WTF! Where’s my Google Analytics Referral Data?


Remember back in the day when Google said it was going to start putting some weight behind sites that were secure? Well, they’ve done that and the internet world has begun implementing https websites from sea to shining sea. (Cue the America the Beautiful. ) We’re all for secure websites and we’ve started moving clients in that direction.

One major (another musical reference) problem with the move is that we’re losing one of the most valuable tools in the Google Analytic arsenal: Referrals.

It turns out that secure websites ( will not send referral data to non-secure websites ( Traffic will show up in the Referral Traffic report as Direct.

In the Wild

Recently, Discover Banff Tours (a client from our neighbor to the north) contacted us to determine why there was an increase in direct traffic.

We took a look at their referral traffic and saw a sharp decrease in sessions generated by their top referrer. We compared June 2016 to June 2015. There was a 95% decrease in traffic from (their top referral).


During the same time period there was an increase in direct traffic.


It turns out switch their site from http to https in December, which caused all referral traffic to disappear.


What’s Happening?

You ask: I’m still seeing referral data in my reports, so what gives?

Answer: There’s only one instance (currently) when you will not receive referral data.

  • http to http – Referral data sent
  • http to https – Referral data sent
  • https to https – Referral data sent
  • https to http – No referral data sent

Secure websites that link to non-secure websites will not send referral data. We’ve tested and proven this.

You chime in again: Wait a second. I’m seeing referral data being sent from secure website to our non-secure domain. Why is it working there?

Answer: The meta referrer tag.

Introducing the Meta Referrer Tag

The meta referrer tag restores our faith in humanity and allows referral data to be passed from an https to an http website.

<meta name="referrer" content="always" />

But there are a couple of issues with this:

  1. This tag is only supported in a handful of browsers at the moment
  2. It’s out of your control – Your secure referrers need to add this tag to their website

What’s Next?

Over time, web developers will implement the meta referrer tag, which will allow referral data to flow from https to http websites. And as more and more websites become secure, this will become less of an issue. But for the time being, know that any significant increase in direct traffic or drop in referral traffic could be related to this.

Banff & Banff National Park

If you love nature, you should definitely checkout Alberta’s Rockies. We still can’t believe our friends in Banff scored to highlight their extraordinary horseback riding adventures. If water is more your thing, Chinook Rafting is where you want to be.

And yep, we've added the meta tag to this site, so that when you click on the Banff links above, the referrer will show up as '' in the Google Analytics reporting!