Could Referral Spam be Skewing your Google Analytics Data?

What is driving people to your website?

Of all the information available on Google Analytics, this insight is arguably the most important, as it reveals a trove of data about the success of your website, the origin of your visitors, and the efficacy of your marketing strategies.

Google Analytics has always been a trusted source for referral data, but a new issue known as referral spam is now threatening its credibility.

Firstly, what is referral spam? This is basically fake traffic that misleads people into thinking that certain websites are driving users to their site. This might seem harmless, but it can actually cause a host of problems.

To comprehend the severity of this issue — and to determine whether it’s affecting you — it’s important to first understand how referral data is accessed and analyzed.

When you log into Google Analytics, one of the first things you’ll see is a dashboard in the left column with a series of reporting data. Scroll down this list and eventually, you’ll land on “Acquisition.” When you expand this area, it fans out a number of subcategories that show how visitors landed on your website.

Here you can see all of the domains that drove people to your site. While many of these are legit, others are phony and often ridden with malware. Not only does this put guarded information of yours at risk, but it also breeds a false sense of confidence in your website by making visitor numbers appear larger than they are.

What plagues even the most experienced webmasters is that while some domains are obviously bogus (see screenshot below), others appear to be legitimate. Since it’s not implausible that an authoritative website like Lifehacker would link to your site, you’re tempted to click the link for more info. This is how they get you.

Without getting into the gritty details about how these attacks are executed (you can read about those here), suffice it to say that you don’t want to deal with them. Fortunately, there are ways to combat referral spam. This first step is to constantly update your anti-spam filters to adjust to new tactics used by hackers.

According to SEO specialist Georgi Georgiev, you should also filter out traffic that contains a usual number of symbols or any number of invalid characters. Here is how to do that, according to Search Engine Journal:

  • Visit your Google Analytics reporting dashboard
  • Click on ‘Admin’ in the top navigation menu
  • On the far right-hand side, click on the option that says ‘View Settings’
  • Click on ‘Filters’ on the left-hand menu
  • Click on the red button that says ‘+ Add Filter’
  • Change Filter Type to “Custom”
  • Apply settings as shown in the screenshot below (for your copying and pasting convenience: .{15,}|\s[^s]*\s|\.|,|\!|\/ )

If you’re not a Rebuild Group client, make sure you talk to your webmaster about referral spam and make sure he or she is taking the necessary steps to combat it. If you are a client, we’ve got you covered! Rest easy knowing that we are only sending you the most relevant data and qualified leads.