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You Can't Always Trust Google Analytics

Posted by drew on June 28, 2015, 6 p.m.

To oversimplify things, it is the job of an SEO to increase traffic. So it can be encouraging and gratifying when I look at Analytics and see traffic improving over the course of several months:

Increase GA.png

However, results like these can be deceptive. During this traffic increase, the conversion rate of this site was steadily decreasing, meaning the same number of conversions were happening, in spite of the gains in traffic. This signaled to me that new traffic coming into the site wasn’t necessarily high quality.

I was determined to figure out where all of this new, non-converting traffic was coming from. The fact that there was a steady increase in traffic made it seem natural, but more recently, that increase dropped suddenly:

Drop Off GA.png

The sudden drop indicates that the traffic probably wasn’t coming from real users. Digging into the acquisition overview in Google Analytics, I saw that over 80% of the site’s referral traffic over the last few months was all coming from two domains, and neither one looked particularly “real.” I figured the site was probably a victim of referral spam. That normally isn’t something that would particularly phase me, but it reminded me that not all traffic is created equal.

In this case, the traffic was actually real, as the hostname used belonged to the site itself. But the traffic wasn’t quality because it was a spider bot and not an actual user. This is known as crawler referral spam. There is another kind of referral spam, known as ghost referrals, that involves traffic that isn’t real at all. Ghost referrals take place entirely in Google Analytics, randomly triggering tracking codes without actually visiting the sites associated with them.

So while traffic seemed to be increasing, it was only because we were regularly targeted by these spammers. Likely, they have programmed the crawlers to slowly increase a site’s referral traffic over time to seem more natural, while being sure to conspicuously rise to the top of the referrers list. Referral spammers are usually trying to benefit by getting Google Analytics users to visit the URL, so they can profit from ad revenue.

You can add a filter to get rid of these spam reports in your Google Analytics, but they aren’t actually harming your site, so that’s not entirely necessary.

Google Analytics spam can take other forms as well. For example, some spammers will trick GA into thinking that an event has been triggered on your site. This event might have the name of a website in it, so the spammer can, once again, benefit from ad revenue.

The moral of the story is that you can’t always accept Google Analytics data at face value, because the traffic might not be actually happening. Or, it might be happening, but only because robots are crawling your site over and over again.

If you have any questions about your Google Analytics, contact Fusionbox.