As we eagerly await the release of iOS 7 I though it appropriate to have a deeper look into the issue SEOs have faced with iOS 6 over the past year, so that we are fully prepared about what, or what not to expect with Apple’s latest release.
If, like us, your site or sites have over 25% of their traffic coming from mobiles, and one day the biggest device on the market releases a new operating system that decides not to pass on ANY information about the users coming to your site, you may be interested in finding out a little more about what has happened!
Take a minute to digest the graph above. The data was taken from a real site over from Jun-12 to May-13.
The top trend line represents average visits to the site across all segments: organic, PPC, direct & referrals. You can see that it remains flat with a seasonal dip. Total iOS traffic in green is trending up, meaning the number of people visiting the site via iPads and iPhones is increasing.
The bottom two lines are where it gets interesting. We can see a clear drop in organic traffic from iOS operating systems and a distinct increase in direct traffic from the iOS devices starting from the launch of iOS 6 on the 19th of September 2012.
Not being able to see where traffic comes from has obvious implications in affectively aligning one’s site with the right traffic.
There has been quite a lot of debate about what it is that’s causing this issue since it came to light quickly after the dust settled following the launch of the iOS 6 operating system back in September 2012. However, now the cause is fairly common knowledge and the best way to understand it is to learn a little bit about how Google works, starting by learning about how it deals with URLs.
You can learn a huge amount about how the web works from understanding URLs, but for this purpose I just want to show you how analytics programs track the search terms used to find a site.
Below you can see in the address bar a simple query Google is sending to the server containing the terms blue+jeans.
It is this information that can be passed by the browser to analytics programs when a site loads. However, with the introduction of Google secure search (SSL), which is now being widely adopted as default across many browsers, as well as in Google if the user is signed in to their Google account, the search terms in the referral information is not passed. Instead it is encrypted for privacy reasons. You can read more about this situation here.
This is causing the growing number of (‘Not Provided’) visits in analytics. However, critically with Safari browsers on iOS 6 operating systems no referral information, regarding where the visitor has come from, is being passed at all!
Technically speaking, Google played a part in this too. Early in the summer of 2012 they changed the way the referrer information was passed when users search via SSL by making use of the Meta referrer tag; instead of passing the URL string with encrypted keywords, it does not pass the URL at all, only the Meta referral tag. Read more about this here. Google did this for one reason. Speed. Users searching via SSL have shorter latency because no longer is their an additional redirect to encrypt the URL.
So, essentially speaking, Safari, running on iOS 6, does not support this referrer Meta tag now being used by Google. Therefore we can no longer see where visitors have come from because not only are they searching via SSL, which strips the keywords, the referral Meta tag is not supported either.
However much of a nightmare this situation may be for marketers and engineers everywhere, Google and Apple have had their horns locked since the start so it’s best to assume that there will be no quick fix to this cat and mouse situation. We will hold our breath for the iOS 7 launch which is due in a month or so. So what have we been doing about it!?
So how can we get around this situation? Firstly, we needed to look back at data before the problem started.
If you have had analytics running on your site since before the iOS 6 launch happened in September 2012 then you will be able to find out what the relationship was between iOS organic traffic and iOS direct traffic. If we can find out what this relationship is as a percentage then we can apply it to the sum of the iOS Organic and iOS Direct traffic after the changes took place to find out what the real values should be.
Find the ‘correct % of iOS direct traffic’ from a period before the problem started. If possible set data parameters in Analytics from June 18th 2012 – September 18th 2012. Filter the traffic to solve the following formula.
= iOS Direct Traffic / (iOS Organic Traffic + iOS Direct Traffic)
Apply the ‘correct % of iOS direct traffic’ to the sum of iOS direct & iOS organic traffic from a period of your choice anytime after the 19th of September 2012.
= (iOS Organic + iOS Direct) x ‘Correct % of iOS Direct Traffic’
This gives us the sum of the ‘real amount of direct traffic’ from the problem period. To find the recovered iOS organic traffic subtract this ‘real amount of direct traffic’ from the direct traffic.
Direct Traffic – Real Direct Traffic = Recovered iOS Organic Traffic