Is Ghost Referral Spam Haunting Your Analytics (And Confusing Your Clients)?

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Many webmasters and SEOs are currently working through a new online spam game that’s affecting Google Analytics data. Since late last year many web marketers started to notice anomalies in Google Analytics data. The problem became obvious when there was large increase in referral traffic across many Google Analytics accounts. However, this new spike in traffic also skewed data in other metrics such as the time spent on websites and bounce rates.

Referral Spike on April 2o

Referral Traffic Spike on April 20, 2015

When we dug deeper we were able to see that the spikes in referral traffic weren’t from legitimate sources, but instead, from what is now called “Ghost” referral traffic or ghost referral spam.

These types of spam referrals are affecting almost everyone that uses Google Analytics to monitor website traffic and statistics, and is becoming an increasingly common problem.

What is Ghost Referral Traffic?

“Ghost” referrals or referral spam is exactly what it sounds like. This traffic shows up in Google Analytics as a referral visitor from a website. However, when you look closer you notice that the hit isn’t from a real visitor, but simply a digital mark left in Google Analytics by these domains.

What Ghost referrals look like in real life, probably.

What Ghost referrals look like in real life, probably.

As of right now there are two main types of spam affecting Google Analytics data. The first type are spam bots or crawlers. These bots crawl each page of your site, often ignoring your robots.txt. The most common bot known is “Semalt”, however there are others. Many identified and tackled this issue late last year by blocking these crawlers from accessing websites in the first place. You can read more about blocking this type of spam bot with .htaccess at StackOverflow.

The issue that has currently presented itself are simply spam referrals from various domains. Most of these domain names have adult themes, and for us began hitting our sites around April 20th, 2015. Research by other search marketers has shown that everyone with a tracking code “UA-XXXXXXX-1” has been affected, if not more.

The difference in spam bots and these new spam referrals is that the “traffic” from the new domains never actually hit your website, instead just leave a digital trail affecting only Google Analytics data, by using your Google Analytics tracking code to do so. Therefore you can’t use the .htaccess method to block this type of traffic, but instead must create filters in Google Analytics to stop the referrals from ruining your data.

Will Ghost Referral Traffic Affect my Website or SEO?

Absolutely not. This problem is exclusive to Google Analytics data. I mentioned before, these current spam referrals don’t even hit your site – just show up in your top referrers in Analytics.

What is affected, however, is reporting and data. These spam referrals hit all in one day, showing upwards of 650 hits in a day in some cases. They bring with them a 100% bounce rate and a 0 ‘time on site’ metric.

What does this mean?

  • This greatly increases your overall bounce rate.
  • It decreases the overall time on your website.
  • It falsely increases visitors to your website.

  • It skews referral data, making it difficult to see what referral avenues are actually working.
  • It also hinders our Goal Conversion and location data, as most of this traffic is from Russia.



You can see here that this client had a moderate amount of good referral traffic, with a bounce rate of 45.90% and an average “session duration” of 3 minutes and 40 seconds.



After the referral “attack” we now have a bounce rate of 91.54% and an average session duration of a measly 51 seconds. All of the domains shown in this data are spam referrals, all coming from April 20th.

 Location data, After

Prior to the Analytics attack this client's traffic was 95.4% US/Local - This is how the location data looks for this month.

Prior to the Analytics attack this client’s traffic was predominantly US/Local – This is how the location data looks for this month.

Why are sites targeting Google Analytics data, what’s the point of spamming in this way?

The most common conclusion by many search marketing professionals is that these sites are cleverly using a black-hat affiliate marketing technique to drive traffic back to their sites.

They present themselves in data, and webmasters and SEOs will check out the site to ensure that there is no actual backlink on these spammy websites. The investigation shows up as direct traffic and time on site for these domains, especially when marketers visit multiple pages to ensure that there is no backlink to their website. Now these sites have a steady base of “traffic” to show prospective advertising clients. DO NOT CLICK THE LINKS as advised in this article.

dont click spam links


How do you stop Ghost referral spam in Google Analytics?

There are a few techniques to block this type of traffic from hindering Google Analytics data. As I mentioned before, many were able to block spam bots earlier this year by implementing a block in .htaccess to stop these crawlers from accessing websites.

filter view google analytics

Applying filters in Google Analytics

However with the newest type of “Ghost” spam, we must manually filter each domain out of analytics. At this time Google hasn’t addressed this particular issue. The only problem with implementing filters is that Google Analytics does not allow us to apply them retroactively. Therefore this spam traffic will continue to show in past metrics and data unless you apply views with advanced segments.

Many web marketers are diligently working to block these traffic sources. Here are some great resources for the various methods of blocking “Ghost” referral traffic from your Google Analytics account, as well as a list of domains that are currently affecting our client’s traffic.

We will continue to update our list of domains found, as well as provide more information in this post as we learn more about spam referrals and how to address them.

A great guide for blocking crawlers via .htaccess…

How to Block Spam Crawlers from Ruining Your Google Analytics Data – by

More about filtering current referral spam from your Analytics data…

Removing Referral Spam from Google Analytics – by

Known Spam Referral Domains



















Pretty classy list. And you have been warned…don’t click the links for “reasearch”.

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