The Approaching Darkness: The Google Referral URL In 2016
Before Google announced in early 2012 that it was changing all searches to HTTPS, analytics companies and Internet marketing agencies enjoyed having the data that was passed from the Google referral URL when a user clicked on an organic result.
Here is an example of a Google referral URL:
Here is a list of the URL parameters that we would commonly see:
- hl = controls the interface language
- redir_esc = unknown
- sa = user search behavior
- rct = unknown; seems to be related to Google AdWords
- q = the query string (keyword) that the user searched
- oq = tracks the characters that were last typed into the search box before the user selected a suggested search term
- gs_l = unknown; seems to be related to what type of search is being done (i.e., mobile, serp, img, youtube, etc.)
- esrc = set to ‘s’ for secure search
- frm = unknown
- source = where the search originated (i.e., google.com, toolbar, etc.)
- v = unknown
- qsubts = unknown
- action = unknown
- ct = click location
- oi = unknown
- cd = ranking position of the search result that was clicked
- cad = unknown; appears to be a referrer, affiliate or client token
- sqi = unknown
- ved = contains information about the search result link that was clicked (see https://moz.com/blog/inside-googles-ved-parameter)
- url = the URL that Google will redirect the user to after a search result link is clicked
- ei = passes an alphanumeric parameter that decodes the originating SERP where user clicked on a related search
- usg = unknown; possibly handling the encrypted search string
- bvm = unknown; possibly a location tracker
- ie = input encoding (default: utf-8)
- oe = output encoding
- sig2 = unknown
The main use of this referral URL by analytics companies and Internet marketing agencies: tracking of sales leads, e-commerce revenue and other conversions back to the Google organic marketing source.
Tip: If you are one of the companies making use of the Google referral URL for tracking purposes, keep in mind that there is a long list of Google search domains to include in your tracking system. Also, don’t forget to include all of the other search engines into your organic marketing source bucket. Here is a huge list of search engines to consider when tracking SEO conversions.
Today, as the rollout of Google’s secure search continues, we are seeing Google referral URLs that look like this: https://www.google.com/. Those URLs no longer pass any of the parameters above.
To understand the progress of this change, we ran an analysis of over 50,000 sales leads that came from Google’s organic search results between May 2014 and February 2016. Below are the results from this study.
The Presence of HTTP vs. HTTPS in the Google Referral URL
As of February 2016, we are seeing that only 14.34 percent of referral URLs includes HTTP and 85.66 percent includes HTTPS.
The Presence of Parameters in the Google Referral URL
As of February 2016, we are seeing only 16.75 percent of referral URLs includes parameters and 83.25 percent does not include any parameters.
The Presence of the Query Parameter in the Google Referral URL
As of February 2016, we are seeing an empty value assigned to the query parameter in 15.26 percent of all referral URLs analyzed. We are also seeing that the query parameter still includes a keyword in 1.52 percent of referral URLs.
Based on this data, it looks like in the near future we’ll see all Google referral URLs running on HTTPS without any parameters.
Besides addressing privacy concerns, this is a move to keep Google’s data out of the hands of companies that can monetize the data or gain other competitive insights about Google’s search results.
We’ll soon be left with the lonely secure Google referral URL (https://www.google.com), and will be missing all of the interesting data that Google once provided through the referral URL parameters.
We can only hope that Google continues to improve the data that is available through Google Search Console.