I won’t lie by saying I wasn’t surprised when I saw our website pick up over 100 hits within a single hour. In fact, I was a little dumbfounded. Was some big player in the IT industry linking to us? Was one of our blogs just straight up killing it? Did Satya Nadella retweet something we said about Microsoft Azure? Our site gets a good amount of traffic, but this number was a little out of the ordinary.
So we did some digging.
What We Found
It didn’t take long for me to find that many other websites were experiencing similar problems with their analytics. A simple search for “strange referrals” or the names of the referral sources themselves (aliexpress.com, ilovevitaly.com, darodar.com, humanorightswatch.com), brings up many articles on something called Referral Spam.
Referral spam is one of the latest techniques used by spammers to beat you over the head with their content, and in the process they ping your website’s analytics without ever visiting the site at all. Each Google analytics account comes with a tracking ID, structured as UA-########-#. Spammers cycle through random combinations of this code to send out analytics code pings. Chances are the spammers don’t even know what your domain name is. For whatever reason, it’s been found, codes ending in 1 are more susceptible to being on the receiving end of this technique.
What’s the Point of Referral Spam?
The though process behind referral spam is that you will notice the high number of referrals coming from a site such as editorschoice.hulfingtonpost.com (a personal favorite of mine) and instantly think that a reputable news source has linked to your company. Spammers then expect you to click through the referral link to find out exactly what Huffington Post may have said about your company, only to redirect you to their spam site.
An example of a referral spam site.
In most cases, you will be linked to a spammy shopping site filled with ads and too-good-to-be-true pricing (See Above). On the unlucky side of the spectrum, however, you may find yourself directed to a site that can download malware to your computer. Either way, don’t click these links! Doing so not only puts you at risk for virus infection, but also gives spammers actionable data (click-throughs) to justify their crooked advertising.
How Will Referral Spam Affect My Site Analytics?
As great as these referrals and high numbers may seem on paper, they are essentially worthless and only serve to skew the data you use to judge your performance. For example, each time the spam site pings your analytics the “site visit” captured is recorded as not even being a second long. As a result, your average time on site will go down and your bounce rate will go up.
What You Should Do
When experiencing referral spam attacks on your google analytics’ code, there are two courses of action to take. In order to do either you must have admin privileges on your account:
The first is for you to create an individual filter for each spam site as they appear. While more effective, this method of prevention is not very proactive, and requires that you first receive some form of spam.
The process goes as follows:
- Create and title a new filter
- Select custom filter type
- Select “Exclude”
- Choose “Campaign Source” in the filter field drop down
- Type in the spam domain name
- Hit save
The second method is to exclude all website visits that do not go through your own website hosting, i.e. a domain that is bombarding a code, rather than a site. While this proactive approach will block the majority of referral spam, there are some downsides. Adding this filter may not record data prior to being implemented, leaving you with a sizable gap in your long-term analytics. As such, it is a good idea to create a test filter to try this method out.
The process for this option is as follows:
- Create and title a new filter
- Select Custom Filter Type
- Select “Include”
- Define as “Hostname”
- Type in your domain name
- Hit save
Overall, referral spam is very problematic for any webmaster or marketing expert to gauge the effectiveness of their marketing and get a clear view of how many people are visiting their site. When confronted with spam, its better to use one of the methods described above to get rid of it than to just ignore it. If you have any questions about how you can implement the plans described above, feel free to reach out! We would be happy to assist you.
For those set on the first method described above (with a bit of time on their hands) here is a full list of spam sites to look out for (Credit to Ben Travis of Viget for compiling this list)[row]
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