While it’s been around for years, referrer spam or referral spam is growing at an extraordinary pace in 2015, ruining Google Analytics data for website administrators, business owners, and data geeks.
If you’ve invested your time into customizing your channels and adding UTM parameters like I explained in Getting the Most out of Channel Groupings in Google Analytics, then referrer spam is going to make all the effort meaningless.
In the last two months, many of our clients have had their accounts suffer from referrer spam, and it was time for us to take a serious look at this problem and what to do about it. This post will explain what referrer spam is, how deter it, and what to look for in the future.
What is Referrer Spam?
Referrer spam is when there is an increase in visitors and pageviews in Google Analytics, but the referring domains are spammy websites and not legitimate visitors.
In the image below, you’ll see an example of how referral spam is affecting a client’s Referral Channel in Google Analytics.
How does Referral Spam Occur?
Black-hat programmers send requests not to your website, but to your Google Analytics account by targeting your UA code which looks like UA-########. So, they never even visit your website!
UA codes for accounts are just numbers in sequential order, so there’s not much work that a programmer needs to do in order to find your account.
Once the program triggers your UA code, it sends Google the referring site’s domain, making it look as if a visitor arrived at your site from the fake or spammy domain.
This affects referral information in your Google Analytics. What’s more, you can’t just simply remove the fake referral data from your account. So, then, how do you stope referrer spam?
How to Stop Referrer Spam
Currently, there is no way to stop referrer spam before it happens, and the only way to remove it is with filters in Google Analytics.
Before you continue, be sure to create a new View in Google Analytics. This allows you to maintain your raw data, and apply the filters you need. You can learn how to make a new view here: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1009714?hl=en
First, sign into your Google Analytics account and head to the Admin section.
- Select the View that you want to use.
- Add a New Filter
- Select “Create new Filter”
- Under Filter Type select “Custom”
- Under Filter Field select “Campaign Source”
- Add the below pattern to the Filter Pattern
The above pattern takes care of a small set of referrer spam sites, you will need to add more as your list grows. Google Analytics only allows for 255 characters in the Filter Pattern field. That means if your pattern is more than 255 characters, you’ll need to create additional filters.
Segment Current Analytics
The problem with creating filters is that they only apply to information collecting in the future, not today. You still need to know who is legitimately visiting your website.
- Select the View that you want to use.
- Select “Segments”
- Create a New Segment and label it.
- Add a Filter
- Select “Source” for the first condition and select “matches regex” to the 2nd box, then add the same pattern you entered in under the Create Filters section of this post.
- Repeat until all patterns have been entered.
Apply this segment to your data to see those referrers stricken from your data.
Referrer Spam Help
If adding new filters and referrer exclusions each time a new referrer spam domain pops up in your analytics is annoying to you, try referrer-spam.help. This website and service is completely free!
What this service does is request your Google Analytics to add filters automatically. The service will update those rules as more spammy domains appear. This gives you a hands off approach to filtering out referrer spam.
How does this work? Any time refferer-spam.help recognizes that many websites have similar referrer domains, they mark those domains and consider adding them to their list. The service requests access to analytics data, analytics entities, and offline access, in order to help detect referrer spam and add filters to remove them from your analytics data. This access is done at the account level, and you can revoke access at any time.
Setting up this service is incredibly easy. Just follow these steps:
- Sign into your Google Analytics account
- Visit referrer-spam.help
- Click “Start Cleaning”
- Click on which accounts and profiles you want to provide access to
- Click “Protect Now” (this may take a while)
- If you want to get automatic updates, click “Enable Updates”, follow the steps in the pop-up from Google
They made this a really simple process that can be helpful in the future.
Future of Referrer Spam
The truth is I’m really not pleased with the current set of tools to combat referrer spam. These are reactive solutions, not proactive. Google should be working more with administrators to stop referrer spam from occurring in the first place.
It’s a joke to have to add new filters as new fake domains appear. It’s chasing a dragon. referrer-spam.help is a good start for being a service that does this for you, but I really feel that this should be on Google’s shoulders. But this issue is still relatively new, and other than filters and exclusions, the best we can do is hope for a permanent fix in the future.
Steve Scott is the CEO & Director of Training at the Tampa SEO Training Academy. He has taught SEO skills to people from around the world and currently offers his hands-on search engine optimization training workshops in Tampa to individuals and businesses of all sizes. Corporate SEO training classes and consulting are also available.