Technical SEO

SEO: Yahoo’s New Secure Search Removes Referral Data

Yahoo has moved to secure search by default, effectively removing all referral data that indicates the source of the search and which keywords were searched for. The secure search update is part of Yahoo’s bigger push to encrypt all of its products by March 31, 2014.

As a result of the switch to secure search, organic search traffic formerly attributable to Yahoo in web analytics will now fall into the “Direct” channel with no keyword referral information attached, unless the site receiving the visit is also secure.

When Google implemented secure search, the referring site data was left intact, enabling marketers to identify that the visit was referred by Google as a natural search visit. Google only stripped the referring keyword data, resulting in a dramatic increase in keyword “(not provided)” data in natural search reports in all web analytics packages.

Visits from Yahoo Search Unknown

By contrast, Yahoo hasn’t even left the referring site data intact, unless the destination site is also secure. Most marketers should see Yahoo visits and conversions drop, and direct visits increase.

For example, if someone searches Yahoo for “picture frame” and clicks the non-secure Amazon product page in position one, Amazon’s web analytics will now register it as a direct visit rather than a natural search visit, and no keyword referral data will be passed. However, if the searcher clicks through multiple pages of results and clicks on Kodak Pulse, which is hosed on a secure server at, then Kodak’s web analytics would register it as a visit to the natural search channel from Yahoo with a referring keyword of “picture frame.”

Bing may soon join Google and Yahoo in defaulting to secure search. Currently searchers can opt in to secure search in Bing, though it’s not yet the default as it is with Google and Yahoo. Bing’s secure search appears to work the same was as Yahoo’s, though, so when Bing makes secure search the default we’ll see the same data loss issue.

For marketers, secure search in browsers, on mobile devices, and on search engines brings us even closer to the 100 percent keyword (not provided) mark — that point at which no keyword referral data is available for analysis in web analytics tools.

For years we’ve used keyword referral data to measure performance of search engine optimization efforts. Matching natural search landing page data with the keywords that referred visitors to that landing page has been the preferred method of determining whether that page is optimized well for the targeted keyword.

For marketers, secure search in browsers, on mobile devices, and on search engines brings us even closer to the 100 percent keyword (not provided) mark — that point at which no keyword referral data is available for analysis in web analytics tools.

In lieu of natural search keyword referral data, pay-per-click and Google Webmaster Tools data offer next-best options for making data-based SEO decisions in a 100 percent keyword (not provided) world.

Webmaster Tools Keyword Reports

Until this month, Google Webmaster Tools’ Top Queries report has rounded or bucketed together keyword data for similar terms. For example, your report most likely contained a surprising number of impressions and visits in the even tens or hundreds, rather than 371 here and 83 there. A couple of weeks ago, Google announced that it would discontinue this practice, making its Webmaster Tools reports more accurate and one of the only place to get Google keyword referral data.

Data is available for a rolling 90-day period, so any data before October 24, 2013, is lost to you as of the publishing of this article. The same is true of its sister report, the Top Pages report. Make a habit of exporting the data from both monthly with your regular SEO reporting cycle so you’ll never be without it.

Bing Webmaster Tools also provides insight into impressions and visits on both Bing and Yahoo. Bing offers many of the same features as Google Webmaster Tools, plus “Index Explorer,” “SEO Analyzer” and a keyword research tool of its own.

Is it safe to trust the data in the engines’ own webmaster tools? As with any data source, the data must be taken with a grain of salt. With Google’s history of fudging data the SEO industry relies upon to make optimization decisions, I’d add another grain of salt. However, when previously relied-upon data sources like web analytics are closed to us, we need to adapt to use the data sources that are still available.

PPC Keyword Data for SEO

Pay-per-click referral data will only identify which keywords receive the most visits from paid search. Never forget that. It’s entirely possible that a keyword phrase that performs well in paid search will lag in natural search because paid search has more levers to pull to influence placement, like match types and bid amounts. However, if visibility into natural search performance is lacking, paid search data can provide some insight.

Consider pairing ranking data for organic search keywords with visit and conversion data from paid search to see which high-performing paid keywords are lagging in SEO. For example, a strongly converting PPC term that’s ranking at the bottom of page 1 or on page 2 would be a good target for further optimization for that phrase. Align the specific page that drives PPC traffic with the page that’s ranking or you may end up optimizing the wrong page.

Google also offers a paid and organic report within AdWords, enabling a side-by-side look at impressions and keyword referrals for paid and organic data. The organic data comes from Google Webmaster Tools, so all this report does is make it easier to analyze the two side by side. I’ve addressed the report here previously, and how to activate it in AdWords, at “Google Offers Paid and Organic Search Report.”

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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