Mystery Solved: Why Mobile Safari Searchers Appear To Come “Direct” To Sites Rather Than Via Google


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.

Not quite.

google-not-provided-200pxGoogle 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.

Related Stories

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


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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  • Sele

    Does this affect any affiliate marketin? My income has go down at least 50% since the iOS6 was released.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Potentially, if your affiliate codes were being passed through meta referrer, then this would prevent that from happening.

  • Michael Martin

    Here is a decent workaround for iOS6+ organic “not provided” traffic –

  • Michael Martinez

    Now if only someone would turn off SLURP over at Yahoo!.

  • Jon

    How was this discovered? Not sure the article mentions

  • David Watts

    This is HUGE for me! Made my day, week, month. Huge present of increased SEO traffic and sales. :)

  • Sele

    Thanks! I´m using Zanox in germany.

  • laulaujones

    Thanks for posting this! Luna Metrics posted something similar on this
    topic a while back here:
    but your explanation is superb. Makes explaining the issue to clients simpler.

  • Stu Bowker

    I’ve done some tests and found that Google’s use of meta referrer is specific to the browser. It’s not present in the source code of the firefox or IE version but is in Chrome (desktop and iOS) regardless of being signed in or not. This means that the referral data is still passed through as normal.

    For some reason it’s not applying the same logic to mobile Safari. Grrr!

  • Helena

    Great research – keep us posted on the updates, as there surely will be. This has effected many of our clients!

  • Danny Sullivan

    Interesting, thanks!

  • tedives

    Presumably one effect of this behavior is that webmasters would think that they are getting less traffic from mobile Apple devices than they really are…

    …thus making them less likely to working on optimizing their site for mobile Apple devices.

    Coincidence theorists should be having a field day with this!

  • Mags

    FINALLY a large article on that! Thank you!
    I’ve been explaining it to the business for some time. It is very challenging especially if you manage a massive site, which is visited mostly my young people! They all have iphones, ipads etc. and I am losing a massive portion of SEO whilst ‘Direct’ is growing ‘unnaturally’.

  • Pat Grady

    And most don’t. Where I have seen it, is in some in-house (non-network) shops, as well as some hand rolled jobs. Most drop a cookie, even many of those who use URL and/or referrer data.

  • Pat Grady

    Little known Dutch secret, wooden shoes turn apples into applesauce.

  • Nebosh Course in UAE

    i bookmark this post, this is very useful. thanks, a lot.

  • Gene McKenna

    Data I have says that something changed in this recently, about July 29/30 I have a big drop in “Direct” traffic from Safari mobile and an equivalent rise at same time in SEO from Safari mobile.

  • Gene McKenna

    I am not the only one seeing that Safari may now be reporting SEO correctly.

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