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April 15, 2009

Google Search Prepares for Switching to Ajax

In February, many people noticed that Google tested a new interface for search results. The test didn't include any new feature and Google even loaded the standard search results page to display the results. An unfortunate side-effect of the new format was that Google didn't load a new page to display the results and browsers didn't send proper referrals when clicking on search results.

"A major update that Google is testing has completely broken the ability for any external analytics service like Clicky to determine the search query used by a visitor arriving at your web site. (...) If this update goes live for everyone, it effectively means that 2/3 of all searches leading to the average web site will be a complete mystery," explained Clicky's blog.

Here's Google's explanation from March: the Ajax-enhanced pages were tested on a small number of users and this change could make Google's SERPS faster and smoother.

To solve the problem, Google will use a gateway URL for all search results.
Starting this week, you may start seeing a new referring URL format for visitors coming from Google search result pages. Up to now, the usual referrer for clicks on search results for the term "flowers", for example, would be something like this:

Now you will start seeing some referrer strings that look like this:

Niall Kennedy suggests that "Google is likely making this change to better track search actions and shield URL parameters from sites downstream", but I think this is a solution for the lack of referral information in a future Ajax interface.

Google is already using gateway URLs for users that are logged in: just copy the address of a Google search result and you'll notice that it's just a redirect which sends Google some details about your actions.


  1. Whether the sites which depend on Google search results are providing useful services to either the user or to website owners is beside the point. The fact is that these companies are parasites. As such, they have no justification for being upset when Google makes a change that interferes with the parasites' ability to leech off Google.

    Rather like someone protesting against the pharmaceutical industry on behalf of bacteria affected be a new antibiotic....

  2. @steeleweed:
    Clicky is a web analytics service, much like Google Analytics (it's not free, thought). If Google loads the results using Ajax, URLs look like and browsers send as a referral Site owners can no longer monitor the list of keywords that people use to find the site and that's not a good thing.

  3. @steeleweed: With website owners, what you said doesn't make any sense. They need to know what kinds of queries lead people to their pages, and Google is the one that finds their content useful, not the other way around. Google search would be useless without the content that makes up their search results.

  4. Alex,

    Two points you missed in the article (mostly because Google chose not to reveal or discuss them). First, the way they are retaining the referrer is not through the /url itself, but rather where it is sending you. You actually wind up visiting an interim page when you click on one of the links in the serps. That page is nothing but a Javascript redirect which then contains the original q=keyword in the parameter. They have been using the /url redirects for a while now, but they were using a 302 redirect which passes on the original page as the referrer (which in the case of the AJAX generated serps lost the q= param).

    The second thing that they didn't let on about is that they are actually *cloaking* these new urls from the general public. If you have your status bar enabled, and mouse over the serps, you will see the normal destination page that you expect to see. It is not until you actually click on the url itself (or right click and copy) that the destination appears.

    You have to kind of wonder why exactly it is that they feel it necessary to hide that, ya know?

  5. Who's the kid behind the screen? ;-)

  6. Alex:
    I understand that "Site owners can no longer monitor the list of keywords that people use to find the site and that's not a good thing."
    My point is that if a website is depending on Google - or any other search engine - to determine what search terms bring in viewers, they are relying on something that was provided for free, just via the mechanism that was in place. Changing the mechanism may well mean that free information is no longer available. I see their disappointment but don't think Google is necessarily obligated to cater to their needs. Google's primary obligation is to those who search, not to the targets of the search.

  7. steeleweed:

    You are correct that google has no obligation to provide the search terms that brought in viewers. However, these terms are the basis for creating a successful adwords campaign. Google does benefit from providing the information. Taking away that info will lead to more trial and error testing of adwords which in turn will lead site owners to pull back on many of their bids.

  8. very interesting story, this could break a lot of analytics software

  9. "It is not until you actually click on the url itself (or right click and copy) that the destination appears."

    Yes, and as a user that is what is most annoying! I regularly want to copy URLs, to paste them in my scrapbook etc and they've made it a real pain!

  10. I find the 'steeleweed' comments rather absurd.
    Google is only offering some free Services to trap Webmasters into the paid Sectors of Google.
    In effect Google has hijacked the Web from the ideas of Tim Berners-Lee and his Consortium.

    For Webmasters it is essential that when analyzing Stats Webmasters and Designers can see the Search Term that brought a visitor to the Landing Page.

    If you want to analyze the Search Source you simply copy the URL and replace:


    This will give you the Search Page Results but is a real pain for Webmasters though.