referral spam

Posted by & filed under Analytics.

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Referral spam, also known as ghost spam, is a nightmare for any marketer running analytics reports. This relatively new way to get a webmaster’s attention is as inventive as it is annoying and misleading.

In this article I will answer the following questions:

  1. What is referral spam (ghost spam)?
  2. What is the purpose of this type of spam?
  3. How does it affect my online property (website & analytics)?
  4. How can I get rid of it?

What Is Referral Spam?

At its very base, ghost spam can consist of one or more domains that actively engage in spam indexing tactics directed towards your website’s analytical data. It has the ability to show as fake traffic referral, organic search term or a direct visit. Here are some examples that you might have noticed in your analytics:

  • Referral – best-seo-software.xyz
  • Organic – “guaranteed Google first page with this software”
  • Direct – this type of referral spam usually occurs when the spammer hit the wrong button, while spamming (yes, they make mistakes too)

For the purpose of this article, we will examine fake referral traffic as shown in Google Analytics.

referral traffic 1

 

referral traffic image 2

A referrer is the page where your website visitor was, before he came to your website. This visit is recorded by the HTTP header of the browser and tracked by your website’s analytics platform. In this case, we will take as example best-seo-software.xyz, a ghost spam that we found on one of our newly acquired clients.

This type of referral spam is intended to yield repeated site requests onto your website from a variety of locations worldwide – through the use of proxies. Using an army of traffic, this blackhat SEO technique is a form of advertisement for a large number of spammers out there.

Wait, did you just say advertisement?

What Is The Purpose Of Referral Spam?

Yes, advertisement, in one form or another. Even though this type of spam often originates from computers with malicious software, its primary purpose is not to infect your computer or your browsers. Not saying it cannot happen, just saying, it is not the original intent of ghost spam.

The fundamental goal of referral spam is to get the website admins, or whoever else is checking the analytics account, to click on the promotional link – best-seo-software.xyz (in this case). This can be beneficial for the spammers in a few “promotional” ways:

  • Referral spam has the ability to create a backlink in your website’s access log to the spammer’s website. This, arguably, could yield some SEO benefits by increasing the spammers’ website rankings in search engines.
  • You can be taken to a sales/product page. For instance, best-seo-software.xyz takes you to RankSonic’s website, where they try to sell you an SEO platform.

spam website

  • Referral spam links are also often used by affiliate marketers. Your click can easily install a cookie on your browser and help a starving affiliate make some coins, if you purchase something of the website.
  • And if you don’t purchase anything? The affiliate marketer can still make his dime by being paid to deliver traffic to the targeted website.

Even if you don’t take action, know that these referral spams exist on millions upon millions of website analytics.

How Does This Affect You?

 It screws up your analytics data

  • High bounce rate percentage – negative affect on SEO
  • Higher server load
  • Spammers might be looking for ways to hack your website

Analytics Data

Any digital marketer knows the importance of analytics and being able to properly distinguish between traffic channels. If you are looking at Amazon’s statistics, a couple of thousands of referral spam links can easily go undetected, and will hardly make a difference in the day-to-day traffic analysis. However, if you are running a website for a small or medium size business, this amount of spam can seriously temper with your analysis.

High Bounce Rate

It is no secret that high bounce rate is amongst the many signals that search engines consider when ranking your website. The bounce rate of referral spam is usually around the 90th percentage. Beware, there are SEO experts who argue that Google does not use their analytics in order to determine a website’s rankings. I think that people bouncing of your website = not user friendly = not well ranked.

Higher Server Load

Again, if you are not running Amazon, you might be in trouble. Shared hosting accounts can easily be overloaded by referral spam traffic; and therefore, considerably slow down the loading of your pages. This can result in higher bounce rates, bad user experience, and low scores on Google PageInsights.

Hacking

Spammers might be sending a lot of requests to your website because they are looking for vulnerabilities in order to hack it. Breaching a site’s security is a rather extreme case with referral spam, but it is not to be disregarded.

How Can I Get Rid Of Referral Traffic?

 First, let me quickly tell you what you shouldn’t be doing.

  • Do not use the referral exclusion list (here is why not)
  • Do not modify .htaccess rules because this method will not eliminate the ghost visits

Let me elaborate on the .htaccess point above, because many first page Google results would actually suggest that this will be enough to get rid of the spam.

The ghost spam, that I refer to in this post, is different from the uncommon crawler referral spam. The latter, you can easily restrict through your .htaccess file.

Ghost spam, however, utilizes Google Analytics Measurement Protocol in order to bypass your website in the process. For this reason alone, blockcking the URL (best-seo-software.xyz) in your .htaccess file does not do you any good.

So, what do I do?

In order to block the ghost spam visits, you can implement a valid hostname filter. However, keep in mind that these ghost referrals often change quicker than politicians’ views on public reforms. Meaning, you will have to keep an eye on your analytics and possible create some more filters.

Here is how to enable your filters:

1. Head over to Google Analytics dashboard. Go to your Admin tab and click on All Filters.

add filter image 1

2. Click the New Filter button in order to add a new filter.

referral

3. Add best-seo-software.xyz as the Filter Name.

4. Select the Custom Filter Type.

custom filter size

5. Lastly, open the drop-down menu of Filter Field, find and select Campaign Source. In the Filter Pattern below the field, enter the referral spam URL (best-seo-software.xyz in this case). Click Save.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with spam has become an inevitable part of digital marketing. Keeping a clean online profile is essential to the survival of legitimate SEO strategies. Small businesses that do not have in-house web development support often face the biggest challenges.

Nikola Stefanov

Nikola is the Co-founder @ Inbound Avenue and a dedicated digital marketer by nature.
Nikola Stefanov
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