Referrer tricks

I had a theoretical conversation with a coworker a few months back where I posited that it should be possible to use the HTTP REFERER (sic) header to determine if a link is coming from another site or if it was an internal link between pages. In the later case, we discussed hiding some elements in the site’s header. The strategy behind that is the introductory branding on the website was only of value when initially reaching the page. When moving around internally the content further down the page was the goal. If we could hide some of that extra information we could streamline the experience for users.

If the check failed, we’d just show everything. In theory it should be pretty safe even if a user is doing something strange or using an unexpected client.

Yesterday I put together a quick proof-of-concept test:

<?php
  if(isset($_SERVER['HTTP_REFERER'])) {
    $host = parse_url($_SERVER['HTTP_REFERER'], PHP_URL_HOST);
    $name = parse_url($_SERVER['HTTP_HOST'], PHP_URL_HOST);
    if ($host === $name) {
      echo 'Internal Referrer';
    } else {
      echo 'External Referrer';
    }
  } else {
    echo 'External Referrer';
  }
?>

When I discussed the idea on mastodon, one of my peers brought up the potential problem with caching. If the site were to cache the page result on the server side incorrectly, we could potentially serve the condensed site content inappropriately.

Admittedly, server-side caching and how it relates to PHP on various web servers is not a strong area for me, but the concept sounds valid at a glance. I think there are two fairly trivial solves for it.

  1. The Vary header could be set based on referer. That should differentiate caching based on our variable and solve things nicely. Both versions could be cached over time and help speed things up without risking serving bad content.

  2. ETAGS, which I understand even less than normal caching stuff. Still, it looks like it could get the job done.

I haven’t put it into production anywhere yet. If you use the idea in the wild, let me know. I’d love to hear how it turns out.