Need an alternative to blocking referral spam?

Olga TsubiksAnalytics, Analytics Canvas Tool, Google Analytics Data

Have you heard of referral spam?

You may have seen it in your Google Analytics. It junks up your reports. It creates a lot of noise in your data. It wastes your time. It skews your online marketing results.

Referrer spam is not a new phenomenon, but it has taken a serious turn this year. Just look at this chart from Google Trends.



As you can see, at the end of 2014 referrer spammers flooded Google Analytics referral data – and the amount of spam continues to grow and grow.

What is referral spam?

This article by Carlos Excalera, presents a helpful take on referral spam, dividing it into two categories based on how the spammers in question are operating: ghost spam and crawler referral spam.

Ghost spam comes from spammers who send data directly to Google Analytics Servers via Measurement Protocol without visiting a website. Referral spammers visit a website and leave a fake referral URL.

How do you know if you have spam in your data?

Referrer spam create spikes in traffic that can be difficult to interpret. Usually you can find spammers when they show up on your Google Analytics referral sources list. Go to the Acquisition tab in Google Analytics, and examine your referrals. You may see some of the following:

These are just some common examples of referral spam sources. The full list goes on and on, and new referral spammers are popping up every day.

Top 3 reasons to stop ignoring referrer spam

Jeff Sauer raises his concerns in his blog going so far as to call it an epidemic. He points out that the majority of owners of small and medium-sized websites just assume that the data generated by referral spam is legitimate, because these users are used to free and consistent performance of their Google service.

There is an obvious downside to this attitude, however. Referral spam negatively affects your analytics and your business, and should not be ignored. Here’s why:

  1. It clouds your analytics data. The presence of referral spam on your web properties make it difficult to evaluate the true performance of your website. Referral spam makes it look like you have a high bounce rate, that the average time on site is decreasing, that the conversion rate is shrinking, etc.
  2. If you are an advertising agency, you’ll want this issue to be taken care of, to make sure your clients are not paying money for misleading impressions.
  3. If you are an analyst, you are responsible for the quality of your analysis. Avoid the situation of being blamed for not fixing the issue, and allowing business decisions to be made based on fake data; the growing volume of referral traffic will become obvious to the management at some point.

Approaches to blocking referral spam

Setting up filters can ease the problem significantly and prevent referral spam from showing up in your referral sources lists, from the moment you set up the filters.

This article by Rishi Lakhani, describes how to add referral spammers to the “Referral Exclusion List” of your Google Analytics Filters, in 3 easy steps. This is a nifty solution if you have only a handful of referral spammers that come to your website. It is a good solution for a while – and up to a point. But the growth in the volume of referral spam is calling for a more robust solution.

Simo Ahava, in his blog,offers a tool that creates referral spam filters in Google Analytics. This solution will filter out spam that comes as referral traffic from known referral spam sources.

Another popular solution is to block referral spam via a .htaccess file, which can be found in the root directory of a domain on an Apache server. Jared Gerdner, in his article, suggests this method.

Himanshu Sharma provides an overview of 10 other methods for blocking referral spam in his in-depth article.

Setting up filters or creating a .htaccess file requires some technical knowledge – and will not remove referral spam sessions that have already happened.

Want an alternative to blocking referral spam?

Referral Spam Report

Protecting your own or your client’s websites from spam is a full-time job, and one that is more related to network security than analytics. It takes a great deal of time to learn all the tricks of the trade. As an analyst, or digital marketing expert, you may be more comfortable with cleaning your data, simply because you already know how!

Analytics Canvas’s tool helps you export the data from your Google Analytics, clean it up, and prepare spam-free reports.

Imagine if Excel had a formula “=detectSpam()”. Sounds great, doesn’t it? This is how easy it is with Analytics Canvas!

Here are the 3 steps that you take to remove referral spam:

  1. Authorize with Google Analytics and grab your data,
  2. Use the IsReferralSpam() function to clean all your sessions,
  3. Create a report that is based on clean data.

Learn more by watching this tutorial: Cleaning Website Referral Traffic Data.

Cleaning Referral Traffic Data

What to do with referral spam that’s showing up as direct traffic?

Referrer spam can be left blank by the spammers, so that spam traffic appears as direct traffic on your website. This is the main reason that filters on the common referrer sources don’t work and you see an unexpected and unexplained surge in direct traffic. If you are running offline campaigns, it can be hard to identify which direct traffic is legitimate.

Is your direct traffic legitimate? It might be. It might not. To separate right from wrong Dave Buesing,  in his blog post, suggests analyzing the behavior of your direct traffic visitors. Who are these people? Direct traffic comes from people who remember your website link or have seen it in offline sources and are able to type it into their browser directly. They also may have saved a bookmark that brings them to your site, or clicked on the link in an eBook or a PDF file. Liz Lockard details a few other reasons that may lead to your traffic showing as direct, and provides some suggestions on how to decode the direct traffic.

When you add up all the facts, one thing is clear – spam bots behave differently from actual people. Most of the time (but not always!) spam bots have a high bounce rate, show up as a new visitor to your website, and almost always leave immediately without browsing,as a regular visitor would.

You can use Analytics Canvas to pick up on these behaviors and filter direct traffic that is spam. Even if you have set up filters on all of your websites, you may still benefit from additional data cleaning. To download a free trial of Analytics Canvas, go to