Since September, people using Safari in iOS 6 and searching on Google have appeared to publishers as if they’ve come directly to their sites, as opposed to having been driving by search. At last, the reason behind the Dark Google cut-off of data has been found: mobile Safari doesn’t support the “meta referrer” tag.
I know. Publishers who have been closely watching this situation are probably thinking that the reason was already known. It was Google Secure Search, and how Google’s change to that back in October 2011 to withhold search terms means anything using that system will have search referrer data withheld.
Google Secure Search Strips Terms, Not Referrers
It’s true. Google Secure Search does withhold search terms from publishers, except for those publishers who pay to appear on Google through advertising. Google Secure Search strips out the terms and passes along only a generic referral. Publishers can tell they got Google traffic but not the exact term.
Google Analytics users know this well as the “Not Provided” phenomenon, where all that traffic with stripped-out search terms now often appears as their top driving term called, “not provided.”
Mobile Safari Passed No Referrer At All
A strange thing happened with mobile Safari users, when iOS 6 came out. It wasn’t just that search terms got stripped out. No referrer data at all was passed, the data that’s like a Caller ID for the Web. People on mobile Safari went into Google, did a search, but when they clicked on a result, they appeared to publishers as if they’d come directly to their sites — as if Google wasn’t involved at all.
As a result, publishers may see a dip in search traffic that’s not actually because search traffic has dropped but rather that it’s not being attributed correctly. In hindsight, I’m not sure that all the drop in search traffic that BuzzFeed complained about last month is because of misattribution. But, it’s a contributing factor.
Meet The Meta Referrer Tag
Why is mobile Safari acting so weird compared to other things like Firefox or Chrome that also use secure search but which don’t entirely strip out referrers? That’s where the meta referrer tag comes in.
In March 2012, Google made another change to how it handled reporting referrers. Rather than passing that information to browsers via its Web server, which had long been the standard practice, it began making use of the meta referrer tag, so that the page itself effectively has referrer data embedded in it. The page, not the Web server, reports the referrer, to my understanding.
That’s fine if browsers themselves support this. But not all do. As Stephen Merity wrote recently, Chrome and Safari do, while Firefox and Internet Explorer do not. As such, the latter may not report referrer traffic correctly from sites like Google, Facebook, Reddit and Hacker News.
Oddly, Firefox hasn’t seemed to have had the “strips all referrers” problem that mobile Safari has had, so I’m not sure if Merity’s assessment with Firefox is correct. I’ll be checking further on this, but it might be a temporary bug.
Mobile Safari Doesn’t Do Meta Referrer
As for Safari, desktop Safari handles meta referrer just fine, it seems. But mobile Safari doesn’t, it appears.
There are two ways this can be fixed. First, Google could go back to using a standard server-based solution to passing referrers. However, if it does that, then all referrers would be stripped if someone leaves Google’s secure search environment and goes to an unsecure publisher site, because that’s how the standard referrer process is supposed to work.
The other solution is that mobile Safari could support the meta referrer tag like its desktop cousin does. That’s what I’m hoping for.
As for Google and Apple, I did ask both about the situation, but neither had any comment.
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- Firefox 14 Now Encrypts Google Searches, But Search Terms Still Will “Leak” Out
- How An iOS 6 Change Makes It Seem Like Google Traffic From Safari Has Disappeared
- Google’s (Not Provided) Impacting More Than Just SEO Sites
- How “Not Provided” May Make BuzzFeed Think Google’s Search Traffic To News Sites Is Down
- Dark Google: One Year Since Search Terms Went “Not Provided”
- Study: 39% Of Google Search Referrers Now “Not Provided”
- Will [Not Provided] Ever Reach 100% In Web Analytics?
- How To Turn (Not Provided) Into Useful, Actionable Data