Ever wondered why the biggest German-speaking business network Xing sends you almost no or no traffic at all? It might not only be Xing. As Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and an increasing number of other websites, Xing runs on the secure HTTPS protocol. And that can mean trouble for the referrer data in your Web Analytics tool.
The good old HTTP referrer is getting less and less reliable. Reasons include:
- The multitude of ways other than traditional links you can arrive at a page. For example, think of mobile, desktop or browser apps.
- Google Analytics discriminates against “normal” referrers by treating them as less important than search engine or campaign links when a user’s source changes during a visit. I say “discriminates”, but there are probably some good reasons for that.
- The “new” (well, from 2009) HTML link attribute “rel=’noreferrer'” which allows websites to not leak any referrer information when following the link.
- The increase in sites using HTTPS. When a link goes from an HTTPS to a HTTP site, by default no referrer is transmitted. This can be a major problem, especially with important sites running on HTTPS, like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Xing, the largest business network in the German-speaking world. The whole “keyword not provided” debate when using Google in HTTPS is a related, but different discussion.
If you’re using “untagged” links (no utm_source and the like), all four cases will mostly lead to “direct traffic” in your Web Analytics tool.
I will dig deeper here into that fourth point because a lot of web analysts are not aware of this. And when web analytics tutorials on analyzing your sources discuss referrers, this topic barely if ever comes up. Google Analytics’ Conversion University doesn’t touch it in its Google Analytics Tutorials. Even Avinash Kaushik added this issue only after a user suggested it in his post on “making love to your direct traffic“.
Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are not a problem
To ease your heartbeat a little, HTTPS is not an issue with Facebook, Twitter or Google+. All these networks seem to want to show other websites that they are generating traffic for them (they should!). All channel their links through a non-HTTPS page that serves as an intermediator (Google+: plus.google.com?url=…, Facebook: facebook.com/l.php?u=…, Twitter: t.co/…). That way, the referrer gets sent along. Make sure to add the “t.co” source to your Twitter segment, by the way.
Intermediate pages also make surfing easier
This intermediate page has other reasons, of course: It makes surfing safer and more private. Firstly, Twitter & Co. can thus prevent you from moving to a spammy or infected site (yet, also sites they might want to censor). Secondly, Twitter & Co. can cloak the original referring URL so the destination website can’t see that someone clicked on a friends-only link on someone’s Facebook page (“facebook.com/john.doe” is not the most private of URLs).
See this example for a link to webanalyticsworld.net on Facebook:
Facebook even rewrites links in email notifications this way. So if someone sends me a link via a Facebook message and I click on that link in my email notification without going to my Facebook inbox first, the referrer will still be facebook.com. That way, Facebook makes sure the rest of the web gets a complete picture of Facebook’s share of their traffic.
Xing, and other https pages, are problematic
Still, there are https sites like Xing that don’t use intermediate pages. Yet, they may generate a lot of “organic” traffic for you, that is, traffic you didn’t provoke yourself like when people send each other links to your site or post them in their status updates. In that case, there is hardly any way you can figure out Xing’s impact for your website via Google Analytics if your own website doesn’t run on HTTP.
GA Chrome Debugger Screenshot 1 : Xing (HTTPS) link to HTTP page. Referrer = “-“, Campaign Source = “direct”
Screenshot 2: Xing (HTTPS) link to HTTPS page. Referrer gets transferred, Campaign Source = “xing”
LinkedIn, by the way, runs almost entirely on HTTP (the settings page is on HTTPS) and has a similar rewriting mechanism like Facebook and Google+. So no need to worry here.
So what does all this mean for you?
1. Does your website run on HTTPS?
a) Good for you, because you need not worry about not seeing the referral traffic in your web analytics tool, as traffic from https to https preserves the referrer.
b) Bad for you, because other non-HTTPS websites you’re linking to might not realize how much traffic they get from you. Try a solution like Facebook’s to ensure that other sites see your impact.
2. Does your website run on HTTP?
- Tag all the links you can influence with the utm campaign parameters.
Check out Google’s basic guide and Lunametrics’ Dorcas Alexander’s suggestions for a good tagging hierarchy.
- Add default campaign parameters when providing “share” links through a widget in an article or product.
Example: Add “utm_source=share&utm_medium=shared-referral&utm_campaign=share_this-url” to the links if someone uses your share widget. You might want to have the links shortened automatically in the process via the bit.ly API or your own tool so they don’t get so long.
If you are really nifty, you can even provide different parameters depending on which sharing option someone clicked on (“share-email”, “share-twitter” or “share-xing” for example).
- If possible, switch to HTTPS.
I know this is not easy because there are so many other problems associated with HTTPS. For example, a lot of external tracking scripts or widgets, like Google’s on-site search (how ironic!), do not support HTTPS and create ugly browser errors (Internet Explorer 8 shows a popup warning on every page for example). We switched back to HTTP on our website because of these problems last October.