Search Referrers in a Privacy Minded World

Matt Crowley - October 2, 2012

Shortly after the iPhone 5 release and the iOS6 software update, it was discovered that the default browser (Safari) uses Google’s Secure Search. This means that any keywords being searched for on the iOS6 platform will not be available to those who use Google Analytics to track organic traffic data. This keyword is known as a search referrer. If your website garners a lot of organic mobile traffic, this can be a very daunting issue. No longer will you be able to see what a user typed into their iPhone in order to find your website, if they are using iOS6 and Safari.

For the time being, the issue with Safari is not a big one. However, it speaks to a much larger issue that is steaming full force ahead. This is the line being drawn between privacy and data on the internet. Marketers and business owners are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about who visits their websites. This data is often pulled through site usage and Google search data. Searchers increasingly want more privacy, and business owners want to understand their online users and customers better.

Google is also taking an increasingly conservative view on the stance of search privacy. They are creating more and more scenarios in which a searcher’s keyword can not be tracked in Google Analytics. If a user is signed in to any Google account or they are using a Google Secure Search enabled browser, then their search referrer will not be passed to the website’s Google Analytics account. However, Google garners a vast majority of their revenue from AdWords advertising. They have decided to allow search referrer data to be passed through clicks on AdWords advertisements.

This creates a bit of a paradox. On the one hand Google wants to be more privacy oriented and not pass as much data to website owners who are using their services. On the other hand, if the website owner is paying Google to advertise on their search engine it is acceptable.

It is a two sided battle between website owners who want to cater to their users better and website visitors who want to retain more privacy. No matter your view, many search engines and browsers are beginning to look into privacy protection more seriously. It is becoming increasingly important to use multiple sources to understand your website’s user rather than relying solely on the keyword that brought them to the website in the first place.

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