Who are these referrers in my web statistics: understand your website stats

If you manage a website for your business you will no doubt want to track and analyse where the traffic to your website comes from. Some traffic is direct, maybe from a press advert. Some may come from a Google search and others from links on other websites. These are referrals and are also known as backlinks and you will find them in your web statistics. You can find your referrers by logging in to Google Analytics then clicking through:

Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals

But have you ever checked your web stats, or Google Analytics for referrers and wondered who half the websites are? You’ll soon work out who the nice referrers are. If you’re a web developer you may see some of your own sites appearing if you’ve got backlinks from your client’s website. You may have trade listings and will see site such as Yelp or Scoot sending traffic your way. But some may contain words about shopping, site speed, gambling, porn or pharmaceuticals to name but a few subjects. This is known as “referrer spam” and one of its aims is to trick you to click on a link to artificially inflate other websites’ traffic, to harvest email addresses or even to spread malware.

How does referrer spam affect my website stats?

For one thing, with a load of fake referrals on your website your web statistics start to look much better. But you’ll also see that a lot of your visitors are from countries you don’t advertise to or trade in. To see where referrers and visitors are coming from you can check:

Acquisition > Search Console > Countries

Another effect can be that the stats for time spent on your site go down and your bounce rate goes up. Your bounce rate is calculated by the time a visitor  spends looking at pages on your website. A high bounce rate indicates that someone has hit a page and quickly moved on, either because there’s nothing of interest there, or because they are a bot or spammer. This Kissmetrics article about bounce rate explains this in much more detail.

Removing fake referrers

Filtering your website’s stats is the simplest method to removing fake referrers. You can hide away all those annoying referrers and your clients won’t ask who they are either. We used this method in Google Analytics to create a filter to remove referrals with the Exclude Filter. Webalizer is able to filter data too but this may depend on how your webhost has it configured.

Pro: You don’t want to see it so hide it away.

Con: You still have a bad bounce rate

UPDATE August 2022
Following an increase in traffic on several of our websites we became aware of traffic spam originating in Seychelles, Netherlands and Czechia. While filtering in Google Analytics can deal with the issue, using Cloudflare is proving a much more reliable method. We used the security rules in WAF (Web Application Firewall) to challenge visitors from these locations. ( Blocking completely might prevent legitimate traffic )

Props to these sites for writing at length about the current issue:

Stop it before it becomes a statistic

In his post, How To Stop Referrer Spam, John Henshaw describes several methods for blocking spam referrers using files within the website, like a gatekeeper, which will prevent bad traffic visiting your website and becoming a referrer statistic. This is something you may need to ask a web developer to look at.

As has been pointed out, domain names will appear that aren’t on your list so you would need to keep an eye on your stats to make sure you’re up to date. There’s a referral spam blacklist published via Github which could save you some work.

Help! I don’t understand my web statistics

This may all be a bit too technical and we appreciate you might not have the time or inclination to deal with this. So why not get in touch and let us take a look and see how we can help you understand your webstats, find what people like about your website and even get more visitors.

(This is a version of an article which first appeared on our blog site in 2015 called,  Analytics: what is referrer spam and how to stop it)

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