Earlier this month Google announced that they were starting to give priority to secure websites in their search results. Any website that uses HTTPS will now have a (slightly) better chance of ranking higher than normal HTTP sites. At the moment they are only giving these sites a very marginal advantage as it’s only a minor part of their algorithm, but this looks set to become more of a ranking factor over time.
In theory this is a smart move by Google. The thinking behind it is that HTTPS sites are more likely to be genuine, legitimate websites and therefore be better quality results for user’s searches. There are arguments against it, mainly that simply having a secure certificate for your site doesn’t automatically make it legitimate. There’s also some scepticism about Google’s suggestion that HTTPS should be everywhere by default.
Another big issue could be that this change in approach could lead to inexperienced website owners setting up their secure certificates when they don’t really know how to. This may cause issues with their sites losing rankings in the search engines and might even lead to people breaking their websites completely. My main concern though is that HTTPS sites are robbing us of valuable analytics data!
How is HTTPS a problem for Analytics?
It’s important for website owners to see where their traffic comes from. This helps us see how well our marketing activity is working as well as giving us some insight into the type of users who are on our sites. This can also give us the opportunity to personalise their experience based on where they’ve come from. As things stand, by default, Google Analytics will show referrals from HTTPS websites as Direct traffic. This means that we’re losing valuable information about where our users are coming from. If you combine this with the fact that more and more sites are now likely to use HTTPS then this could become a real problem for analytics data.
To give an example, we recently had a study of ours posted on Econsultancy. This article has been quite popular and has been one of their trending blog posts since it went live on Monday. However, despite having a link to our site we can’t see any visitors who have come via Econsultancy in our analytics account.
It’s possible that nobody clicked through to our site from the Econsultancy article, but a look at our Direct traffic that landed on the homepage suggests otherwise:
So, in our case, we are left guessing how many people came to our site from the Econsultancy article, and it’s even less clear what these people did on our site and if any of them went on to contact us or subscribe to our newsletter.
Is there a way around this?
As a website owner there’s nothing you can do to get this data back. As a fairly extreme measure though you can move your own site to HTTPS, as referral data is passed between HTTPS sites, this will then ensure that you get that data in the future.
There are actions that can be taken by HTTPS site owners to ensure that their referral data gets passed on. This article explains is it a lot of detail but in essence owners of HTTPS websites can use a metatag to ensure that the useful referral data is passed on.
With Google determined to encourage website owners to switch to HTTPS there could be a big drop in the amount of website referral data available in your analytics. If you’re thinking of switching to HTTPS then please be kind and use meta tags to allow the referral data to be passed on. You may see benefits from this too as then people you’re linking too will be able to see how many visitors you’re sending their way and may want to post/advertise on your site again in the future.