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Google Analytics: Over 1/4 AOL un-paid keywords complete crap

2d52033e5a02425d. 671a5471af5b18f6. Hah?



6:30 pm on Oct 3, 2007 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

In Google Analytics, when I drill down into the Traffic Sources > Search Engines, 'aol' report, I find that over 25% of the keywords AOL's reporting appear to be either UIDs or complete gibberish. A sample:


No other organic (or paid, for that matter) source seems to be supplying so much badness.

I've searched here and on the Web to see if anyone's come across it, but so far I haven't been able to find anybody writing about this. So I'm wondering:

- Has anyone seen this before?
- Is it a Google Analytics issue?
- Is it an AOL issue, e.g., one of their proxy servers is messing up the referrer string?

Thanks in advance for any advice!


6:33 pm on Oct 3, 2007 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

It on AOL's side.. I think it started after they leaked their users' query history by accident, but I'm not positive.


7:58 pm on Oct 3, 2007 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Thanks your_store. I wonder whether the consensus is that AOL is intentionally placing garbage into the referrer, or if it's just screwed up.


5:24 pm on Oct 8, 2007 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Haven't heard from anyone since Wednesday.

Is it safe to say that everybody here is seeing the same thing in the keywords your analytics shows for traffic from AOL, i.e., about 25% is some kind of UID or otherwise gibberish? Thanks in advance.


6:29 pm on Oct 8, 2007 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Just looked at our AOL (UK) referals and all are fine (500+ today). Is it fixed? Is it a US problem?


6:49 pm on Oct 8, 2007 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Thanks much, inbound!

Unfortunately, it's still going on. For example, for one of the sites I track, the 2nd-most used non-paid AOL keyword is:


(BTW, I've swapped some of the characters around JIC it's some kind of unique identifier. You can't be too paranoid these days...)

So according to Google Analytics, people have found my site 43 times (user sessions) in the past 30 days --as recently as two user sessions yesterday, October 7-- using that exact crazy keyword. (On September 20, there were apparently no fewer than six separate user sessions to the site using that keyword.)

This has been going on at least since late 2006, and only with AOL. We're in the USA, so I'd be interested to learn whether other folks in the USA see strings of crap in their non-paid AOL keyword reporting.


7:13 pm on Oct 8, 2007 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

I see this all the time in analytics, so you're not going crazy.

Since AOL uses Google's engine I know what the keywords are so I'm not so worried. If you have raw log files and see the referrer from AOL, you can plug that in to the browser and see what keyword it is.

I always assumed this was some issue since AOL released all it's keyword data but maybe I'm wrong.


12:46 am on Oct 9, 2007 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

oziman, thanks a mil, you pointed me in the right direction. When I took a look at the exact referrer string (which you can't do by default in Google Analytics; you have to first make a special filter that shows the full referrer [vdgraaf.info]), I saw queries like this:


It turns out that this is the URL for an unusual query. The encquery parameter stands for "encoded query", i.e., the keyword is actually stuck in there in an encoded format. You can see it by copy-and-pasting the URL into your browser's address box; lo and behold, the AOL results page appears, showing you the keywords your visitor used. (Note: I'm using a fake encoded string above, so if you try using it, it'll just give you broken results full of strange characters.)

Check out that parameter, invocationType. The only AOL queries I saw with encoded keywords were the ones for which invocationType was "keyword_rollover".

I think invocationType is supposed to answer the question, "What method did this person use to get to the search results page?" A quick read through the AOL referrers for my site yield a substantial list, most of which seem fairly self-explanatory:


The thing is, when I see any of these invocation types in the AOL referrer URL, I can also see the keywords in the URI, e.g.:


In contrast, if the invocation type is "keyword_rollover", only then do I see that "encquery" parameter with the encoded keyword.

It turns out that this has been going on over four years. As reported here at WebmasterWorld, in June 2003, pixel_juice noted that AOL was encrypting certain queries [webmasterworld.com], making it difficult to suss the exact keywords.

It was discussed later that year, with no solution, over at High Rankings [highrankings.com], and two years later, WebmasterWorld users barofsoap and Longhaired Genius discussed methods of programmatically decrypting the encquery parameter [webmasterworld.com]. Also, a year later, blog Hello Joseph discussed a method (the same one?) of doing the decryption [hellojoseph.com]. I can't vouch for the efficacy of any of those methods, but I thought it worthwhile to include the links for the next person who stumbles across this.

So, now that we've wasted all our time on this issue :), does anybody have any idea what's going on with that "invocationType=keyword_rollover". I've tried to find out whether AOL sells that type of advertising, but so far, no dice. Could it have something to do with AOL Instant Messenger?


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