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Google's Secure Search Obscures Google Analytics Reports

Today Google announced a secure search page using SSL to encrypt data being sent back and forth during a search. This prevents other people from seeing what you are searching for on Google, although it doesn't change anything about what information Google stores.

One startling implication of this new technology is what it does to Google Analytics reports. In short, searches done from the secure search page will be tracked as direct visits (instead of google searches) in Google Analytics — and every other web analytics software. Even the keyword data is lost.

This is because of a built-in security feature in all browsers. When you click an external link from a secure site, the referrer information is not sent in the HTTP header. This means that no information from the secure site can be inadvertently passed in the open to another site. It also means that the referring source gets clouded from any kind of web analytics software.

There is no fix for this right now because it's a function of the browser's own rules. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and what the response will be from the wider web analytics community.

Paid search is impacted by this in the same way, unless auto-tagging is enabled or campaign variables are in the destination URL. In this case, referrer information isn't consulted anyway.

For Google's part, the secure search site is in beta right now. There is no telling whether it will become the new default or if it will go away altogether. If Google searches use SSL by default, will other search engines follow suit? In that worst case scenario, there would be no way to track organic traffic from any search engine.