For a moment, let’s pretend it’s February 2019. Your children are at school. You feel the breeze on your chin. You don’t yet understand the terms social distancing or flattening the curve. COVID-19 is nonexistent! Though it feels like it’s been a lifetime since then, in reality it was just 18 months ago. And for those of us who follow SEO trends, something important happened back in February 2019: Apple announced an update to its Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) privacy feature for the web browser Safari. Several months later, unbeknownst to many people, ITP 2.1 began to impact analytics. So if you’ve noticed a drop in your organic search traffic in Google Analytics, ITP 2.1 may be to blame.
But why is ITP 2.1 impacting organic traffic reporting? And how can you determine the extent of its interference?
According to Brainlabs, the drop in organic search traffic in Google Analytics caused by ITP 2.1 has not been insignificant. In fact, some have reported a 20-percent reduction in their organic traffic since the Safari update. Before we explore why this has happened, let’s review the basics of ITP 2.1.
What Is ITP 2.1?
Perhaps you’re unimpressed with this. After all, Safari is just one web browser. However, don’t underestimate the prevalence of Safari, which is pre-installed by default on all iPhones, iPads, and iMacs. In addition, Brainlabs notes that popular browser alternatives like Chrome and Firefox “are generally following in Apple’s slipstream on this.”
UPDATE 9/21/20: At Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference, held in late June, it was announced that ITP 2.1 will affect any browser installed in iOS and iPadOS, such as Firefox, Chrome, etc. However, it will not affect browsers installed in MacOS; on computers, it will only affect Safari.
How ITP 2.1 Impacts Organic Traffic Analytics
First, it’s important to recognize that ITP 2.1 is not causing your website to have less organic search traffic. Your users’ behavior hasn’t changed. (Take a look at Google Search Console for reassurance if you like.) ITP 2.1 changed your analytics data.
To make sense of this, we need to discuss the attribution model used by Google Analytics.
The Last Non-Direct Attribution Model
An attribution model is a “rule, or set of rules, that determines how credit for sales and conversions is assigned to touchpoints in conversion paths.” Some web analytics platforms, like Google Analytics, use an attribution model called Last Non-Direct by default. In the Last Non-Direct attribution model, the system doesn’t grant any attribution to the direct channel (when someone types your domain name directly into their search bar). Instead, direct sessions are attributed to the last non-direct channel.
How long is the campaign timeout duration? By default, Google Analytics sets campaign timeout duration (which determines how long Google Analytics should associate sessions and conversions for a unique user) to six months. Yes, that is an insanely long time. And while you can alter the campaign timeout duration, few users take the time to do so.
So let’s time-travel again. It’s 2018 and you’re searching for dentists in your area using Google. You click on Dr. Smith’s website through the results page (making this an organic session). You scroll through the page a bit, but then you close the browser. Six months go by. As you’re flossing your teeth one morning, you recall that you still need to find a new dentist. You remember Dr. Smith’s website, and you type the web address directly into the search bar of your browser (making this a direct session). Google Analytics doesn’t attribute this second session to the direct channel. Instead, because you visited the site “recently” through a different channel, it attributes this new session to the previous channel, i.e., organic.
If you’re wondering why Google Analytics uses this Last Non-Direct attribution nonsense, you’re not alone. The reasoning is that sometimes “direct” sessions are misattributed. For example, if you organically find a site, close your browser, return to your computer a few hours later, and type in the web address, the second session is arguably a continuation of your previous session. For this and other reasons (which we won’t dwell on now), Google prefers to attribute direct sessions to the previous channel.
How ITP 2.1 Rocked the Boat
So before the introduction of ITP 2.1, due to the Last Non-Direct attribution model, a large amount of “direct” sessions were attributed to organic channels. If users returned to a site directly within six months of accessing it organically, the session was classified as organic. Now, with ITP 2.1 impacting the operation of the Last Non-Direct attribution model, far fewer of these sessions are considered organic because they must occur within seven days to do so.
As you might have guessed, the early expiration of first-party cookies has had other repercussions as well. Most notably, more users are being classified as “new” in Google Analytics (rather than “returning”).
How Can I Determine the Extent of ITP 2.1’s Interference?
Some websites have seen a dramatic difference since the introduction of ITP 2.1, while others have barely noticed the change. Two factors will impact your experience: (1) how many of your site’s visitors browse on Safari and (2) how many of your site’s visitors are returning via a direct channel after seven days. That may sound complicated, but you’re really just wanting to know the difference between your analytics pre-ITP 2.1 (when the loopback window was six months) and post-ITP 2.1 (when the loopback window is seven days) – and you can do this using the “Model Comparison Tool” in Google Analytics. To learn how to do this, check out Brainlabs’s guide.
Is It True That the Latest Version of Safari Blocks Google Analytics?
Nope. Check out Simo Ahava’s analysis to learn more, but basically this rumor began due to poor wording on Apple’s part. No versions of Safari will block Google Analytics from loading and running on your website.
Especially if you’re very focused on tracking long-term organic conversions or sessions, it’s important that you understand ITP 2.1’s impact on organic search traffic. You don’t need to make any serious changes, but you may wish to adjust your key performance indicators (KPIs). Other major browsers, like Chrome and Firefox, are expected to follow in Safari’s footsteps, so keep an eye on them as well.
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