Updated 2020

Over the years I’ve noticed a Google Analytics phenomenon that initially seemed exciting, but was ultimately misleading. 

The Initial Excitement

It all begins when a client comes to me excited because their overall traffic is making huge gains. In each instance, the traffic graph looks like a hockey stick with a handle seemingly pointing to a huge surge in traffic. 

For most businesses running a site and monitoring their Analytics numbers on their own, they may continue to believe to this day that there was some miracle of modern marketing that increased their traffic.

For my clients, I had to tell them the truth.

Most of that “traffic” never even made it to the site. It’s just an inflated number. 

Many people know what the term spam is, mainly from unsolicited emails that end up in their spam folder. 

SPAM in its Many Forms

For those who deal with online marketing, “spam” can come in many different forms, but generally, it means that something is being manipulated artificially through automation, and it is usually used to a devious end.

Email Spam, of course, is using automated emails sent to bulk lists.

Link Spam is an automated process of creating low-quality site links that are replicated over and over to increase website authority artificially for Search Engine Optimization gains. 

Of all of the different types of spam, there are only two that Google has not done everything they can to root out – Analytics Referral Spam and the SPAM in the supermarket. Say hello to Google Analytics Crawler Spam.

While we may never know what supermarket SPAM is made from we do know what constitutes Referral Spam in Google Analytics

When you are in your Google Analytics dashboard and drill down to check out your Acquisition numbers, you will see a huge number of Referral visits compared to the rest of your traffic. 

Unfortunately, this is artificially inflated traffic. 

Check Your Referral Traffic

Depending on the type of marketing that you do and many other factors, your referral traffic as a percentage may vary, but I find that for an active site doing online marketing with pay per click, search optimization, social media, and email marketing, the Referral traffic should not be one of the highest sources of visitors. 

An exception would be if you have a very strong Inbound Marketing program and your viral content is producing traffic.

If you see this number tower over the rest, however, especially out of the blue, it should be a red flag

Drilling down further into the Referral traffic will show many domains as traffic sources that also seemed to have huckster sales names. You may be tempted to visit one, and surprisingly, that is their only goal.

Yes, the Referral Spam is causing all of this inconvenience with the sole purpose of finding curious people to explore their domains. 

The spammers just hope a few people check out their site, and then maybe just a few of those people buy their services, and then all of that hard work will have been worth it. 

But in actuality, there never was any hard work, because this is all work done by software programs that can be readily purchased online. 

The reason Google hasn’t put an end to it yet might be because their software isn’t good at recognizing the spammer software yet.

Referral Spam Red Flags

  • The domain name is a sales pitch like best-fast-awesome-seo.com
  • There is a huge amount of traffic out of the blue and you have never heard of the referring domain
  • The bounce rate is 100%
  • The Time on Site is 0 seconds

Zero seconds? How can that be?

Before we officially decide to label the cause of all “0 seconds on-site” traffic as a bad case of Spam, we should take a moment to think about how Google Analytics knows how much time people are spending on your website.

Google Analytics will issue a timestamp when a page view occurs, and it will stamp again when the user clicks to navigate to another part of the website.

This could really mean a few totally normal things. For example:

  1. Your website doesn’t include enough internal navigation to get the second timestamp
  2. A customer navigated to your website but decided to call you instead 
  3. Your customer spent 20 minutes on the main page, opened Facebook in a new window, and forgot what they were doing in the first place

It’s important to consider your website before you get too worried about bounce rates. Consider the combination of red flags whenever you’re scrutinizing your data.

Crawler Referral Spam

The first type of Referral Spam sends a software “Crawler” (AKA “bot” or “spider”) to your site, which acts like an actual site visitor, but since it is automated it registers almost no time on the site and likely visits no other pages besides the home page. 

Once it sees your site is valid and that you have Google Analytics code, it will come back again and again and inflate your site numbers.  

In rare circumstances, depending on the scale of these spam visits, this “Crawler” Referral Spam can have the potential to affect the speed of your site for others!

Ghost Referral Spam

The second type of Referral Spam is becoming more common, and that is what is known as “Ghost” Referral Spam.  

Ghost referral spam never actually hits your site. It uses software to simply trip the Google Analytics trigger that records visits.  

Many people find this frustrating because there is nothing you can do on the website to prevent this!

But what should I do about it?

There are two paths to helping yourself regain sanity and accurate results.  First, you must block the “crawlers” from being able to actually visit your site.  It is best to have a professional do this as you must alter a file called the .htaccess file, and if there is even one small error the whole site could easily be taken down.  

Here is a link to the technique that will block these sites:

Block Crawler Spam from your Google Analytics 

The downside of this is that you must list each site that you want to be blocked, and typically for everyone you block, two more might pop up next month that you will have to add.

There are WordPress plugins that are supposedly tied to an ongoing database of Crawler Spam’s usual suspects, updated regularly, however, my experience with them has been hit or miss. These plugins won’t always stop Google Analytics spam. 

There is always the fear also that these plugins could keep the wrong visitors out or potentially provide a back door for site hackers to get in.

With “Ghost” spam, nothing can be done to prevent this via the website as the spammers never even actually visit the site.  

What site owners should do is create a separate Analytics “View” under their account that has a filter that smartly removes almost 99% of these Ghost visits.  

The reason why it works gets a little technical, but the directions to follow are fairly simple, and the best directions can be found here:

Stop Ghost Spam in Google Analytics

By implementing both of these steps, website owners can take back their valuable Analytics numbers so they can once again focus on making their online marketing programs stronger.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us below.

author avatar
Elijah Litscher
Elijah Litscher is an author, educator, entrepreneur, and marketing innovator with over 18 years of experience in digital marketing. He has traveled extensively as a professional speaker while educating thousands of business owners across the country in online marketing best practices. Elijah is committed to empowering small and medium-sized businesses to reach their full potential online as founder and Chief Digital Strategist at The Loop Marketing Inc. in Chicago, Illinois.