Recent iOS 6 Update makes for an Additional Loss of Referrer Traffic
By: Strategy Team
With the September 2012 launch of the iPhone 5, Apple also included an update of their operating system, the iOS 6. One of the changes within the iOS 6 update is that many searches conducted from the Safari tool bar are automatically being routed through Google’s encryption protocol, SSL. Google’s introduction of SSL in 2011 negatively affected SEO programs by blocking the referring keyword from organic searches. Users who were signed into their Google account and came to a site through organic search automatically did not pass along important information, such as referring organic keywords. Marketers saw the rise of “unknown” or “keyword unavailable” stats within the site analytic packages as the share of people signed into their Google account and arriving at their sites via organic search rose.
For now, the iOS 6 update is only impacting the searches that occur within Safari’s browser search box and not searches conducted within Google itself. Note, so far, this change only applies to users who have Google as their default search engine for Safari. If a user has changed their default Safari search box to either Yahoo or Bing, referrer data is still captured for those searches. This is most likely because Yahoo and Bing do not have an encrypted search service that blocks referrers for Apple to use yet.
The iOS 6 update is not only limited to mobile devices, but also impacts search traffic coming from iPads as well. Although iPad users are not adopting the iOS 6 update quite as fast as iPhone users, almost half of all iPad 2 and “The New iPad” users already have the new operating system. A full list of the devices that the iOS 6 update may affect is shown in the graphic below:
Impact on SEO, Paid Programs, and Analytics
The one important takeaway for advertisers is that the Google SSL Search is not configured the same way for desktop and mobile browsers. In fact, the mobile version of SSL Search gives advertisers even less information as no referral data is passed at all. So while analytics for desktop users will still determine that a user came from search under an “unknown” keyword, mobile data will not show similar results.
Instead, it appears that iOS 6 is not passing along the referring channel for which the search is conducted from a mobile device for both paid and organic searches. For example, a search originating from the Safari toolbar is not registering as coming from Google but will appear as direct navigation within analytics’ browser reports. Marketers should assume that they will see a rise in iOS 6 direct navigation traffic and a decrease in organic and paid mobile traffic because of this change.
How dominant is Apple?
Despite the increasing discussion and heavy adoption rate of the iOS 6 update, Apple is still not the most dominant player in the Smartphone arena, according to a recent comScore study. In fact, Android is the leading Smartphone platform at 52.2% of market share, with the iOS platform as a close second. These statistics could be slightly encouraging to marketers, putting into perspective the significance of the iOS 6 update within the entire Smartphone arena.
Source: comScore MobiLens July-2011, U.S.
On the other hand, the landscape does look a lot different when it comes to tablet market share, with the iPad being the clear leader within the tablet device category. According to a recent comScore study, Apple led the operating system share of tablet device traffic at 90.4% with Android trailing at 9.1% of device traffic. The update will affect tablet device analytics much more drastically due to Apple’s dominance in the category.
Source: comScore Device Essentials, Dec-2011, U.S.
Workarounds, Updates, and Recommendations
It appears that Apple made the decision to encrypt searches from its Safari toolbar without any coordination from Google. Perhaps in a future update, Apple will at least allow for referring traffic to be recognized as coming from a search engine rather than through direct navigation. In terms of workarounds and communication, IMPAQT recommends the following steps:
- Alert stakeholders that the data will be incorrect in regards to the iOS 6 update. It should be expected that an unnatural decrease will occur for organic and paid mobile search traffic as well as a heavy increase in iOS 6’s share of direct navigation from mobile devices.
- Paid data from AdWords may not match analytics data if clicks from mobile are being reported as direct navigation. Again, it is important to raise this issue with agency partners and internal stakeholders.
- Marketers need to understand that for the immediate future a significant amount of search data for mobile might be lost. Utilizing a combination of modeling based off of current available keyword data, monitoring past keyword data trends, and understanding keyword ranking trends should offset some of the pain associated with Google and Apple’s decisions to further restrict referring data.