Published Sept 10, 2014:
Do you study your Google Analytics for your website? If you do you may have started to notice two things happening over the past 2-3 years.
- Google switched to HTTPS search thereby eliminating keyword data from analytics. This still hurts! It’s too long to get in to but it has begun to connect the dots for me regarding what the rest of this article is about.
- Facebook now has 4 main referral links when there used to be 2 (facebook.com and m.facebook.com). This is what I want to discuss.
Explaining the l.facebook.com and lm.facebook.com Referrals on Your Google Analytics
Go to Google Analytics > Acquisitions > All Referrals > Search: Facebook. You will probably see this
Let Me Google That For You
As soon as I saw this the first time I had to Google it and ask the same thing everyone else seems to be asking, “What does l.facebook.com and lm.facebook.com mean?” If you do that you will get vague responses and more questions (like I did).
So I read a bunch of those other articles and read what Facebook had to say about their new “Link Shim” technology and think I can provide a clearer answer to what we are seeing in our Analytics…so here it goes!
What each Facebook Referral URL Means
- HTTPS origination: Facebook uses a new link shim process where shared links posted on their site are run through a filter. It’s main purpose is to protect spam URLs. In the process, however, it strips the user’s data out of the info it passes through to your website’s analytics. Just like Google switched to HTTPS search and it removed the keyword data. Facebook, via HTTPS browsing, is now able to protect user data from being passed to Analytics.
- Lose / Win for Analytics: You may think that’s a big loss because that would be really powerful data, well you’re right, but FB is looking after its users. For example: if I share your website link on my wall and someone clicks it, it won’t tell you the referral source was facebook.com/mattkelleykgi, which helps protect my privacy! So where is the win then? Well, the link shim makes the referral source possible at all! Without passing the URL through l.facebook.com first it would not even appear as a referral. It would be included in the Not Provided category so at least you can see it actually did come from Facebook! I wonder if Google will follow suit and give us back our keywords…
- This is the same as the l.facebook.com but just means it came from a mobile device / mobile browser.
- Mobile App: This one is accessed through a mobile device but more specifically the Facebook mobile app. Because the app has a built in browser it refers m.facebook.com as the source and most likely does not use the link shim or does so through the app itself instead of using the lm.facebook.com redirect.
Here’s where I venture off a bit on my own and created my own hypotheses. Most articles I read don’t really address what the basic Facebook.com referral originates. I want to try and clear that up with a list of what it might mean was the original source.
- Desktop Non-HTTPS: Users browsing under http://facebook.com instead of the more common https:// now. I think this is probably a low figure though. Very low.
- Apps / Management Platforms: This can be things like Hootsuite, and other APIs, etc. The link is originally through Facebook but the API doesn’t include the l.facebook.com redirect. I tested this through Hootsuite to prove my theory.
- No Protection Needed: Maybe Facebook has means of removing the link shim if user data is not in jeopardy of being passed through.
- Alternative Link: Maybe if you use a TinyURL or ow.ly short link the referral remains Facebook but the link shim stops at the short url redirect so the referral source is accredited to Facebook.com.
- When l.facebook.com is Not Used: That should just sum it up. Looks like it will remain a mystery as to exactly how the referral credits Facebook.com but if we know the other three we can just cheat and call this one, “every other type of referral source.”
Shortcut Guide to Understanding the Facebook Referral URLs
Did you skip over what I wrote above? I probably would too so that’s why I created this even quicker read:
m.facebook.com referral means… Visitor came from the Facebook Mobile App
lm.facebook.com referral means… Visitor came from mobile web browser. Directly from https://m.facebook.com
l.facebook.com referral means… Visitor came from desktop web browser. Directly from https://facebook.com
facebook.com referral means… Visitor came from anywhere else — Desktop app/plugin or Social Management Platform like Hootsuite — Or anywhere else not listed in the first three!
The Takeaway: Two things we can learn from this:
1. You may see a bump in your Facebook referral traffic but it might not necessarily mean you’ve had a bump. It could just mean you are seeing more referrals because of link shim that were previously seen as “not defined”.
2. These new urls will give you a more defined idea of where your audience is coming from, ie; Facebook App, mobile, desktop. It may open you to creating a more targeted post based on that answer. If most are coming from mobile you may not post many 15 minute videos. You may want to focus on short little posts more apt to be read by mobile browsers.
Whew! I hope that helps provide a little bit of insight for you. If you want to continue the search and have some more information to bring to the table I welcome your comments below!