February 4th, 2009

How Google's AJAX-powered search tests affect your website tracking

by sage island

You probably use Google Analytics or another search tracking tool on your website (and if you don’t, you should). What makes these applications so powerful for SEO is their ability to show exactly how potential customers are finding your site — especially when it comes to keywords.

If you regularly monitor your analytics, you’re able to see exactly what keywords users are typing into search engines to find your website. This information is extremely useful from an SEO perspective, because it tells you whether you’re optimizing for the right keywords. It also helps measure the success of an optimization by showing whether the keywords you’ve used to optimize your site are actually drawing in traffic.

Google recently began testing a new search interface powered by AJAX. What you need to know is that this could wreak havoc on the ability to track keyword searches with an analytics tracking tool.

You already may have started noticing referral traffic from “Google.com.” This is caused by the way the AJAX interface handles searches. In the past, the URL in your navigation bar after a search looked like this:

google-search-without-ajax

Analytics tools are able to fish the keywords out of that search to show you what keywords your visitors are searching for in order to find your site.

If your search is being affected by the AJAX testing, your URL after searching will look like this:

ajax-google-search

The difference is in the “#” symbol after the word “search.” It’s called a hashtag, and analytics tools are unable to read search terms after the hashtag. Instead of specifying which keywords were used in the search, they list the referral from “Google.com,” which means you lose valuable data about the keywords.

According to a statement from Google, this is only a test, and they “have no intention to disrupt referrer tracking.” This isn’t a permanent switch — yet. However, if you regularly monitor your site’s analytics and keywords, your referrer tracking may already be disrupted by these tests.