Your New Enemy: Referral Spam, In All Its Many and Annoying Forms

Senior Digital Analyst
Published 8/20/15
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There’s a new villain in town for site owners and analysts: Referral Spam. It’s not even really that “new:” Referral spam, including ghost referrer spam, began showing up in analytics platforms last fall.

Back then, you may have seen this in your site’s Google Analytics account as referral traffic from Semalt.com or Darodar.com. This traffic went to your homepage and had horrific engagement metrics: high or non-existent bounce rate, 0:00 average time on site, less than 1 page viewed per visit.

No problem. Just add a new filter to your Google Analytics view to exclude these couple of referrals, and you’re all set, right?

Unfortunately, no. Referral spam (or referrer spam) has only gotten worse over the past several months. There’s ghost referrer spam, in which the spammer injects traffic and/or event data into your analytics without even visiting the site. Then there’s referral spam, in which the spammer does visit your site.

All very annoying, that’s true. The massive headache part of it is the number of domains that have been identified as referral spam/ghost referrer spam are increasing rapidly: at this time, there more than 400 spam domains and counting. You may recognize such favorites as “success-seo.com” and “buttons-for-your-website.com” and “videos-for-your-business” and many, many more showing up in your referral traffic.

What to do? There are several really good blog posts and articles out there that go over identifying the spam and how to rid your analytics of it. However, as the spam has changed, so have the solutions. Most working solutions involve building a filter that includes only traffic to your site’s hostname(s) and a filter for excluding the referral spam domains by campaign source. Sometimes, though, the referral spam uses your site’s hostname(s) when it visits, so the hostname inclusion won’t always work. The filters by source do work, but only after the fact. And, they’ll need to be updated when you identify a new source of referral spam. Some sites have built updating filters you can insert into your analytics account by running an app on your server.

At Miles, we’ve reviewed these solutions and have implemented filters on client accounts that have received spam. In addition, we have other safeguards in place to be on the alert for and to filter out referral spam for client sites using intelligence alerts, advanced segments and the permanent filters.

What does Google say about all this? Some analysts have spoken out that Google should be concerned that their product isn’t reliable in preventing fake traffic. For its case, Google announced a few months ago it is aware of the problem and will be “putting together a guide of recommended settings to help ensure the best data quality in your account.”

In the meantime, check your referral traffic in your analytics platform traffic sources to see if any weird domain name with terrible engagement metrics sticks out. If so, get ready to set up some filters and get rid of that referral spam!