What is Referral Spam?
Over the last couple of years, most GA accounts have been hit by a massive wave of spam, affecting the quality of the data and making it very difficult to accurately analyze all your GA reports. Here’s what I mean.
You go into your GA and on the left – choose Acquisition and Channels. The screenshot below shows results from one of my sites, and we can see that a good 26% of traffic is being referred from other sites – Yay!
Looks like 26% of my website visitors are being referred to my site by other websites
But, when we dig a bit deeper – by clicking the Referral link – we see some alarming results. See the screenshot below – which shows the bounce rate is either 0 or 100% for most lines, and see how the average session duration is 00.00.00. This means they are not “real” visits to my website. In fact, when I analyzed all 131 referral visits in this report, around 60% of them were spam referrals.
60% of referral visits to my website are spam referrals
Referrer spam (also known as ghost spam) is actually fake visits to your site. These visits register in GA, but these sites don’t actually send traffic to your website. As far as I can determine – there’s two reasons why these spammers are doing this:
- To attract visits to their websites–These spammy links appear in your analytics reports and can lead you to click on them to see what they are. You will more than likely be bombarded by ads or worse: malware, sneaky affiliate redirects, etc. Some of them will try to sell you their crappy online marketing services.
- Improve their SEO. Sites that publish their access logs, including referrer statistics, will inadvertently link back to the spammer’s site. These links will be indexed by search engines as they crawl the access logs. This benefits the spammer because the free link improves the spammer site’s search engine (SEO) ranking owing to link-counting algorithms that search engines use.
How Does it Affect You?
Because the referral visits are actually fake – they’re showing up in GA, but are not actually visiting your website – they are not harming your website or your SEO ranking. But, it is a problem for these reasons:
- It wastes your time and is very annoying, just like email spam.
- It pollutes your Google Analytics stats and skews your metrics, making it virtually impossible to see and analyze true results
- See benefits for spammers and potential harm for you, above.
On this website – 37% of top 10 traffic sources are from spam referrers, pushing the bounce rate up high and skewing the stats. Spam traffic is shown on lines 1, 4, 6, 8 and 9.
3 Steps Towards Referral Spam Removal
There’s no easy one answer. It does involve doing some behind the scenes work in your Google Analytics account. Well known (and hugely successful) internet marketing expert Neil Patel published a comprehensive article (detailed steps and screenshots) on exactly how to do this.
This can be done in several ways, but does involve a bit of time and technical know-how.
Step 1 – Create filters to block future spam
- Do the research to get a list of all the known spam referrers sites – Brian Clifton has kindly published a list to help you get started
- Check your own GA referral report to add obvious spam sites to the list
- Go into the admin area and create filters (see Neil’s detailed post on exactly how to do this)
- Keep checking your GA reports every week or two and add filters for the new ones that pop up. The spammers keep creating new ones every day.
Screenshot showing 10 of the 37 spam blocking filters we’ve added to my website. Each filter blocks 11 spammers, so that’s over 400 spam sites we’ve filtered out of our Reports to make them more accurate. (The other 10 filters block tracking of website visits by staff members)
Step 2 – Use other blocking methods as well
Because these spammers employ several types of spam traffic systems, the solution lies in using several blocking techniques, including hostname and other types of filters, altering the .htaccess file and using the right security plugins. This will stop these spammers from creating any future spam referral traffic hits in your GA reports, because the filter stops them showing up in your reports. See Tina Arnoldi’s post for further details on filters and plugins.
Note of caution: changing the .htaccess file can be an effective blocking method, but should only be done by someone with the right technical skills as one wrong symbol or letter in the wrong place could screw up your whole website.
Step 3 – Create a segment to filter out past spam from historical data
Blocking future spam will help with creating more accurate GA reports in the future, but what about looking at current and past reports, which is what you want to be viewing today – so you can measure traffic sources, audiences and behavior with confidence?
The key to doing this is to create segments – which effectively filter out past spam visits. Again, rather than repeat the step by step process here: I suggest you check out Neil Patel’s article once more – specifically Step 1: Clean Out Existing Spam where he guides you through how to setup a segment which effectively filters out many of the most common spam sites from your reports. Don’t forget to name this segment – Spam filter – or something similar. Then every time you login to GA, simply choose the saved segment and remove the all users segment.
I have done this exercise, using Neil’s instructions, and here’s what it looks like.
In the first screenshot below you can see stats that show all users (referred). The second screenshot shows where to find your saved segment.
All users segment – spam referrals (60% of all referral sources).
Choose custom segment, choose your saved spam filter segment, then delete the All User segment to just see referral visits with spam filter applied. Don’t forget to hit Apply!
The spam filtered segment has weeded out 129 spam
referral sources from the GA Acquisition/Referral report
The segmented report is more accurate, although it is still showing some spam referrals (the first four lines). So we will need to go into the segment conditions and add these sites into the list, to make this report more accurate. But it’s certainly a lot better than the All User segment report!
We now have a better idea on which websites are sending us traffic, and we can get in touch with those website owners to thank them, and offer help and initiatives to further increase the traffic they send to us. Now that’s a topic for another day!
Find This a Bit Confusing or Daunting?
It is a lot to get your head around, and can be quite a bit of work to setup and to keep up to date if you’re not that sure of what you’re doing.
We’re here to help. We provide a setup service and ongoing spam referral blocking service for those that find this all too technical and time consuming.
Our Google Analytics Packages include set up of a filtered segment to give you accurate historical reports, and adding hundreds of filters to block all the well-known global spammers that are affecting most websites.
This post was first published on Commonsense Marketing.
Annette Welsford Hi there. My daily dose of fun is to help business owners to create helpful and effective marketing and build a tribe of loyal customers and advocates. At Commonsense Marketing we create lead generating websites and engaging social media and email campaigns that deliver great results. And it’s wonderful that many of them have said nice things about the work we’ve done (see our case studies). We love to work with the owners and teams of small to medium sized business who are motivated to become the best in their niche and achieve more than they ever thought possible.