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Estimating the Impact of iOS 6 Organic Search Data Loss & Relabeling

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In mid-September, the iPhone 5 came out sporting the highly anticipated iOS 6 operating system. Since that time, running an iOS Direct Traffic and iOS Organic Traffic report will reveal something similar to what is shown below.

visits-ios-direct-organic-traffic

In iOS 6 Apple decided to default to Google’s secured search. One would think this change would mean more traffic showing up as Not Provided (Google Analytics) or Keyword Unavailable (Omniture), but this is not the case at all.

For queries done using Google SSL Mobile search, no referring data is passed. The end result being: the majority of iOS organic search gets bucketed as direct traffic, as shown in the image above. Since on average, 16 percent of organic traffic comes from iPhones, this can be a significant loss and relabeling of search query data.

Desktop vs. Mobile (iOS 6) SSL Search

This change iOS 6 brought by Apple choosing to use Google’s SSL search for iPhone users can easily be confused with the Desktop specific SSL search change. The same change that caused Not Provided to become the highest referring organic keyword for the majority of sites.

It’s important to keep these two different instances of keyword data loss separate. In Danny Sullivan’s post covering the iOS 6 effect on organic search, he breaks down the difference between Desktop and Mobile Google SSL secured searches in a similar fashion to the following:

  • Desktop SSL searches still pass referral data, but the keywords are stripped out by Google. If a searcher were to click a paid ad, Google still passes the keyword data.
  • Mobile SSL searches contain no referral data from paid or organic results and show up as direct in analytics.

In general, the data we're able to analyze starts from what is passed by search engines in the referral string. Larry Kim of WordStream does a great job of explaining the Not Provided refering string in detail using the following example.

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&ved=
0CF4QFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wordstream.com%2Fblog%2Fws%2F2011
%2F07%2F18%2Fmost-expensive-google-adwords-keywords&ei=WjhFT_yFGqW0iQKJ_u3aDg&usg=AFQjCNH6jAtufiEV9QQ4URJCPcqKj60iuA
&sig2=R881GkyXe-xIhCnCm6pxaQ

When a user clicks from a search engine result page, they pass the above URL including the bolded parameters that are passing values. These values can be used to identify the search query used and are what analytics parse to gather such information.

In particular, when looking above q (stands for query) parameter is blank. This is where the keywords searched are stored typically, but in this case it has been stripped by Google and will be bucketed as Not Provided or Keyword Unavailable.

For instances of SSL searches from users on Mobile devices no referring data as passed at all. With no data for an analytics platform to use, the visit is seen as direct visit.

Quantifying Implications

While there has not been a lot of data shared in the industry around this particular topic, Mark Ballard has provided some significant data driven insight in his article on missing iOS 6 Google referrers.

In it he shares that an average of 16 percent of organic search comes from iPhones or iPads. He then goes on to estimate further that around 7 percent of organic search is now showing as direct. These numbers are obviously going to change from site to site, but we’ve seen up to 12 percent of organic search affected by this issue.

To get a quick, general estimate of the amount this issue is affecting your site:

  • Identify the amount of organic search from users coming to the site using iPhones or iPads (operating system iOS) in August of 2012 (before iOS 6).
  • Apply 7 percent (according to Ballard's data)

As time passes and more Phone users upgrade from iOS 5 to iOS 6, these numbers will grow.

share-of-ios-traffic-by-version

Indeed, as difficult as it is to prove the value of SEO efforts, it will only get more difficult as we lose more and more query data to secure search.


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