We have been seeing a large rise in referrer spam in Google Analytics which is causing problems for a lot of website owners. There is also a lot of misinformation on the web about how to resolve these issues which we will look to clear up in the blog post and the subsequent resources we have created to block spam bots in Google Analytics. This blog post will look at what causes referral spam in Google Analytics.
What is a Referrer
A referrer is a HTTP Header that is sent to a website when a user clicks on a link from one website to another. For example, within your web analytics software such as Google Analytics, you can see what other websites (the referrer) are driving traffic to your website which can be useful to track how popular your website content it around the web.
The referrer is extremely valuable although due to its nature, it is possible to abuse this information and trick web analytics software into thinking a genuine user has performed an action on an external website to visit your website. When in fact this was just completed by a software script to mess with your analytics data, often to place links into your web analytics platform designed to make users take a look at those which can often be a virus or an affiliate link to a popular website so that they can earn money the next time you purchase something from that website.
How Referrer Spam Works
What actually happens with all types of referral spam is that the HTTP Referrer header information is faked. When creating scripts to spam people, to explain this simply, you say what the URL is and what the HTTP Referrer header information is. For example;
HTTP Referrer: www.another-website.com
So when Google Analytics receives this information, the www.another-website.com shows as a referral website visit which is why it then appears within the Google Analytics reports. The finer details are a little more complex than this in the background, but this gives you a basic understanding of what is happening.
Referral Spam that Visits your Website
From Google’s point of view, the data that has been received for the HTTP Referrer is genuine and there is no way of determining any difference. Hence why this data is sent straight into Google Analytics just like a valid website visitor’s data would be sent into Google Analytics.
This type of referrer spam is actually reasonably simple to block using the .htaccess file. Read up on the finer details on the resources page about how to stop this. Essentially, you can block certain website visits if they have come from a certain source. For example, you could block anyone trying to access your website if they have come from www.google.com. But you wouldn’t do that, that would be insane. Instead, you can identify the spam domains and block access from these.
Referral Spam that Sends Data Directly into Google Analytics
Other types of referral spam will send data directly into your Google Analytics account without ever visiting your website. Which makes dealing with this type of referral spam a little different. How this actually works is that a script sends the data directly to Google Analytics and associates this with your account. Your account has an ID number which looks like, UA-00000001-1, then another website owner has an account like UA-00000002-1 and so on.
So how these types of scripts work is that they simply send the fake data directly to Google and the different accounts, essentially looping through the account numbers hundreds of thousands of times so their referral spam ends up in as many different accounts as possible. The data that is sent through into Google Analytics by spammers can be customised to whatever they like, which is a little annoying for website owners and a continual job to keep up to date with this.
What this means is that you need to take a different approach to block this type of spam from Google Analytics. This needs to be implemented directly within Google Analytics. There are two things that you can do within Google Analytics which are blocking spam bots that Google is aware of and also blocking individual referral domains that aren’t being blocked by default. There is a full guide on how to block this type of referral spam over on our resources page. If you have any specific queries about how to deal with referral spam within your own Google Analytics account then get in touch and we can take a look at what the solution will be for you. If you are interested in reading the highly technical details behind what is happening, then this post explains this in great detail.