Google has started testing using Ajax to power their search. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is for those who care about web analytics. Why? It completely breaks the way web analytics tools tracks keywords from Google.
If someone searched for this blog on Google in the past, the search string would look like this:
Today, it looks like this:
Notice the difference? The second one uses a hashtag (#) instead of the more familiar “search?.” The problem lies in the fact that nothing after the hashtag is passed through to the analytics tool, so your referrals look like they’re from http://www.google.com instead of the actual search string. This also means that there are no search keywords associated with it. Not good. How do we know how users are searching on Google to find us?
From what I’ve read, this is just a test, but who knows how long it will go on?
According to today’s post on the Clicky blog, this isn’t happening across the board yet. Go to Google right now and search on a keyword. See if it’s happened on your end yet.
What does this mean for us, though? A lot, unfortunately. Since almost 75% of our natural search traffic is from Google, this will be a big deal.
Here’s a quick screen shot from this search traffic this morning. It’s already affected our results:
Not only that, through the Clicky blog, I read this post on Smackdown and it spelled out other implications. According to Smackdown:
… this would affect Firefox plugins that existed (definitely some existing ones would stop working), break some of the rank checking tools out there (they would have to be re-written I’m sure), and even some people asking if it would thwart serps scrapers from using serps for auto page generation (not for long, no).
While those things would definitely be affected in at least the short term, there is a much greater impact from Google switching to AJAX.
All of the issues mentioned involve a very small subset of the webmastering community. What actually breaks if Google makes this switchover, and is in fact broken during any testing they are doing, is much more widespread. Every single analytics package that currently exists, at least as far as being able to track what keywords were searched on to find your site in Google, would no longer function correctly.
So, the issue is with browser not passing through the variable (because they don’t store it), not with the analytics software not being able to capture it.
Update 2: Google finally responds. It states that this is a test, but it doesn’t state how long the test will run for nor do they address the implications for web analytics tools.
The ironic part for me is that they mention the change is going to improve the user experience, which is great. In doing so, however, Google may be hindering other websites from improving their user experience. Referring keywords is one big way to help improve the relevance of your own website (thus improving the user experience on your site).