Referral spam: The new spam trend that creates false website visitors

On the internet, people constantly seem to find new ways of spreading viruses or malware and adverts for illicit products such as medication. The latest trend seems to be Referral Spam.

What is referral spam?

Referral spammers use computer systems to visit (spider) as many websites as they can. They do this in a similar way to Google. However instead of trying to index all these websites to provide a public service, their only goal is to make themselves show up in your website statistics. For many people who see a sudden increase in website visitors, this simply means one of these referral spam spiders found their website. In Google Analytics, this looks as follows:

 The negative effects of referral spam

People who are curious where their visitors come from and therefore look at these referral websites more closely will usually find that their computers are being infected with viruses and other malware.

On top of this, many smaller websites may find that over half of the traffic that is being reported in Google Analytics consists of referral spam. Referral spammers always leave (bounce off) the website straight away. They never look at more than one page and the time of visit is always 0 seconds. As a result, the website statistics lose their usefulness as they no longer provide any actionable insights.

What can be done about referral spam

Referral spam is extremely hard to fight. There is no effective spam blocker. The only thing that can be done about it is block it as you identify it, but like email spammers, the addresses or domains constantly change. It is as if you’re trying to block email spam by manually identifying and filtering emails using the subject line. Clearly not very effective since they constantly change. Nonetheless, it can be done.

First line of defence: Referral Spam Filtering on the Server

On all our clients’ websites, we check the referring website against a long list of known spam-domains and if they match, we simply blocked them from accessing the website and as such they can’t leave their imprint in the statistics and also can’t create any undue pressure on the server resources. We use a WordPress plugin that automatically updates from a central list which we continuously add to in order to keep this manageable.

Second line of defence: Referral Spam Filtering in Google Analytics

Google Analytics enables filtering which is one of the best ways to fight this. Every Roobix client will find that their Google Analytics now has 2 views:

  • Unfiltered View
  • Master View

The Unfiltered View is exactly that. No filters have been applied and this will continue to be ‘polluted’ by false data. However it provides a reference against older statistics. In addition every client now has a Master View, which does have filters applied to make the data useful again. We go through and add new websites as they appear across all our clients Google Analytics in an attempt to keep these reports useful.

Fighting the good fight against spammers

Many people who don’t apply these types of filters will find that their website statistics are artificially increasing without actually receiving more genuine website visitors or leads. Referral spam is the reason.

Unfortunately, like with email spammers and malware creators, the good guys are always a step behind. However, just like everyone uses antivirus and spam filtering, this doesn’t mean the only option is to give up. As part of our hosting service, all Roobix clients who have provided us with access to their Google Analytics Account and edit or admin rights will receive free filtering to ensure they continue to receive reliable website statistics.