Back in early February Google did a little test. It decided to test an AJAX SERP. This meant Google sent natural search result traffic to sites without any passing identifying parameters except the top-level domain google.com. Message Boards and Blogs lit up immediately. They stopped the test (to 10% of traffic) quickly but in March seemed to try it again. Two weeks ago, Google followed-up with announced change of URL parameters. Some good and some bad. This week Google again seems to be rolling out AJAX SERPs this time more extensively for Firefox users. Something is happening here.
It has become clear that we are all Google’s Mr. Jones. The Google Mothership seems to be leaving and we can choose to get onboard for the data ride (Google Analytics would likely still be able to capture queries and the like) or we can live in a netherworld of insufficient data. With some sites getting 50% or more of their traffic from Google natural search not using GA in this scenario relegates them to a sort of third world of data and renders their subscription-based analytics platforms limp.
There is no question in my mind that Google owns this referrer data though I have heard it argued otherwise from the analytics vendors. The click action takes place in the Google domain and though the link data is generated from publisher content, publishers are under no obligation to have their sites indexed. There is also no question to its value. Huge. It is worth mentioning that much of the URL shorteners now driving an ever growing amount of web traffic pass even less useful referrer parameters to the linked sites.
This is Google's nuclear option to the world of web data. The fallout will be an analytic winter for many. The face of the analytics, SEO, online publishing, testing, targeting and even the public markets will all change. Does the very fact that Google has so much data leverage mean they are likely to use it to their advantage at some point? Would it be so bad to live in a world of (free) GA? They have made great strides with segmentation and continue to add data visualization. Of course there are plenty of reasons ethical, historical and rational that Google must leave their URL passable and parseable. It appears now less likely than ever to happen.