Live search apparently blocking referrer information

NOTE: As of approx. Sept. 22, 2006, this issue had been resolved. Live Search is now sending referrer information to Web servers.

Microsoft has taken Live Search out of beta. It apparently has all kinds of promise, but here’s the weird thing: It reportedly is not passing referrer information to Web servers. This is apparently a bug and not a feature. Let’s hope so.

Until MSFT fixes it, it’s worth speculating on why Live Search might not pass referrers, because maybe it’s not a bug. Right now, based on what I can find, I would classify the “it’s a bug not a feature” response an unconfirmed rumor. There is no offical MSFT announcement or discussion that I can find.

It could be that MSFT has suddenly become concerned about protecting user privacy. In the wake of the AOL search database scandal, maybe MSFT wants to do its part to protect the aggregating of personal search data. This doesn’t seem plausible from a couple of perspectives, but we might as well consider it.

A more plausible explanation is that if Live Search doesn’t show in referrer logs, then SEO specialists will find it hard to optimize for Live Search. This is bad for legitimate SEO, but potentially good for a search engine, because black hat SEO will find it harder to figure out the secret sauce of the search and implement exploits. Organic search results, then, should contain less spam or even questionably relevant results.

The decision may also be tied to Live Search’s “text mining” algorithm, with the goal of making it harder to suss out how text mining works from search strings passed through a referrer. I don’t know.

If this feature sticks (again, speculating that it’s not a bug), it’s going to make life much harder on metrics analysis. We won’t be able to figure out what percentage of traffic is coming from Live Search — in fact, it will put referrers way out of whack because the part of the pie chart that reads “other” just got a whole lot bigger. That other slice used to be pretty reliably a mix of e-mailed links, bookmarks and people who use anti-spyware software to block referrers, which in aggregate is a good portion of the referrer pie; however, in in most cases, you could figure a good portion of that traffic was bookmarks or people who type in addresses — in other words, people who made up a substantial part of your loyal audience. Now you’ve got this search engine that is going to be sending you a significant amount of traffic (most of it drive-by and not loyal) getting batched in with bookmarks. This doesn’t help a traffic log system that is already imperfect and jumbled.

We should all bow our heads and pray that this is a bug, and a bug that will get fixed quickly. It’s possible, even, that if it is a bug, it will be fixed by the time you read this. If you hear anything, let me know.

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