What You Need to Know About the Missing Referrer Data in iOS 6

What You Need to Know About the Missing Referrer Data in iOS 6 image iosWhat You Need to Know About the Missing Referrer Data in iOS 6Since its release in September 2012, there has been a lot of discussion about the missing referrer data from visitors using iOS 6 in Safari when performing a Google search. Most search marketers are used to browsers implementing Google Secure Search, but what has happened in the latest release of Apple’s iOS is not what we have come to expect as the standard secure search for most desktop browsers. In part one of this two part post, we will review the basics of what is causing the issue, what data is missing, and how it affects keyword level call tracking with Ifbyphone.

First, a little bit about Google Secure Search

Secure search on desktop browsers came to be as a way for Google to offer its users more privacy when searching on the web. It works by sending users to an SSL version of Google (https://google.com). At first you needed to be signed in with a Gmail or Google Apps account in Google’s Chrome browser in order to take advantage of this secure search feature, but now other browsers like Firefox and the desktop version of Safari give you similar options either by default or via a setting in the browser’s preferences.

Google’s description:

“Under most circumstances, when you use https://www.google.com your search terms are encrypted and are excluded from the referrer headers that are part of the request sent to the result site you visit. The landing site will still receive information that you are coming from Google, but not the query that was issued”

As an online marketer or webmaster, traditional Google Secure Search means that you will be missing the search query, or keyword, that the visitor searched to get to your website in Google Analytics. However, this privacy only extends to organic visitors; visitors from paid search (PPC) will still have their keyword searches tracked.

How does the iOS 6/Safari issue differ from the secure search we are used to?

When using Safari or Spotlight search in iOS 6 with Google as your default search engine, a user’s referring keyword data is stripped out in very much the same way as it is with Secure Search described above. There is one major glitch, however: the secure version of Google (https://google.com) that users are sent to is not meant to handle mobile traffic. So when a mobile visitor is sent to this secure version of Google ­(which is what happens by default now on Safari in iOS 6),­ all of the referrer data is stripped out. This means organic and referring traffic from iOS 6 Safari is viewed as direct traffic to your website. So you not only lose the search query, but the source and medium as well.

Google explained to Search Engine Land in this post titled How An iOS 6 Change Makes It Seem Like Google Traffic From Safari Has Disappeared:

“If you go to google.com on most mobile web browsers today, you don’t get SSL. Currently there’s significantly more latency for SSL connections on mobile devices that we believe creates a poor user experience, so we’re looking into the best way to make HTTPS connections faster on mobile devices. That’s why we don’t yet show personal results on mobile, either. For now, SSL Search on desktop continues to be a leader for offering more secure searches, which other major search engines don’t offer in any form.

For the web browser on iOS 6 with SSL on by default, our web servers don’t yet take that fact into account. We’re investigating different options to address this issue.”

Why would Apple force all users that search with Google in iOS 6 to use an SSL version of Google that was not meant to properly handle mobile traffic? Privacy. At least that is the assumption. There is no downside to the user in this respect. They will still get the same Google results they always have. Apple just made available to iOS 6 users the same privacy options that they offer on the desktop version of Safari. However, there is obviously an impact on marketers and web masters who use the data in Google Analytics to optimize their marketing campaigns and websites.

How does this missing referrer data change my call tracking?

First of all, Ifbyphone will still track the fact that your business received a new phone lead and will still process the call as usual. Ifbyphone’s keyword level call tracking is impacted in much the same way as your standard analytics data. Because there is no referrer info being passed from the Google searches on iOS 6 Safari, SourceTrak identifies only organic/referral visits as direct visits. This means where you would normally display a dynamic tracking number to a visitor to capture their search query and referring domain, you are displaying your direct visitor or main number. In the case of paid search visits, SourceTrak will continue to display the correct pooled tracking number but the keyword will not be tracked in the SourceTrak reporting. And as always, you will still be able to view keyword level call tracking data in Analytics and Adwords for paid visits if you are using auto-tagging. It’s important to note that if your site uses SSL then all of the referring data will be passed through, as it should. Organic visitors will see a dynamic number and have their search queries tracked.

So what happens next?

Part two of this post will outline in detail a work-around we at Ifbyphone have developed to help lessen the sting of this missing traffic data. We will also explore some other landing page best practices you can use to further enhance the data you capture. More importantly, this work-around can help you attribute calls (even from iOS 6 Safari) to the proper marketing medium. So be sure to stay tuned for part two, or you can subscribe to our blog and get notified automatically when it’s posted.

In the meantime, let us know how do you feel about the level of user privacy Google offers today. Do you have any additional thoughts or comments? Drop them in the comments section below.

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