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Referrers Missing for Over 80% of iOS 6 Google Searches: The Impact to Paid Search and SEO

Apple released its iOS 6 mobile operating system just over a month ago and adoption has been brisk over the ensuing weeks.  Mirroring results recently released by the online ad network Chitika, an RKG analysis finds that 61% of iOS traffic is coming from users of the latest version of Apple's mobile OS: While record sales of the iPhone 5 have helped drive the iOS 6 surge, more importantly, users of older iOS devices, like the third generation iPad and the iPhone 4 and 4S, are upgrading at rates not seen in the more fractured Android ecosystem.

The Loss of Referrer Data

The trouble for marketers, and anyone else who relies heavily on accurate web analytics, is that the move to iOS 6 ushered in a significant data gap for Google searches.  As Search Engine Land pointed out, based on a report by Ryan Jones, the Safari search box for iOS 6 now defaults to Google's Secure SSL search, which fails to pass referrer information from a secure connection to an unsecure one. This is how the SSL standard is supposed to work, but for secure desktop searches, Google has employed a method that still provides the full referring URL on paid listings and a referrer stripped of the search query for organic listings.  The desktop scenario is what has led to over a quarter of Google organic search queries being recorded as (not provided) in Google Analytics following Google's move to default to its secure option for logged-in users.  While this has made the job of an SEO more difficult, there are some workarounds to recapture the lost query data, and the (not provided) visits are still properly attributed to the organic channel. Without a similar scheme in place for mobile searches, however, no referrer is passed for either the paid or organic listings.  For paid search, the impact is fairly minimal.  Advertisers will not see the raw search query that triggered their ad, but they can still tie the traffic back to their individual keywords.  Google still properly serves ads based on the user's device and correctly attributes the clicks to AdWords.  Search query data is valuable to advertisers, particularly for keyword research and build-outs, but it is not as important for assessing a program's progress as it is for SEO.

Many Organic Visits Now Appearing as Direct

For SEO, the change with iOS 6 means that a significant and increasing number of organic search visits are being inaccurately classified as direct site visits due to the missing referrer information.  Importantly, this isn't the only scenario in which a referrer may not get passed -- certainly a mobile user could have chosen to use Google's secure search on their own accord, prior to the release of iOS 6. But, to date, occurrences of referrers not being passed have been exceedingly rare.  Here's how iOS 6 stacks up in that respect to other device types, including earlier versions of iOS:

Note: these numbers are based off of Google paid search listings where we can still make the connection to Google search without the referrer.

We are finding that referrers are not being passed for 82% of iOS 6 searches, compared to about 6% for all versions of Android and around 3% for desktop and older versions of iOS.  The referrers we still see for 18% of iOS 6 searches are likely from searches conducted on the Google site directly or in other browsers, rather than through the Safari search box. In our Q3 Digital Marketing Report, we found that iOS generated an average 16% of organic search traffic.  Doing some rough calculations with that figure and the numbers above suggests that an additional 7% of organic search traffic is currently being improperly attributed as direct because of the iOS 6 change. Within a year, not only will we expect iOS 6 to be on about 90% of iOS devices - as we saw with iOS 5 before the newer version was released -- we should expect the entire iOS pie to be larger as the growth of mobile browsing continues.  At this time next year we could be seeing somewhere on the order of 13-15% of organic search traffic vanishing into the direct visit bucket. That is, unless Google decides to bring its mobile secure search in line with desktop and begin passing a referrer stripped of the search query.  We know Google has some love for the white hat SEOs of the world, and more importantly, for accurate and actionable data.  Personally, I'd be surprised if a change isn't rolled out before the next iPhone is.
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