On September 19, Apple released the latest version of its mobile operating system. Along with upgrades and changes to Siri, FaceTime, and the App Store among others, one significant change to Apple’s web browser, Safari, seems to have gone largely unnoticed.
Safari functions the same way as any other mobile web browser, letting you access and find websites like you would through Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, or Google Chrome. The difference, however, comes when you use Safari to access a search engine such as Bing, Yahoo, or Google.
Google vs. Apple
Before we get to the change that has been made to Safari, some attention must be paid to the feud between Google and Apple. A feud that has seen Google Maps and the Google-owned YouTube app no longer being supported by Apple in iOS 6. YouTube has been ousted completely while the Maps app has gone from being Google-sourced to pulling data from Apple’s own in-house database.
Another interesting element, whether intentional or a strange coincidence, comes when you use Safari to search through Google. Typically, search terms used in Google are tracked and that referral data is sent to publishers, giving marketers and businesses a little insight into how users find their site. Selling certain search terms is one of the ways Google makes money. Only now, the iOS 6 version of Safari routes searches through an encrypted version of Google, resulting in no search term data being passed on.
Some may argue that Apple is trying to protect consumers and their search habits; though there are several problems with this argument. While Google already offers an encrypted version of its search, this has never been the default version used with mobile access. Accessing Google through Safari on an Apple laptop or desktop still takes you to the un-encrypted, default Google search page. And accessing Bing or Yahoo on your mobile phone still passes on search data like normal.
What Does This Mean?
Aside from Google making money, knowing the search terms that bring users to a particular site is essential for designing an effective marketing plan. Mobile strategies in particular can hinge around Apple and its users. Based on RKG’s Digital Marketing Report, 29 percent of mobile, organic search traffic worldwide comes from the iPhone. Combined with iOS 6 and Safari on the iPad and iPod touch, this percentage jumps to 75 percent.
On the paid search side, paid search can only be worth it if one knows how relevant the terms are. And, obviously, it becomes difficult to understand the effectiveness of a search term if no data exists to analyze it. Once again, while encrypted searches do exist, search engine marketing depends on the fact that the vast majority of Internet searches are not encrypted. Even Google’s SSL search – which blocks third-party eavesdropping for a signed-in user’s search – still allows for referral data from paid search terms. This new block by Apple, however, is such a large chuck of now-missing referral data, Google may be forced to make its other search offerings less secure to compensate.
Companies and marketers rely on this information, and regardless of what Google or Apple does in the future, the unfortunate truth is that data analysis is being affected as you read this. As of July 2012, according to Time Magazine and Qualcomm, an average of five mobile searches are made per user per day. And according to the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, as of June 2012, there were roughly 320 million cellphones in the United States. Even without doing the math, one can imagine that losing the data from Google-searching iPhone users leaves marketers at a huge disadvantage when planning a marketing strategy.
So what are marketers to do? Do they use the data from September 19 onward and risk misallocating the information? Or do they disregard the data altogether and try to use the past as an indicator of the present? The unfortunate truth is that there is no real answer. Simply put, missing information is missing information. Strategizing around this information gap becomes more about adapting rather than fixing the problem as the solution lies outside the hands of marketers. Unfortunately, we are just going to have to wait and see if Apple fixes the data-gap problem, either through pressure from Google and/or advertisers. Regardless, if your mobile search data is suddenly askew, don’t panic. Blame iOS 6.
Mobile Traffic image on home page via Shutterstock.