A little over a week ago, I began seeing an odd search phrase show up in the top referring searches for my personal blog: “Ghost spam is free of politics, we dancing like a paralytics.” Definitely an odd search phrase, and I can’t imagine how it would have ended up with results on that blog, but I do some creative writing in that space and, after more than ten years of posts, it was vaguely possible. I went on with life.
Of course, that phrase is particularly memorable, so my attention piqued when I saw it show up as a top referring search for this site, as well. Because unknown search referrals can be a sign of security issues, of course, I gave both sites a security audit, but found nothing amiss. I also checked Google’s Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) for notification of anything that might be off, but found nothing there, either. I was satisfied that I didn’t have a security issue, but could still be dealing with some linking problems that I didn’t want.
Finally, I saw the exact same search phrase pop up as a referral for a client for whom I’m doing SEO work, and this stopped being even the most vague possibility of a coincidence. I began doing some research into what this might be, and discovered that it’s keyword spam appearing in many Google Analytics accounts.
Yep, it’s possible. It’s much like referrer bots, which drive traffic to your site for the purpose of spam comments. If you’re running a blog on your site, and your spam filter is always showing new comments, then that’s an indicator that you might be seeing referrals from some of these sorts of bots. Sites like semalt.com and buttons-for-website.com will likely be showing up as top referrers in your Google Analytics dashboard, as well. Similar to referral bots, keyword spammers want to generate backlinks in less-than-honorable ways. At the end of the day spam is spam…it’s annoying, because it skews your analytics data by showing a lot of hits that didn’t “really” happen. If you’re basing marketing campaigns on this data, you can be throwing money away. So, spam is costly and annoying, but can it be dangerous? The answer is, yes…yes it can.
How Spam is Dangerous
The reason that referrer spam of all sorts is dangerous is because it brings quick, useless traffic to your site that bounces. Google doesn’t tell us exactly how they calculate a bounce, but, essentially, it’s a user hitting your site and leaving without interacting with the page that they landed on in any way. Short sessions likely play into this, but lack of interaction certainly does. The quick and useless traffic driven to your site by referrer bots dramatically increases your bounce rates, which means that Google sees your site as less authoritative, assuming that viewers are leaving because they’re not finding what they’re looking for. This can lead Google to lower your site in search rankings, which, obviously, harms your business. If you’re running a blog for a niche audience, that will make you cranky. If you’re running a small business, you can end up with problems paying the mortgage. I work with a lot of large clients, but I also work with a lot of non-profits and small businesses who simply cannot afford the sort of lost revenue that results from the furniture store across the street showing up higher in local searches.
In addition, all of the referral bots crawling your site to spam it and produce backlinks are using bandwidth and server resources. Depending upon your hosting plan, this can cause decreased site performance for legitimate visitors, and, while unlikely, could even bring your site down if the traffic volume became high enough. That often won’t be the case with a good managed hosting account, but it’s one of a million reasons to not use shared hosting…and to take care of your spam referrer issue.
So, what do you do about it? The answer is two-fold.
Step 1: Exclude the Spam from Analytics Tracking
This is relatively straight-forward. In Google Analytics, you need to set up a new custom filter for the search phrase that you’re seeing in your data. In this case, I’m going to block the phrase we referred to above, “Ghost spam is free of politics, we dancing like a paralytics.” We’ll do this by logging into our Google Analytics dashboard, selecting the property (the site that you’re working with), and clicking the “Admin” option at the top. There, you’ll click “All Filters” on the left, and we’ll add a filter using the option on the right.
Name the new filter something that you’ll recognize…I used “Dancing Paralytics” in this example to remind me of the unique nature of this particular spam. Select “Custom” as the filter type, then check the “Exclude” option. Under “Filter Field,” select “Campaign Term” from the drop-down menu, and copy and paste the nefarious search term into the “Filter Pattern” text area.
Save, and you should be all set. You’ll need to repeat this for every property that’s receiving hits from this search term in your Google Analytics account. Keep in mind that this won’t retroactively fix data…your skewed results until this point will remain skewed, but this should prevent the keyword spam from producing bad data in your analytics account moving forward.
Step 2: Stop the Bounce
Stopping the bounce rate issue, arguably the most important of the two tasks, is a bit more complex. What you’ll need to do is block the referring domains from crawling your site. Some hosting plans permit you to block domains directly from your dashboard, so check to see if that’s the case. You can also often call them for support in doing so. Otherwise, you’ll need to block the offending domains from your .htaccess file (assuming that you’re on an Apache server). Best practice is to use IP addresses instead of domain names. That would look something like this:
Adding this at the bottom of my .htaccess file, for example, blocks the domains traffic2money.com and seo-platform.com. Moz has a good write-up on this, as well, where he takes it a step further and uses mod_rewrite. I chose to use a more direct approach, as I don’t want these domains accessing my sites at all.
A word of caution: .htaccess is a powerful file, and can break many things. If you’re uncomfortable editing this file, or have never worked with .htaccess or server-side technologies before, then call your hosting company or contact me and we’ll work through it.
Spam is annoying, and also potentially very costly for your site or business. Taking these steps should assist you in keeping your analytics data correct in the future, and prevent traffic that you don’t want on your site. If you’re uncomfortable with these steps, have issues implementing them, or are concerned about your SEO, feel free to contact me and we can talk about solutions for you.