Attention Google Analytics: you have a problem that desperately needs your attention. Referral spam is getting out of control and messing with the data we gather for ourselves and our clients. That valuable data is used to make business decisions, and referral spam is affecting that data. While we wait for a permanent solution from Google, we’ve developed a way for our clients and friends to avoid this issue from affecting their decision-making.
What is referral spam?
If you frequent your Google Analytics account, you’ve probably looked through your referral traffic to see how people visit your website and where they are coming from. Recently, there have been sites popping up that aren’t truly traffic drivers, but rather “ghost” referral traffic. This traffic distorts the information you’re gathering. In other words, someone is kidnapping your traffic on its way to Google Analytics.
This turns into traffic for the spammer in two ways:
- Webmasters and analytics nerds click on the URL to investigate the why the site is showing up in Google Analytics. This visit adds to their traffic numbers. (That might seem like a lot of work for a little traffic, but spam is a numbers game.)
- Backlinks – less aware webmasters are more likely to link back to the spam site, thinking they’re returning a favor. In reality, the original link to their site never existed in the first place.
Why should we be concerned about referral spam?
Referral spam does not affect your website. It doesn’t open your site to hacking, nor is it a sign of an insecurity. What it does do is mess with your Google Analytics data, the important data which you use to make data-driven decisions.
If you’re getting a decent amount of traffic from these websites and don’t remove the spam traffic from your reports, then the data points for each KPI are skewed. For example, simple things like the amount of referral-based site traffic will be higher, which could lead to incorrect conclusions about PR campaigns or content creation. You want to make sure your decisions are based on solid data.
Help! I have referral spam sites listed in Google Analytics.
Google has confirmed that they are working on a solution to this issue. In the meantime, you’re still stuck with spam traffic, right? Wrong! While Google Analytics resolves the problem on their end, we can block those websites and keep them from distorting our data.
Taking a look at our referral traffic, here’s how to create a filter for each spammy URL.
- First things first, check if you have any referral spam by logging into Google Analytics and going to Acquisition – All Traffic – Referrals.
- If you find spammy sites, make a note of all of them – they are typically easy to identify. (See the list above for some of the more “successful” referral spam sites.)
- Once you have a list of those sites, go back to the top of the page and click “Add Segment”.
- Add a new segment by clicking the “+NEW SEGMENT” button.
- Once you start to fill this out it becomes incredibly easy to add in sites:
- First, click “Conditions”.
- Second, choose “Exclude”. (Obviously – we’re trying to remove this traffic from our view, right?)
- Third, in the dropdown below, type in “Source” – we want to filter the spam traffic based on the source of the traffic, the website.
- On step four, begin typing the name of a referral spam site and select it when it comes up.
- For step five, add the next site you want to filter. Continue adding sites until you’ve captured them all.
One thing to note in step four are the multiple “floating-share-buttons” sources. Each of these should be added to the filter. Thankfully, Google Analytics’s auto-complete helps you find the additional sites without having to record each variation in a list.
For the more technical among you, there are other filtering methods you can use – .htaccess filtering being one of them. There are instructions for this on the Moz blog.
One final step – visit the “View Settings” page, found in the admin section of Google Analytics. In this list there is an option to exclude bot filtering. Make sure you check this box. While we aren’t entirely sure of its effectiveness, it should still give Google information to help fix this issue.
Google is working on a solution. It will take time, but according to Adam Singer, they’ve given it a high priority. In the meantime, the steps we’ve outlined above will help. We highly recommend reviewing your Google Analytics data at least weekly, preferably daily, and continue to add any new sites to the spam filter.
Have questions or need help getting this squared away? Send us an email and we’ll be happy to help.
Account Manager, Marketing Technology