What’s the Scoop about Spam Referral Traffic?
August 6, 2015
Image courtesy of Christian Barmala
What’s the Scoop about Referral Spam Traffic?
In the world of SEO and online marketing, there is something out there that haunts us day and night, and keeps attacking and slashing like a villain from those terribly great horror movies from the 80’s. This culprit is Spam Referral Traffic. It is the talk of the town mainly because it keeps multiplying, there currently isn’t a cure-all solution for it, and the major search engines, like Google, haven’t made any major progress to put a stop to it.
I know that a lot of people have discussed this topic, and there are many sources out on tips and tricks on how to get rid of (some) of it. However, I wanted to discuss exactly WHAT spam referral traffic is, WHY it is, and then provide the latest tips and tricks on HOW to get rid of it.
WHAT is this Referral Spam?
Spam referral traffic is essentially “fake traffic” that shows up within a website’s analytics metrics. They show up as URLs in the referral section of your reporting and because referral traffic is one of the major source categories within analytics, having this data showing up within the data can severely compromise the data for that website. This is especially the case if it’s a younger or smaller website that doesn’t get a lot of traffic on an average per month basis.
There are “good bots” and “bad bots” that crawl websites throughout the internet. An example of a “good bot” is Googlebot. And we have to be very nice to this “good bot,” especially knowing that it determines your rankings on Google. But there are “bad bots” out there as well, and many of them are the source of this Spam Referral Traffic. This traffic comes from “bad bots” that people create for spamming purposes.
The majority of spam referral traffic is known as “Ghost Referrers.” And they are called this because they never actually visit your website, but in fact go after your Google Analytics directly. The way that they accomplish this is through Google’s own Measurement Protocol, and by utilizing this, the spammers submit their data directly to the Google Analytics data.
Ohow featured a pretty cool infographic that shows how Ghost Spam Works. I have included a shot of this below:
WHY is there Spam Referral traffic?
Ultimately, the spammers are trying to get traffic back to their websites. So when people see these URLs within their site’s Google Analytics data, more often than not, curiosity will take over, people will navigate to that website in order to see what it is, and then they got you! Mission accomplished. These spammers are sending their “bad bots” to thousands of websites a day, and even if a small number of the website owners are navigating to these sites on a daily basis, that is a consistent flow of traffic to their sites!
These people use the enticement of the steady flow of traffic as a selling point, and try to sell their services, or ad placements locations on their sites to potential customers. How do they sleep at night? 😉
HOW to tell if you have a Spam Referral Traffic Problem?
If there is a mystery URL showing up in your analytics data, and you suspect that it might be spam referral traffic, there are a couple of ways to identify if it is in fact spam traffic.
- First is the name of the site. If the URL says something suspicious like “free-seo.com” or one of my favorites, “googlsucks.com” then chances are, it’s a spam site. Ohow provided a list of some of the most common spam referral sources here.
- Second is the Bounce Rate. Each and every one of these spam referrals will show a 100% bounce rate within the data.
- Third would be the Time On Site metrics, which will usually show up as a “0.00.”
HOW can I get rid of this Spam referral traffic?
One thing to point out is that there currently isn’t a simple one-step solution to get rid of this traffic. However, people have come up with a variety of solutions that have helped get rid of the spam, and get their analytics data back to “purity”. I will briefly cover some of the ways to do this. I wont go into too much detail, but I have included some good sources, so you can research each of these methods at your leisure.
Image courtesy of: Bruce Clay, Inc.
Option #1. Block Spam Traffic through the htaccess File
Moz provided an explanation of this process, and you can check this out here.
To quote the article:
“The best way to block referrers from accessing your site at all is to block them in your .htaccess file in the root directory of your domain. You can copy and paste the following code into your .htaccess file, assuming you’re on an Apache server.”
This is a proven way to remove some of the spam traffic, however as more spam referral sites are created, you do have to keep updating your htaccess file. So if your website is only getting infiltrated by a handful of spam referral sites, this is a good way to do this.
Option #2. Remove Bots with Special Filters within Google Analytics
Within Analytics itself, you can use filters to filter out a lot of things from your analytics data. Some of these include IP addresses, specific country traffic, and more. You can also use these to weed out the spam referral traffic. Blog.analytics-toolkit.com provided a good step-by-step process for implementing this here. And our friends at Moz provided a good source for this about halfway down their article here.
One important step that you need to take before setting any filters like above is to always keep a view of your website data that is raw and untampered data. This way, you can always go back to the pure data if you need to extract information.
Option #3. Utilize a WordPress Application
If your website is built with WordPress, there are special applications or widgets out there that you can use to filter out the spam referral traffic. These widgets are fairly easy to use, and you can quickly add in spam referral sources without having to go into the htaccess file directly. Here’s an example of one of these application, provided by Lesterchan.net.
Option #4. Implement Meta Referrer Tags
This is one of the newest methods of filtering out the spam referral traffic, and truth be told, I am still trying to wrap my head around this method. However it has been proven affective, and there is a good breakdown of it provided by the great people at Moz. You can view this article about adding Meta Referrer Tags here.
How to talk to your Clients about Spam Referral Traffic?
One of the challenges that SEOs face currently is explaining exactly what spam referral traffic is to their clients, and setting the right expectations about them. I have several points that I feel are important to convey to them.
- First is that this is happening across the board, and is affecting websites big and small.
- Second, the referral spam traffic does not affect organic search traffic. In fact these are not affecting a website’s search volume at all. As TheSEMPost concluded in their post, Google doesn’t include this into their ranking factors, which is good.
- Third, that this is an on-going initiative. As more spam referral sources keep showing up in the analytic data, continuous action needs to be taken in order to keep the spam referral traffic removal updated.
Spam referral traffic is here to stay and will continue to affect all of our websites as long as Google and the major search engines continue to allow them. So I think that we should all collectively send very strongly worded letters to Google and ask them to finally do something about it.
Until this day comes, however, it is important to be educated about the enemy itself, know steps on how you can remedy the situation, and how your can achieve traffic success for yourself, as well as for your clients. Happy SEO-ing folks!
Image courtesy of: Vassilis