Google search referer changes

Google will roll out a change to its search results pages later this week designed to better capture outbound clicks. Google search result pages will link to a gateway URL before delivering the visitor to his final destination. These gateway URLs will replace search result URLs exposed via the Referer HTTP header. Google announced the new gateway page on its Google Analytics blog, giving webmasters a few days to prepare for the change.

What is changing?

The Referer path for Google search results will change from /search to /url. It is still not clear which URL parameters from the search page will be passed through the gateway. The search term, q, is still preserved inside the sample URL provided by the Google Analytics blog.

Before
http://www.google[.sld].tld/search
After
http://www.google[.sld].tld/url

Scripts, plugins, and helpers replying on a set Referer path for content highlighting or targeting will need to adjust their code as Google’s change spreads throughout their data centers worldwide.

Why the change?

Google is likely making this change to better track search actions and shield URL parameters from sites downstream. Gateway URLs dependably capture click data and reformat the information passed along to external sites.

Search engines evaluate customer satisfaction based partly on outbound click behavior. Searchers who consistently click on the third search result may be sending Google a signal about that content’s authority for a search term and therefore influencing the ranking algorithms. Traditionally such an action would be measured with a JavaScript onclick event added to the link to pass a signal back to the search engine’s servers before taking the searcher to his destination. JavaScript tracking does not work on all clients, including clients accessing search results with JavaScript turned off (e.g. through Google’s APIs or a feature phone).

The search result page includes detailed information needed by Google to deliver the best possible result. A search might include a location from a GPS sensor, social context drawn from a group or custom search engine parameter, or other sources of questionable exposure. Google will only expose a few relevant parameters in URLs included in a web browser’s Referer headers.

Summary

The way your website interprets traffic from one of its top providers will change later this week. You will need to adjust scripts and check for updates to analytics software where appropriate. If you notice a huge drop in measured search referrals from Google don’t panic. Just make sure you are measuring the correct actions.

2 comments

Commentary on "Google search referer changes":

  1. Mark Jaquith on wrote:

    Please oh please don’t let this break right-click, “Copy Link.” They broke that with their last experiment in gateway tracking URLs (if you were signed in to Google).

  2. Wendy on wrote:

    Hi Niall – Just a note that we miss your posts. Hope all is well and looking forward to hearing from you.