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Tackling Referral Spam in Google Analytics

Over the past year the occurrence of fake referral visits appearing in Google Analytics reports has become more widespread and an annoyance for many website marketers who are seeing an increase in these false domain names in their reports. These is something that Google Analytics can’t seem to block and new types of fake activity are starting to appear, including false event actions. So what can be done about them?

We first covered this issue in September last year with an article called ‘The Issue of Semalt Referrals in Google Analytics’ as the first occurrence of this activity came from fake visits appearing to come from the domain. Initially this was a minor irritation but the number of sessions now coming from fake or ‘ghost’ domains is becoming more widespread and a bigger distraction for many websites as they can skew the visit metrics in many accounts.

These ghost referrals create visit sessions in Analytics traffic reports, apparently indicating that people have clicked to a website from a fake link on the reported site. These sessions are identified by 100% new visits and also show 100% bounce rate, and often occur in high numbers for a short period of time. Common websites offer ‘buttons’ for your website or special SEO offers, and the sessions mostly emanate from Brazil or Russia, although this is not always the case.

So why are these fake referrals happening? In most cases, by appearing as a referral source the people behind these domains want Analytics users to notice them and so visit their websites to see what they are. They may then try selling SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) or Analytics services, like Semalt did (and is now using the domain, or they may be trying to spread a virus onto an unsuspecting user’s device. Either way, they represent an unscrupulous technique which is an annoyance at best, and at worst, a threat to the value of Analytics reports as well as people’s devices.

A more recent development has been the creation of fake events in users’ Analytics reports which are linked to the ghost referrals coming from the domain Indications are that this issue is going to get worse, but there has been little acknowledgement from Google about this, or attempts to block this activity, so what can be done?

The best way to remove these fake referrals is to add a filter to your reports view (rather than by adding the ghost domains to the Referral Exclusion list in the Admin / Property settings). A Google search for many of these fake referral sites will display many articles and opinions on how to deal with them, but most will recommend creating a filter for the Google Analytics views being used – in which case, a RAW unfiltered view should be retained and a new view created with the necessary filters added. Details about how to filter all types of referral spam can be found here. You can also find out about removing the newer referral spam here.

Eventually Google may build in some ways to remove this ghost activity from all Analytics accounts, but the people and techniques being used behind this dubious business practice will keep trying to find ways to add their spam activity to the Analytics reports. Hopefully it remains a phase that will eventually die out, rather than a growing trend that increasingly damages the value of Google Analytics as a tracking and reporting tool for websites.

If you want to know more about how these ghost referrals could impact your business and ways to combat them, please contact us now for more details.