didn’t appear to be ready for it. Rather than ensure that traffic from mobile Safari still at least passed along the fact that someone had done a search at Google, even if you couldn’t know the exact search, Google let the click show no referral at all.

In other words, before September, if someone searched on mobile Safari at Google and went to a web site, they’d show up as if they were Google traffic. After that, they showed up as if they were a “direct visit.”

Now look again at that chart. You can see the “decline” starts in September and stays pretty consistent each month other than in December. Other things might have helped mask the impact of the Safari loss that month. After all, you can see in previous months that there are times when Google has seen gains and drops.

But from my perspective, if you’ve seen a sudden drop in Google traffic over the course of several months — and it’s not due to a Google penalty — perhaps it’s the Safari issue just getting worse. It’s a problem that Google has strangely allowed to fester for months now, one that seemingly is in Google’s ability to fix.

If you really want to know, you’d look at direct traffic. Is that rising? Or look at mobile Safari traffic. Is that coming up higher in relation to the traffic that’s dropping from Google?

Of course, mobile Safari traffic might not be big enough to a particular site to explain all this drop. Many other factors might come into play, including that sites in the network are indeed receiving less traffic or perhaps other things that might be causing some of that Google traffic to be “dark.”

NOTE: I’ve updated this story and headline slightly from the original to better qualify that the mobile Safari issue might be to blame, not that it is definitely to blame. I think it is a contributing factor, but I can’t tell from afar, and it might be other things also at work.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Features: Analysis | Google: Analytics | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://twitter.com/ferkungamaboobo Doug R. Thomas, Esq.

    That also seems to coincide with their start of using Facebook ads through what I’d assume is FBX.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianprovost Brian Provost
  • Phil Bradley

    What they ALSO say however is that it’s not just Google: “While Google makes up the bulk of search traffic to publishers, traffic
    from all search engines has dropped by 20% in the same period.”

  • Unbound Marketing

    “My mind is blown that the Huffington Post is somehow in the BuzzFeed Network, by the way. Do they aggregate each other?”

    Was thinking the same until i read this:

    “Jonah Peretti, founder & CEO of BuzzFeed, previously co-founded the Huffington Post.”

  • http://www.rspseo.com/ Roie S

    I checked multiple sites with tons of traffic and i do not see this spike of iOS6 direct traffic or loss of organic iOS6 traffic

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    They did. But the bulk of that is because of the Google drop. Bing had a drop, but Bing is so small that it could be due to many things.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Thanks.

  • http://brandingme.tumblr.com/ Adrian Palacios

    Android 4+ is (are?) also stripping out the referral from searches (similar to iOS6).

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    It strips terms but not that traffic is from search generally, I believe. And it can vary.

  • http://twitter.com/onreact_com Tad Chef

    It’s NOT about not provided. Most “not provided” traffic shows up as search traffic. Safari on Apple is negligible.

    I wonder why you choose the ignore the obvious changes Google implemented recently:

    - Google Knowledge Graph

    - paid only “above the fold” results

    - Google Image search content theft.

    All of these changes make Google users stay on Google instead of clicking through to publishers. Last but not least social usage is growing while search usage is dwindling.

  • azielinsky

    I agree with first and last options, but i don’t think news sites are affected by paid results. I mean, i don’t think anyone is bidding for terms like “fiscal cliff” or anyone clicking in paid results for that matter.

  • http://twitter.com/onreact_com Tad Chef

    I see an ad for “fiscal cliff” on Google.com right now.

  • http://twitter.com/Greekgeek Greekgeek

    Do you know when Google took “news” off the default navlinks at the top of the SERPs page and hid it under the “more tools” section? Especially on a mobile device, where popup navigation menus are a pain, I suspect that may be cutting down on news searches a little. It certainly slowed me down yesterday trying to get info on the CA fires in my area, and a less persistent or experienced searcher might’ve given up.

    But that is definitely a more recent change, so any impact it has piggybacks on top of the “not provided” effect.

  • http://www.infoeducations.com/ chaudhary amir

    I also see the ad and i agree with your comment

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Maybe those have contributed a bit, but there’s been no sign that huge numbers of people select Knowledge Graph results or do image searches — which in turn doesn’t translate into a big drop. Even above the fold ads may be less of an impact than you think, when we’re talking about news traffic.

    In contrast, not provided on iOS impacts every single iOS user — and iOS is responsible for a lot of traffic. I think that’s a far bigger contributing factor than any of the ones you list, but that’s my take.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andygradel Andy Gradel

    I run a hospital website in Philly that gets about 150,000 uniques a month. Since September, our organic search traffic is down 4% (-27,559) while direct traffic is up 97% (+138,966 visits) and iPhone/iPad traffic is up 130% (+147,502 visits).

    Since I came on board last June, I’ve been trying to figure out why our organic numbers have decreased even while our rankings have substantially improved.

    A couple weeks ago, I started suspecting that the spike in direct traffic was not true direct traffic, although I was originally placing blame on the awesome bar / URL box instant results. But, the numbers above really do point toward the iOS issue.

  • http://twitter.com/smichaelgriffin Michael Griffin

    Mobile Safari search may be negligible in your niche but it certainly isn’t on several of the sites I manage. In fact, it comprises 10-20% of *total* traffic for most; mis-attributing those visits as direct makes for a heck of a dip in organic Google search traffic.

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