Google Change Breaks Third-Party Analytics Tools

By Josh Catone
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A couple of days ago blogger Michael VanDeMar wrote that Google appeared to be testing AJAX search in the US. VanDeMar noticed that URL of his Google queries switched from the familiar “/search?=” to “/search?#=” The # is a visual cue of a “page change” for the user, and allows the browser’s back and forward buttons to make AJAX calls.

After VanDeMar’s post a lot of people speculated what the ramifications of Google AJAX search might be. From breaking Firefox plugins, to causing search rank checkers to need rewriting, to at least temporarily stopping automated SERP scrapers. But those all pale in comparison to the broader implication that VanDeMar discovered this week. Google going AJAX means that any external analytics package will be unable to read the search queries used by visitors to get to your site (at least from Google — which, of course, is where most search traffic comes from).

Analytics packages get search query information by reading the text of the referral URL that browsers send to servers to tell them how you arrived on that page. The reason Google’s AJAX search breaks this is that browsers don’t send any information after the # hash mark. This isn’t something that analytics packages can create a workaround for — the only way to change it would be to rewrite at the browser level — and it affects log based analytics software the same as it does JavaScript based.

For now, it even affects Google’s own Analytics package, which is showing referrals from Google AJAX searches as coming from google.com. But makers of analytics software are understandably worried. “If this update goes live for everyone, it effectively means that 2/3 of all searches leading to the average web site will be a complete mystery. This is huge,” writes third-party analytics provider Clicky on their blog.

Why would Google make such a change? Well, one possibility is that the test is just a test and won’t go live to everyone. The reason you test before a system wide change is to understand the consequences of the change. Another reason, however, as Clicky suggests, could be more “evil.” Google Analytics is broken just like any other analytics package right now, but maybe not forever.

“Of course, I’d be willing to bet that somehow, Google Analytics will still be able to get the search terms,” writes Clicky. “I can see it now: ‘Oh, sorry, we broke Clicky? No worries guys! Come use Google Analytics, and everything will be fine! Oh, we completely destroyed all our competitors in the process? Whoops!'”

Search blogger Peter Da Vanzo has hit upon a similar line of thinking. He suggests that Google might be gearing up to lock web site owners into Google Analytics if they want complete search referral information. He reminds us that Google has done something similar once before.

“Remember the changes to Adsense? Google introduced a new form of tracking code that can’t be tracked by third party tools. However, that data is available within Google Analytics,” he writes in a blog post on SEOBook.

A Google spokesperson said today that the experiment was just an experiment and only visible for some users. The goal, says Google, is to make search faster for users and that breaking referrer tracking was not their intention. “It is not our intention to disrupt referrer tracking, and we are continuing to iterate on this project,” said the spokesperson.

We shall see.

What are you thoughts? Google being evil or tempest in a teapot? Let us know in the comments.

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