Is Referral Spam Killing Your Analytics?

For those of you using Google Analytics for your website, you’ve probably noticed a boost in your referral traffic within the platform. Don’t get too excited because is a result of referral spam, or ghost referrals. This traffic doesn’t actually visit your site. It’s a spam issue that’s been troubling website owners all over the world more and more over the past year. Referral spam happens when an unscrupulous site owner tries to send fake referral traffic.

Ghost referrals are used for fooling analytics into thinking that your website is sending traffic to other web pages. Their main goal is to trick Google into thinking that a particular website is receiving more traffic than it actually is. The problem is that these are not spiders or bots that can be easily blocked on your site. Although referral spam isn’t directly harmful to you, it could negatively impact you in several key ways.

How Does Referral Spam Affect Analytics Data?

As mentioned earlier, ghost referrals won’t directly danger a website since there isn’t interaction between the two parties. You might feel as if your site was hacked because the referral spam would place weird pages in your analytics data. However, it’s only fake data left by the ghost spam in your statistics. Ghost referrals don’t use any of the resources from your server, so there’s little need to worry of security risks.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t be ignoring spam referrals altogether because it can affect the quality of your data and leave you with minimal reliable reports. If you’re running a large website with thousands of visitors daily, you might not notice any negative impact. Smaller sites, are more likely to experience a serious setback on their metrics. Referral spam has a bad impact on your analytics data, thus making SEO more difficult. It can also negatively affect your conversion rate as it depends on total site visits or page views to determine conversions.

website traffic ebook

If you do proper calculations, you might find that the ghost referrals completely damage your engagement metrics too. You may have a false impression of the kind of traffic quality you’re driving to and from your site. Most spam referrals have a bounce rate of 100 percent and very low session times. When you have a high rate of spam visits on a daily basis, you’ll also notice shocking changes in your bounce rate and average session duration.

Some Common Ghost Referrals

Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly found ghost referrals so that you know what to look out for.

  • semalt.semalt.com
  • buttons-for-website.com
  • darodar.com
  • anticrawler.org
  • 4webmasters.org
  • theguardlan.com
  • ilovevitaly.com
  • trafficmonetize.org
  • webmonetizer.net
  • event-tracking.com

These are just few in number, but actually with time you will find more ghost referrals in your analytics.

How to Remove Referral Spam Data from Analytics

There are multiple methods you can take to remove ghost referrals from analytics data. Implementing new filters, using exclusion lists, and blocking with htacess are popular along with a few more explored below. Before you go ahead with any of these steps, make sure you follow these key tips for fixing spam referral issues:

  • Set aside an unfiltered view with zero filters in your property. This will give you a back-up so that you can always have unaltered data to refer to.
  • Instead of immediately implementing it in your main view, start by putting your new filter in a test view. Let this run for a few weeks and compare the differences with your main view.
  • Avoid using the referral exclusion list because this only removes a few entries from the referral report. At times, the session may continue to appear in the reports if the filter changes it to a direct visit. Although, you can access it from Admin tab at the navigation bar then go to Tracking info where you can see the referral exclusion list.

Google Analytics referral exclusion list

Filters

Recommended. You’ll find a number of different ways are effective for removing referral spam data from your reports. Some sites have tried blocking traffic by setting up an “Include” filter on hostname, where they add names that should be included in the reports. This seems quite logical since ghost referrals come from other hosts. Remember things can go wrong if a spammer decides to overwrite the hostname though. Let’s take a look at the simplest method of filtering spam referrers from Google Analytics:

Google Analytics FIlter spam

  1. Select the “Admin” tab in your Google Analytics account.
  2. Go to the column on your right side and select “Filters.”
  3. Look for the “New Filter” button in red and click on it.
  4. You’ll get the option to add a Filter Name. Make sure you name it something that’s easy to remember. “Ghost Referral Filter” or “Referral Spam Filter” works well.
  5. Select the “Custom” Filter Type.
  6. Choose “Campaign Source” under the Filter Field.
  7. In the Filter Pattern box, add the spam referrer you wish to filter. If there are more than one name, you can add additional ones separated by a “|”. For example, if you were to add 4webmasters.org, site4.free-share-buttons.com, site3.free-share-buttons.com, and best-seo-offer.com follow this pattern:
  8. org|site4.free-share-buttons.com|site3.free-share-buttons.com|best-seo-offer.com
  9. Save this filter.

The filter you have just created should be able to exclude all data from referral spam on your next analytics report. However, you’ll have to manually identify the referrers from your reports. This is the most challenging part because some spammers may use popular sites, including apple.com and amazon.com.

