What to do about fake referral traffic

June 15, 2015

Your website may appear to be getting more traffic than it actually is, and we can explain why. 

Something we have noticed more and more in recent times has been fake referral traffic, with a number of questionable websites appearing as traffic sources.

This ‘fake’ traffic appears in reporting tools such as Google Analytics, where suspicious visits (often arriving in spikes and waves) are apparently being referred to websites from elsewhere online. 

It can be an easy mistake to believe this to be real traffic, until some research is done and the picture becomes more clear… 

Why do they do it?

Some spammy websites send fake traffic to other websites in order to get themselves noticed.

The way they do this is by sending ‘bots’ to websites, which then register as a visitor. In so doing these bots register as having been referred from a particular website. Because they appear in such great numbers they get the curiosity of website managers, who in turn look up the referrer address to see why all this traffic is suddenly reaching their website.

The catch is that usually the referrer link is either from a spam website, or redirects to a different website altogether.

examples of fake referral traffic

Why worry?

There are three main reasons to be concerned about these bots visiting websites.

 - Firstly it impacts analytics data. While in most cases these referrals can be manually filtered out of reports (when noticed), they create the issue of wasting reporting time. 
Not only will these bots give the impression of increased traffic, but they can impact on other website metrics, which are harder to filter out. For example, a bot will generally only access your website for a brief second, this in turns artificially lowers the average overall visit duration and increases the bounce rate.

 - Secondly, these bots are an unwelcome and unauthorised visits. Due to their already sinister nature, there is a likelihood that there are bots out there looking to compromise any vulnerability in your website, be it accessing files, harvesting content, or implanting malware to infect visitors to your website.

 - Thirdly, in cases where these fake referrals occur in high numbers, each time a visit occurs, it is putting extra load on your server. Although each visit is a small amount of load, it adds up, and can result in a slower experience for real people, as well as search engine bots (the good bots!).

How to fix it

This is essentially a two-part fix:

 - Step 1: Blocking the referrer’s domain by altering your website’s htaccess file. This in effect can redirect the bots back to their own website and they never reach you.

 - Step 2: Permanently filtering out these referrers from analytics, so they they do not taint historical data.

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