If you monitor your website data with Google Analytics you have no doubt seen a surprising rise in “visits.” While this is typically cause for celebration, these “visits” are actually part of a growing blight known as Ghost Referrals. These false visits obscure important data and can interfere with your marketing so it’s important to identify them and develop a strategy to remove them from your reports.
What are Ghost Referrals?
Ghost Referrals are part of an ever expanding trend which is known as referrer spam because it inflates the number of visits to a site from a referred source. In other words, a visitor to your website was referred to your site via a link on another site, the referrer. As site owners, we all like referrals because it represents a tacit endorsement. In an organic referrer situation, someone deems the content on your site worth mentioning to their audience so it’s generally a very good thing. However, this is the social hack that referral spammers are playing on. If a site owner sees referrals from a domain in their analytic account what would their next move be? They will visit that site to see what the linking site is and what they had to say about the content they linked to. But here’s the play; there is no link. These referral spammers merely lift the analytic account number from your site (which is openly exposed through “view source”) and then generate hits to your analytic account by firing off the code. The result is a registered visit from a referral source when no human or bot has actually visited your site. This introduces erroneous information into your analytics which can lead to false assumptions about what’s happening on your site.
There is a special place in hell for the people that employ this tactic. At best, it’s unimaginative and, at it’s worst, it’s evil. The referrer domains are sometimes malicious destinations that carry malware. Others are quasi-legitimate businesses that contract shady SEO companies to increase traffic. Typical destinations include sites like floating-share-buttons.com but there are many, many others. If you dig into your dashboard you can see the culprits that typically look something like this screen grab shown below.
Note: The reality of this example is particularly striking because this is a site that is turned of to crawlers and is unpublished.
How to Deal With Referral Spam
The stark reality is that there is little you can do to alleviate this scourge. At some point Google needs to examine their system and design a way for the ID to be encrypted or verified as being on the domain that owns the account, but until they see fit to fix this shortcoming, the only recourse site owners have is to filter their analytics. Filtering is a pain but until you get the junk out of your reports they are damaged goods.
While your first reaction may be to employ a Referral Exclusion List, which marks data from the ghost referral generators and removes it from the referral sources, Michael Sullivan at Analytics Edge makes a compelling case not to adopt this approach. In his blog post “Why You Should Not Use the Referral Exclusion List for Spam” he provides a thorough explanation as to why adding a lot of spam domains to your Referral Exclusion List can cause those spam visits to be registered as Direct Traffic which will further corrupt your data. Well worth the read.
Instead, the best filter for simple accounts that rely on one domain, is to create a Valid Hostname Filter. Analytics Edge has a very comprehensive implementation walk-through for setting up this filter here: Eliminating Ghost Referrals. I implemented this and started getting much cleaner reports. There are also some great approaches to removing other types of Referrer Spam there as well.
Invest in Cleaner Data
Google Analytics is an amazing tool for business. It allows you to better understand how users find your site and interact with it, but it is only as good as the data that comes into it. It’s important to manage your account and keep the data clean. Ghost referrals can seriously skew your data and need to be filtered out. It takes time and effort but, in the end, the better your data, the better your decisions will be to guide your business marketing.