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Clicking a link on a search engine's results page will take you to the site listed, but often through a not-so-obvious path. I'll explain.

I notice that when I click a search result in Google UK, I don't get taken straight to the target page, such as targetpage.com. Instead, I get taken to http://www.google.co.uk/url?url=http://www.targetpage.com and thence, auto-redirected to the target page. The most irritating thing about this is that the browser Back button doesn't work as expected. You have to click it twice to jump to the intermediate page and get back to the search results. I noticed this in IE9. I did a quick check in Firefox or with google.com (as opposed to google.co.uk) - and perhaps I should say that I don't _see_ it in those cases. What's happening and can I stop it?

I'm pretty sure that you're simply not noticing it on the other domain or in the other browser, or that the technique being used there is different.

There are actually several different approaches to what's happening here, but ultimately, there's a legitimate reason why Google does this and I'm not aware of a way to disable it.

I'll review some of the techniques and the reasons why they exist.

Before I start, I want to point out that while I'll use Google (and as you'll see, Starbucks) in my examples below, what I'll be discussing applies pretty much to any search engine and any search result.

In the abstract

I'm going to side-step the specific site issue (Google UK versus Google U.S.) primarily because I don't know why they would be different. However, I do know that Google is constantly changing things and they've been known to roll out changes at different times to different locales.

"Redirection of search results clicks is Google's way of collecting information that they then use to improve the results of future searches."

It might all be different depending on whether you're logged into your Google account, which browser you're using and a raft of other things that Google pays attention to as it tries to get you the best results for your search query.

And, ultimately, that's what it's all about: Google trying to get you the best search results that it can.

Transparent redirection

Let's start with a simple search in Google using Internet Explorer 9 for the word "coffee". My number one result is, naturally, Starbucks:

Starbucks in Google search results

And that looks like a link to http://www.starbucks.com. In fact, the tooltip that appears when I hover the mouse pointer over the search result would seem to indicate the same:

Starbucks tooltip from Google search results

And yet ... if you right-click on the search result and select "Copy shortcut", the result is decidedly more complex:

http://www.google.com/url? ... &url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.starbucks.com%2F& ...

I've replaced a bunch of stuff in that URL that is simply Google's own tracking information. The key points are these:

  • When you click the search result, you don't go directly to the search result at all, but to "http://www.google.com/url"

  • One of the parameters passed to that page is url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.starbucks.com%2F, which is an encoded form of url=http://www.starbucks.com/, the place that you really want to go.

In my experience, going to that long google.com URL produces what's called a "302 redirection" to "http://www.starbucks.com". That's a function of the HTTP protocol which tells your browser that the page that it's looking for is actually at this other URL. That "http://www.google.com/url" didn't generate a page to be displayed at all.

In this case, no additional pages are entered into your history and the browser's Back button will return you to the search results.

Not-so-transparent redirection

In one of your cases, because a browser "Back" operation doesn't take you back to the search results, that means that the sequence is actually slightly different.

  • When you click on a result, you're taken to http://www.google.com/url as well, but this time for some reason, an actual page of HTML is created and fed to your browser. No HTTP protocol-based redirection occurs.

  • That resulting page then includes information that in essence says, "Take me to http://www.starbucks.com immediately."

  • The browser then loads the destination, starbucks.com in my example, as a replacement page.

The net result is the same - you end up on the destination page that you clicked in the search results.

The mechanism of how you got there is different, and in this case, it did cause an "interstitial" page to be entered in to your browsing history. Hit Back and that's the page that you're taken to. Because that page says, "Take me immediately to starbucks.com," that's what happens - you click Back, the interstitial appears briefly, if at all, and you land back on Starbucks.com as if you'd never hit Back at all.

Why and when Google might use one technique over the other is unclear, but obviously, they do.

Why redirect at all?

So why would a search engine redirect instead of just letting you click directly on the link that you want to go to?

It's actually pretty simple, really.

They want to know what link you clicked on.

Redirection is Google's way of being notified that you clicked on that specific link and not one of the others.

Why do they care?

Because that tells them that you determined that that specific link, more than any of the others, was a possible match for what you were searching for. In my case, when I search for "coffee" and then click on the Starbucks link, that tells Google that I feel that Starbucks is somehow related to coffee.

Now, you might be saying, "Of course, Google knows that Starbucks is all about coffee".

Yes and no.

