Why You Should Really Care
Have you ever looked in your Google Analytics and seen some strange websites sending traffic your way? Like social-share-buttons.xyz or free-website-hosting.ru. If you have, then it’s likely you’ve been the victim of referral spam. Here’s our short guide on what it is and how to clean up your analytics.
Referral spam is a term used to describe the practice of driving traffic to your website by visiting other websites. The idea is that visiting many sites and appearing in many Google Analytics accounts, will result in some people following the breadcrumbs back to the referrer’s site. There you either view some ads, get a cookie, or just increase the number of page views. Typically it happens like this:
- A link will appear in your Google Analytics console showing that some traffic has been referred to your site from another website.
- You’ll see it, think that it looks interesting and type it into your browser.
- Then you visit the website.
- At this point the spammer gets what they want: a website visit/ cookie/ ad impression.
You might think this is a pretty complicated way to get visitors to your site. Yet if the action is automated, a bot can visit 1000s of sites very quickly, which means a lot of clicks for the spammers site from very little work. Here, in this YouTube video, Matt Cutts explains how it works:
Illusions & Dilutions
The traffic sent to you by referral spam is bad for two main reasons:
- You think you’re getting more visitors than you are. Referral spam is actually diluting or skewing your website’s analytics data. For example, you might surmise that your site is performing better (more visits) or worse (low CTR, high bounce rates) than it actually is.
- You’re overworking your servers for nothing. Let’s say 10% of your visitors are spam bots, then you are wasting your server’s capacity displaying your site to robots and spammers.
For larger companies, this might not be a big problem. Amazon probably doesn’t notice a few spam referrals or some extra traffic on the server. However, if your website is only getting a few thousand hits a month then the disruption to your statistics coupled with the extra pressure on your server can be a problem.
Where to Look For It
If you want to see if referral spam is affecting your website statistics, log into your Analytics account => select Acquisition from on the left-hand side menu. Then choose All Traffic => and finally the Referrals tab. You’ll see a list of all the websites that have referred traffic to your website.
Depending on the age of your website we suggest you view a year’s worth of data. Look who has been sending visitors your way. If you see lots of referrals coming from websites you don’t think are legitimate (yes, I am looking at you Mr-law-enforcement-check-three.xyz) then it’s time to block them from sending more traffic your way.
No More Spam
To block the spam referrals you need to collect a list of the URLs you know are spam. Then, go to the admin menu along the top of your Google Analytics. After pressing the Admin button, navigate to Tracking Info, then Referral Exclusion List. Once you have the Referral Exclusion List tab open, add the URLs you want to exclude. If later you find out you’ve excluded something by accident, don’t worry; it’s easy to remove them from the exclusion list.
If you continue to exclude referral spam from your site you will eventually hit a roadblock. At the time of writing, you cannot create a filter in Google that is larger than 400 URLs. So, you can only filter out the first 400 referral spam sites that come to your website.
Google has introduced a bot filter in Google Analytics that will help reduce some parts of referral spam. But even with that checkbox ticked we are still seeing the effects of referral spam. Hopefully, Google will increase the maximum filter size with time, or create another way to hide fake statistics from our analytics.
The End of The Road
So, if you’ve got this far hopefully you know how to clean up your Google Analytics. Now you can better analyze your website’s traffic. And if referral spam is hitting your site, you can take steps to reduce the load on your server.
Do you have a problem with referral spam? Is your data skewed? We’d love to hear your stories.