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Implications of Google’s HTTP Referrer changes

In an endeavor to further improve to surfacing of search query data through Webmaster Tools, Google has unveiled another change.  For browsers with the requisite support, the search engine will be utilizing the ‘referrer’ meta tag for automatically simplifying the referring URL sent by the browser while visiting a page that is linked from any organic search result. The company claims this will lead to faster results and a far more streamlined experience for its users.

Referrers are actually a sort of Caller ID for browsers. They tell a site where someone arrived at it from. For instance, if one clicks on a link from one webpage to check the next, the page one was on gets passed along as referrer information, which can be seen making use of web analytics tools. This is sometimes known as ‘referer’ information.

Search versus referral traffic

If you check the traffic breakdown from Google Analytics to any business site or a personal blog, you will notice that a large portion of traffic to it is from search, users who carried out recognized search to arrive at the site. Google Analytics might not know the actual terms for many of these visits, though it can classify actual searches.

Some part of the site traffic is from referrals, or users who click on a link from a site leading to another, whereas small percentage of traffic is direct in nature, people either who come to it sans any referrer info being reported or those who type in the URL of one of the webpages into their web browsers.

Coming back the change to come into from April, Google claims that protecting privacy of users is their biggest priority, driving the recent changes, apart from helping search engine users save time during search. Google Search will be using a new proposal to cut down latency while a Google’s SSL-search user clicks on a result with a modern browser like Chrome.  And what does this imply for websites, which draw a large number of clicks from Google search results? An official blog post mentions:

“You may start to see “origin” referrers—Google’s homepages – as a source of organic SSL search traffic. This change will only affect the subset of SSL search referrers which already didn’t include the query terms. Non-HTTPS referrals will continue to behave as they do today. Again, the primary motivation for this change is to remove an unneeded redirect so that signed-in users reach their destination faster.“

With the change, Google Analytics would treat some of your search visits as referral visits. The part of search traffic would then begin to drop, even though your search traffic would potentially be increasing. Google states there is no reason to worry as Analytics will count clicks correctly. According to it, the meta referrer standard are going to be used that will let it select the origin and still send a referrer from https search results to http sites (sans going through a redirect on the http host). Google Analytics will also be adjusting for this change, and is reaching out to other analytics vendors to inform them about this. The change will happen for those making use of Google Chrome, as it’s the only browser supporting the meta referrer tags.

And it’s not like the search engine is going to stop the actual click tracking it does. Everything that you click on will still get redirected, causing a small delay. What the meta referrer tag only means is that those the Chrome browser users will pass along a much shorter URL for where they arrived from, Google has clarified.