To make certain that this new filter is working as desired, you can use the Filter Verification Tool. Once you select “verify this filter”, Google will give you useful information on the number of sessions that have been filtered out in a period of seven days. It’ll also give you a list of referrers that were filtered out from your reports.

Make sure you update your filter with any new spam referrers that show up in your reports to keep your Google Analytics reports as spam-free as possible. Do this every other week or perhaps once a month. You can always check for new spam referral domains that should be included in the filter. Do this by following the steps given below:

Referral Traffic Google Analytics

  1. In the reporting tab, go to “Acquisition.”
  2. Select “All Traffic.”
  3. Check the websites under “Referrals.”

Spam Filter Insertion Tool

The Spam Filter Insertion Tool is very useful for removing referral spam from a web server. This tool updates your existing, outdated spam filters to their latest versions. Then, the filters can work as desired and maximize your protection. The Spam Filter Insertion Tool also allows you to edit access to any Google Analytics account of your choice.

Well Behaved Bots and Spiders

Bots and spiders play a major role on the Internet. Despite popular belief, they’re generally good. In fact, they’re responsible for discovering your content and sharing it with others to help you gain visibility. Without them, Google wouldn’t even know about your website. This means that your chances of turning up at the top of the search results would be bleak otherwise.

You can exclude their traffic information from your web analytics results by using applications that automatically filter these out. In Google Analytics, you have a simple checkbox that’ll let you filter out a majority of the well-behaved bots and spiders from your reports. You’ll need to enable this checkbox for every view you have in place. This is a good move for filtering unnecessary traffic information out of your analytics data.
Google Analytics bot filters

Finally Block Referral Spam!

You can block a site causing your ghost referral headaches through the .htaccess file. Simply copy and paste the below code with the respective site name. Before proceeding with .htaccess, make sure you backup the file.

## SITE REFERRER BANNING
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} example.com

[NC,OR] RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} example.com
RewriteRule .* – [F] 

Conclusion

Referral spam has an indirect, yet harmful impact on numerous aspects of your analytics data. It can negatively affect your bounce rate, average session duration time, pages per session rate, and more. With the help of the steps given above, you should be able to exclude most of the referral spam and improve your report. It’s important you stay ahead of spammers and keep yourself up-to-date on the names of new spam referrers for inclusion on the filter list.

Spam referrals will likely continue to be a bother until Google Analytics can fix the issue internally. Until then, you’ll need to keep maintaining your filters to exclude ghost referrals. Anyone running a site should be extra vigilant when it comes to monitoring referral spam that turns up in their analytics data for a more accurate picture of their web performance.

conversion consultant

Shane Barker is a digital marketing consultant who specializes in sales funnels, targeted traffic, and website conversions. He has consulted with Fortune 500 companies, influencers with digital products, and a number of A-List celebrities.

7 Comments

  1. […] For those of you using Google Analytics for your website, you’ve probably noticed a boost in your referral traffic within the platform. Don t get too excited because is a result of referral spam, or ghost referrals. This traffic doesn’t actually visit your site. It s a spam issue that s been troubling website owners all over the world more and more over the past year. Referral spam happens when an unscrupulous site owner tries to send fake referral traffic. Ghost referrals are used for fooling analytics into thinking that your website is sending traffic to other web pages. Their main goal is to trick Google into thinking that a particular website is receiving more traffic than it actually is. The problem is that these are not spiders or bots that can be easily blocked on your site. Although referral spam isn t directly harmful to you, it could negatively impact you in several key ways. How Does Referral Spam Affect Analytics Data? As mentioned earlier, ghost referrals won t direchttp://shanebarker.com/is-referral-spam-killing-your-analytics/ […]

  2. Doug 21-10-2015 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    Shows how much I know, I was so confused what all those sites were in my traffic. Being able to filter them out will help me tremendously. Thanks Shane!

    • Shane Barker 21-10-2015 at 9:46 pm - Reply

      I’m glad I could add some clarity to the situation Doug! 😉

  3. Andrew 06-11-2015 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    This is very detailed and beneficial information. Ghost referrals are one of many aspects involved with blogging that I had never heard of before, but seem obvious in retrospect. Thank you for this post.

    • Shane Barker 06-11-2015 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      I’m glad you were able to find the article useful Andrew! And thanks for the comment! 😉

  4. Jose Lopez 05-02-2016 at 7:10 pm - Reply

    Article is great. Opened my eyes to alot of my current headaches. Will have to read a few times over to make sure I understand completely.

    • Shane Barker 05-02-2016 at 7:31 pm - Reply

      That is awesome that you found so much value in my post Jose. Let me know if you have any questions.

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