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What is Referral Spam?

Anyone who uses Google Analytics and receives at least a moderate amount of traffic on their website has probably encountered the latest type of spam to hit the market: Referral spam.

So what is referral spam? Referral spam is garbage traffic that shows up in your Google Analytics reports. This “traffic” is not really traffic at all, but a hacker that has found a way to get their name and URL in front of you and your web design team.

To understand referral spam, you need to have a basic understanding of how Google Analytics works. When you set up Google Analytics (and really any website traffic reporting tool) you’re inserting a snippet of javascript on your website. This script downloads another javascript file from Google and configures the reporting services using an ID provided to you by Google. When the page is loaded, the javascript is executed and sends data to Google’s server along with the ID that Google gave you.

The flaw in this system is that because all of this happens on the client (it has to, that’s what you’re attempting to track), Google’s code to report the activity as well as your ID are both completely visible to anybody with the desire and ability to see them. Referral spammers use this information to spoof traffic on your website and send false data to Google’s servers with your ID as having originated from their domain, so it appears as though you received a lot of traffic from their website.

The theory is that webmasters looking at this data care about inbound links (websites that link to your website). So a website that is sending a high volume of traffic to your website needs to be looked at to see why. Once you’re there, they hope to try to convert you to a customer somehow.

What this boils down to is a lot of bogus traffic that mucks up your analytics reports, in certain instances making them completely useless. Google has been surprisingly silent on this issue (which seems completely ridiculous to me with how big of an issue it’s become), and it seems as though they either have no answer to the problem or they simply don’t care enough to address it publicly. Either way, it devalues their service tremendously.

Recently I had a client to whom we provide SEO services call me wondering why their traffic numbers dropped dramatically after we took over their website maintenance and search engine optimization. The answer was that we had eliminated all of the bogus traffic from their reports which had previously made up approximately 70% of their total reported website traffic.

The bigger question is how did we eliminate the traffic? Unfortunately there’s no way to stop a referral spammer from sending bad data to Google, and as new spammers pop up, they each need to be dealt with individually, so it’s an ongoing battle. The only way to really deal with the issue is to filter out the bad results from your reports. This is the best article I’ve found yet on eliminating referral spam, and it’s updated regularly so it should be helpful.

Unfortunately, until Google addresses the problem, we’re going to be stuck with workarounds like this. Feel free to get in touch with me personally if you need any help, or reach out to me on Twitter.

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