Starbucks' own website is pretty clearly about coffee and Google can make a lot of inference about the relationship right there, but not all search results are that obvious. Particularly when the relationships aren't that clear, understanding what people actually click on is one way that Google develops better search results.

Note also that I emphasized that Starbucks was my number one search result.

It might not be for you.

Google uses many pieces of data to personalize the search results, including location, browsing history, which search results you click on when you search for something, and much more...

I visit starbucks.com often enough that Google knows that it's a pretty important site to me. But if you've never visited that site, it might not make that inference. I also live near Seattle, where Starbucks headquarters are located. It's very possible that the same search performed elsewhere - perhaps in a location where (gasp!) there are no Starbucks - would produce very different results.

And, if you often search for 'coffee' and typically click some link other than the Starbucks link - perhaps the Wikipedia link - then over time, Google may well determine that when it comes to coffee, Wikipedia is more relevant to you than Starbucks.

It's all about better results

And that's really what it all boils down to. Redirection of search results clicks is Google's way of collecting information that they then use to improve the results of future searches.

And that improvement can be for all users of Google, or simply to make your search results better.

Article C4898 - August 11, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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11 Comments
Randy
August 12, 2011 8:10 AM

I sympathize with the issue of the "Back" button not working, but there's a simple work-around. Unless I'm totally positive that there is ONE answer to my question (and thus I click it and go there), I do not click links in search results.

Instead, try doing a Ctrl-click on one or more links. This opens them in new tabs. Leave the search results page open and then check those tabs to get a variety of possibilities to answer your question or interest. None are quite it? Close those tabs after you review them and at some point you'll be back at your search results. You can then Ctrl-click other links, or refine your search query to better match what you're looking for.

GREG JACKSON
August 16, 2011 11:05 AM

I agree with Randy. Many times I find the use of tabs, in this case and in others, a great technique. Keep the main page open, and use a tab for each link (within reason, of course). I love it.

Digital Artist
August 16, 2011 12:29 PM

I usually dodge redirection by clicking the "cached" link, then clicking the "current page" link (if I need more current information. Works pretty good.

Frank
August 16, 2011 12:34 PM

Google also offers the "I'm feeling lucky" options for a direct hit on your search item. Using Firefox I also use the address bar instead of the search bar if I know exactly where I want to go, thus avoiding the multi-selection listing of possible sites.

Barcillo Barsiniestro
August 16, 2011 5:12 PM

Leo,
I live in Ecuador, there's no Starbucks here, and I got www.starbucks.com as my 5th result
My first one was wikipedia

DaveC
August 17, 2011 11:55 AM

Leo,
Redirection is also browser dependent. I use Seamonkey 2.0.14 as my main browser. It does not re-direct. Firefox, Opera, and Explorer all do.

Joe
August 18, 2011 9:55 AM

Interesting point. By me (searching from Antwerp Belgium) I get wikipedia's article on coffee at first place and Starbucks made it to 7th place. There actually are some Starbuck branches here since 2-3 years ago.

Glenn P.
August 19, 2011 1:07 PM

Redirection is also (of course!) about making money. Their advertisers are charged "per click", and Google's redirection is their method of keeping track of those all-important revenue-making clicks.

We're talking actual search results here, not advertisements.

Leo
20-Aug-2011
Glenn P.
August 24, 2011 10:10 PM

Ooops. Leo is correct. My mistake!

Dustin
November 1, 2011 11:28 AM

This is very informative! But I'm having a problem in Firefox 7.0.1 and I'm wondering if anyone else has experienced this!

Some of my search results get totally stuckon the "interstitial" page! Never moving forward to the actual website destination. I've noticed that so far it ONLY happens with results leading to Twitter or to Yahoo Answers! Really annoying! Especially since, as Leo pointed out, if I at least try to right-click and "copy link location" it only copies the interstitial page still, so that's no help.

Does anyone have any ideas that could help with this??

Nicholas Johnson
November 12, 2011 8:12 PM

It is a pain. The back key in new tabs just goes to the redirect and then back to the site when the back button should be shaded and disabled. How do I stop it? I don't care if they are tracking me, but these links are a pain. Can I disable them in my browser and make sure that it visits the link that is shown in the status bar? And how do I make sure that on any new computer I visit, instant is disabled by default. These options should be a choice, not a choice to remove.

Thanks heaps.

Nicholas Johnson

Ps: I have IE9. Great Browser. Don't know if it is OpenCL accelerated, though.

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