How to Stop Ghost Spam in your Google Analytics, Part 1

As much as we love this tool and its price of free, we have to admit that Google Analytics isn’t perfect. We already showed it can skew data, due to the way sessions are recorded. But there’s more.

Towards the end of 2014, webmasters started to notice peculiarities in the data returned by Google Analytics. There’d be spikes in referral traffic, accompanied by spikes in bounce rate. With one client, we had just rolled out a content marketing campaign and were funnelling visitors from social media to their blog posts.

After two weeks, examination of the Analytics data revealed a bounce rate much higher than normal. This was odd, as the posts were leading to comments being left and discussions generated. There was also an increase in sales; all this showed that visitors were actually engaging with the content.

However Analytics was reporting something else. This baffled the client, so we ran through a checklist for optimizing content:

  • Sensible/Correct internal linking? Check.
  • Long posts broken into sections with sub-headings? Check.
  • Relevant, eye-catching images at the beginning of posts and in the content? Check.

Everything was as it should be. So what could be causing visitors to leave as soon as they arrive?

We soon discovered it wasn’t something we did. Thanks to a ‘glitch’ in the Google ‘Matrix’, the Analytics dashboard records some referrals as arriving and leaving immediately. But these referrals never actually interact or even visit the actual page.

Yup, Google sees ghosts on your site.

Ghost Spam in a Nutshell

Any fake referrals that appears in your Analytics account, counts as ghost spam. In Google Analytics, there is a feature known as the Measurement protocol; it measures http requests to your web server. Spammers (yes, they still exist) send multiple requests to that measurement protocol, which triggers your tracking code and is then recorded as a visit.

If that sounds complex, look at it this way. When a visitor arrives on your blog, Google Analytics ‘opens the door’ and records their visit on a ‘guest list.’ The longer they stay on the blog, the lower your bounce rate is (*if they visit multiple pages.)

Spammers have developed spam bots that appear to ‘visit’ your pages, thereby triggering the opening of the door and getting recorded on the ‘guest list.’ But they don’t actually bring any real traffic and only increase your bounce rate as they never access pages on the site.

These spam referrals serve no purpose but to ‘visit’ random sites en-masse, by targeting randomly generated tracking codes. While they can’t negatively affect your website or SEO efforts, the skewing of data can cause you to abandon a marketing campaign that is actually working.

Eliminating Ghost Spam

These ‘ghosts in the machine’ are easy to find in your Google Analytics dashboard. Click on the Acquisition tab on the left of your screen → All Traffic →  Referrals. In the table generated below, you’ll find a list of referring domains.

Scrolling past those you recognise such as Twitter & Pinterest, you’ll soon find adult-themed domains or domain names that don’t make any sense. Confirm your suspicions by looking at the metrics for that domain; if  sessions are accompanied by a 95-100% bounce rate, you’ve just found a ghost spammer.

Now that you have the culprits in your sights, how can you get rid of them? The most common way to block spambots involved blocking them from accessing your sites in the first place. But this only works on some spam bots that actually use the .htaccess file. For ghost spammers, this method has no effect on them.

This doesn’t mean you have to continue receiving skewed data. Join us next week to find out the common methods of getting rid of ghost spam and why they don’t work. We’ll show you our number one (free) recommendation, plus what you can do after you stop the spam.

Struggling to make head or tail of your Analytics data? Want to create marketing campaigns that actually work? Contact Search & More today.

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