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Reveal Hidden Google Visits To Improve Your SEO Reports

Chris Marsh

By Chris Marsh
May 17, 2013   

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As SEOs, one of your goals is likely to be increasing your visibility in Search Engines, with a goal to increase your Organic Search Visits. Did you know, since September 2012 (after Apple launched iOS6) up to 80% of your Organic Search Visits from iOS 6 will be missing and lumped into Direct visits. This means your SEO reports aren’t showing a true reflection of all your hard work!

When you make a Google search via the search box in the default iPad or iPhone (iOS6+) Safari browser and click a result in the SERP, the referral data doesn’t go through to Google Analytics. The referral data gets scrubbed away (lost) and the search visit is logged as a Direct visit.

In this article we’ll look into the problem and then reveal three solutions.  You may want to jump to the section: How to Reclaim Your Lost Visits.


Why are 80% visits miss-labelled, what about the rest?

It turns out this problem only exists when using the search box within the phone’s stock browser, the Safari browser sends visits over secured search (explained further on). Studies have shown that over large data sets, 80% of searches are being made via this route. The rest may be made via the Google web page, or a third party browser.

The Problem Gets Bigger! It turns out, this is also happening on Android devices that are running OS 4+.

SEOs have found this lost traffic could account for up to 15% of your total Organic SEO visits. Those visits are being miss-labelled as Direct.

Why is this happening?

A secure search happens when logged into a Google Service, or when using a browser that forces your searches to be over secured search. When you search via secured search, and click on a search result, Google scrubbs away your search phrase data and then sends the remaining referral data to Google Analytics. So the visit will appear in Google Analytics as an Organic Search Visit with search keyword “not-provided”.

Now, this works all well and good for most instances, but it isn’t working on stock web browsers for iOS6+ and Android 4+. For these instances, Google currently incorrectly handles the process and removes all referral data – causing the visit to wrongly appear as a Direct visit within Google Analytics. So, your hard earned organic SEO visits are being miss-labelled as Direct.

Google Admit Bug In Their Response

Google told Search Engine Land:

“The web browser on iOS 6 switched to use SSL by default and our web servers don’t yet take that fact into account. Searching still works fine, but in some situations the HTTP referer header isn’t passed on to the destination page. We’re investigating different options to address this issue.”


How to Reclaim Your Lost Visits

If you’d like to re-claim these lost organic visits, there’s some well documented methods which we’ll look at.

Solution One: Ask Us To Do It For You

If you’re a busy SEO who spends too many hours creating reports, find out how Trackpal can automate custom SEO reports for you!

If you’d like to include the lost SEO visits data in your reports, just ask us about our custom reports. If you’d like to show the updated figure, we’d suggest displaying the metric within an Appendix tab.

If you create your own reports, or would just like to understand the methods we can use, then please read on!..

Solution Two: AJ Kohn’s – Using Historical Data That Didn’t Contain Lost Visits

With AJ Kohn’s method we set up advanced segments to show multiple months’ iOS 6 traffic from before the change to then find direct traffic as a percentage of the sum of direct + organic. Then we apply the proper direct traffic percentage to this – showing the actual amount of direct traffic.  Then we subtract that from the reported direct traffic and we find the lost search traffic visits.

The formula is:

Note: “none” is the label Google Analytics uses for Direct Traffic.

Thoughts on AJ Kohn’s methodThere are two important considerations with this method:

  1. Direct Traffic changes from PR, branding or seasonality: This method will work assuming that iOS 6 direct traffic remains the same onwards as it did from the historical period we used to find our percentage of direct traffic. If direct traffic changes over seasons, or a difference in PR/branding strategies have been in place, then the percentage used from previous months may not be an accurate figure for the formula.
  2. Secondly, sites with low traffic numbers may not have enough of a data set of iOS 6 traffic to draw an accurate figure when we acquire the percentage split. To find out if this is the case for your site, you can run the process over different months to see how much your percentage deviates over different periods of time.

Solution Three: Our Pick – An Accurate and Easy Method By RKG.

Using RKG’s method, we do not need to take into account historical data. We simply use the iOS 6 lost Google Organic referral data rate (80%) to re-calculate our new referral figures.  We know that 80% is missing, and only 20% of the iOS 6 Google Organic data is left, we take the amount of iOS 6 visits recorded for Google Organic searches and multiply it by 5 to get the estimated true figure.

To first obtain the number of iOS 6 visits that were correctly recorded for Google organic search, use this custom report:

Google Analytics settings to use

Click to enlarge and view the settings

The formula is:

(1/(1 – % iOS 6 Search Traffic Without Referrer))
(Number of Recorded iOS 6 Google Organic Visits)
Actual iOS6 Google Organic Visits

To calculate only the amount of Google Organic visits hidden by iOS 6 we subtract the recorded visits from the figure found above.

Thoughts on RKG’s method

Using this method, our calculations will not be affected by direct traffic changes like AJ Kohn’s method. The figures will be based however, on iOS6 users behavior remaining the same. This method relies on the ratio of searches (on iOS6) going through the ‘Faulty’ Safari Search Box verses alternative searches to remain the same. We believe this will remain static – due to the initial figure being drawn from a large data set and coupled with the fact that there would be no reason for a change of user behavior on iOS.

Final Thoughts

Displaying these lost visits will increase the accuracy of your Organic Search Visits metric, but how about the Organic Conversions and Organic Revenue? These will also be affected. If business decisions are made upon this data, then it would be very wise to run calculations over them to see how affected they are by this issue.

If you don’t have time for all this reporting work, try our automated SEO reporting tool and enjoy spending your time on the more fruitful SEO tasks.

Chris Marsh
Author: Chris Marsh

Product Owner @Trackpal: interested in lovable products, digital marketing, data visualisation, automation and useful reporting.

  • Tommy Redmond

    Good news – Search Engine Land is reporting that iOS 7 fixes this issue.