I search for “e-fellows” in Google and click on the first result, a link to “www.e-fellows.net“. What should the traffic source be in Google Analytics? “google | organic”, and the keyword should be “e-fellows” or at least “not provided”. At least that’s what you would expect.
Maybe you have wondered why Chrome sends you less and less branded keyword traffic recently? “That is probably because of the ever more increasing ‘keyword not provided’ traffic”, you might answer. But then why do the other browsers not follow this trend?
Graphic: Branded keyword traffic from Chrome (blue) vs. other browsers (orange)
First and foremost, it is because Google has rolled out “secure search” (leading to “keyword: not provided) when you are logged into Chrome and use the Omnibox (which most people do for searching) over the last months. But there is also another reason for that.
Basics: How does your Analytics tool get the keyword?
Referrer with keyword parameter: The old world before “not provided”
In the old ideal world before “not provided” keywords, I searched for “e-fellows stipendium” on Google (the scholarship that e-fellows.net offers), I clicked on the first result, and then, on the landing page, by using my referrer bookmarklet, I could see that the referrer is this beautiful long url:
http://www.google.de/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=e-fellows%20stipendium&source=web&cd=...and so on...
But of course, nowadays, you only rarely get the chance to view this kind of a referrer from Google because of the “keyword – not provided” phenomenon. It was even hard to find a place where I could still use Google’s non-secure search to provide you with this “keyword-in-the-referrer” example (using IE 10 and clearing cookies and cache did the job). As we have learnt just recently, Google has expanded secure search even to users that are not signed in. This will make it hard to discover the phenomenon I am describing here because you simply won’t have any more visible “branded keyword traffic” at all.
The referrer in times of “keyword not provided”
So what has happened to the referrer when we see “not provided” in our Analytics tool’s keyword reports?
The referrer, in this case, varies from browser to browser:
- In Chrome, it is simply “https://www.google.ch” (or .com, whatever Google site you use).
- In Firefox and Internet Explorer 10, you get http://www.google.ch/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s…etc. => Note there is a q= parameter, but there is no value behind it.
In this case, your tracking code still knows that a visit from “google.ch” must be an organic search visit. But since there is either no query parameter “q=” (Chrome) or the query parameter’s value is empty (Firefox, IE), the tracking code cannot extract a keyword. So it infers that the keyword was “not provided”. Subsequently, it fills its keyword parameter with “not provided”, “keyword not found” (Webtrends) or whatever its creator foresaw for this case. It then sends this info to the Web Analytics tool servers with its usual gif request (see the coloured highlight in the following example of a Google Analytics gif request for a pageview):
Now, the “keyword not provided” issue is nothing new, you may say. And you’re right. I just want to make sure we understand the ideal world of theory before we dive into the ugly, complicated reality.
Some referrers nowadays: no referrer, no keyword
So I delete my cookies on e-fellows.net (make sure you do this, too, if you want to replicate my scenarios) and search for “e-fellows stipendium” in Chrome’s Omnibox again. I land on Google’s secure search results page again. Again, I click on the first result and land on www.e-fellows.net. There, I click on my referrer bookmarklet and see this:
No referrer! Or should we call it “referrer not provided”? 🙂 What kind of traffic source will our tracking code infer in this case? Correct, “direct traffic”. No “google | organic”, simply “direct | none”, no keyword.
At first, I was completely puzzled by this. My first thought was that Chrome’s Omnibox search may not return a referrer anymore at all. But then, I tried searching for another keyword: “Karrierenetzwerk” (career network), a keyword where e-fellows.net ranks highly, but also a search term that contains no keywords that are part of e-fellows.net’s domain name (like our earlier keyword “e-fellows stipendium”). Result:
So here, we get the referrer again.
What can we conclude from this?
This means that if someone searches for a keyword that looks similar to the domain (even in a combination with another keyword like “stipendium”) in Chrome’s Omnibox, Google does not give us the referrer => direct traffic in our Analytics tools! For other keywords, it does give us the referrer, so we can at least rejoice in another visit of the “keyword not provided” type.
I call this phenomenon the “Chrome Omnibox Domain Keyword”. Because it only seems to happen in Chrome’s Omnibox. If I go to google.ch in Chrome directly and search for “e-fellows stipendium” there, I get the regular phenomenon (no keyword, but google.ch as the referrer).
Hold on! It is not that easy!
Of course, it is not as simple as I have described it. First, it does not work with all the domains I have tested (so check for yours), but I could replicate the behavior with several other sites (If you are a frequent GA user, search for “Google Analytics” for example, and look for the referrer – it does not work all the time!). I also seem to get a different result if I am logged into my Google account. It seems probable that Google does not want to make visits look like search visits when I have been to a site before and when I use a keyword similar to a domain name. Again, no general rule here, but certainly a strong tendency – just look at the disappearing branded search traffic graph above again!
Why would Google do this?
Google is harming itself here, you may say. Why would Google not show a legitimate visit from its search engine as a visit coming from its search engine? I can only guess, but here are two possible explanations:
- If someone types something similar to a domain name into the Omnibox and has been to that site before, then you might argue that this is not a real “search” visit. The user just used the Omnibox as a quick navigational help to get to his good old favorite website. So it could be seen as a logical step to count these visits as “direct traffic” since you can compare this “search” behavior to clicking on a bookmark.
- Marketing people are mostly interested in how their paid campaigns perform – and Google earns its money through paid campaigns (ads). Even in the time of multi-touch analysis (“Multi-Channel Funnels” in GA), most GA Conversion Reports are still based on the “last click”. That means that every new traffic source overrides the previous traffic source. Only direct traffic does not! So by counting domain-keyword traffic as “direct traffic”, more ads may get a conversion attributed to themselves. Take this typical scenario for example:
- Someone originally comes to your site through a click on an ad somewhere. Google Analytics Traffic Source / Medium will be “MyAdnetwork | cpc”.
- The user becomes interested in your products, remembers your site’s name, but does not buy anything. The next day he comes back, but he just types your site’s name in his Omnibox, then clicks on the search result to your site and buys a gold mine for 2 billion dollars from your online shop.
- In the old world, Google Organic Search would get the credit for this monstrous conversion. In the new world of the Omniboxes, this second visit is “direct traffic” (in most cases) and the credit goes to your ad.
Have you discovered a similar trend on your site?
Has your site experienced a similar decline of branded search traffic from Chrome users? And do you have an idea what could be the exact logic behind this? Because as I wrote, it does not work in 100% of the cases and not with all domains. Maybe you know more and can chime in in the comments section? Thank you!