When you look at your Google Analytics, you may see traffic referred from spam sites like semalt or sharebutton. It’s important to filter this kind of traffic out so that you have more accurate data. But you may also see ghost traffic, a new and irritating kind of spambot interference in your data that isn’t actually traffic at all.
Ghost traffic is not from spambots visiting your website. It’s actually just data injected into your Google Analytics. You might see it as a visited page, as an event, or even as a language. In the example below, more than 8% of the traffic broken down by language is ghost traffic.
Has my site been hacked?
It used to be bad news if your website showed pages in Google Analtyics that didn’t belong on that website. We’d go into a site like this and find those pages. Hackers had actually gotten into the admin area of those websites and built pages offering cheap Viagra and knockoff Ugg boots.
Ghost traffic isn’t like that. Look at the screenshot above. This website receives most visits from people accessing the site in American English. Next is British English. Next comes visitors using “Secret.google.com You are invited!…” It’s clear that there is no human language called “Secret.google.com…” so we know that this is not actually language data.
Equally, a screen telling you that visitors are enjoying your page, sharebutton.to, is not actually data about your page. Check quickly to make sure that there is no such page on your website, and relax. Or at least relax about the possibility of your site being hacked.
How can I get rid of ghost traffic?
The most authoritative instructions we’ve seen for dealing with ghost traffic is Michael Sullivan’s Definitive Guide. (The same information in a more stylish version can be found at OHow, but Sullivan keeps his page updated.) He lets you know up front that you will be waging a never-ending quest to defeat the bots. So the first question to ask yourself is whether it’s worthwhile to take on such a quest.
Plenty of webmasters are agitating for Google to get this problem solved, and Google is working on it. But we think it makes sense to determine how much it matters for your practice or business in particular.
Can I live with ghost traffic?
The big problem is that your data is unreliable. In the example above, the website owner could think that there were a couple thousand more visits that month than there really were. We had a Russian Reddit event ourselves last quarter. We could have thought that a new initiative had given us an 81% uptick in just a month — and we’d have been wrong. You need clean data to make good decisions. But you or your web team may not need to put building filters at the top of your weekly to-do list.
Here are some options:
- Make sure you have checked the “exclude known bots” button in your analytics. Give it a week or so after you do this. Check to see how much of your traffic is ghost traffic with that filter in place. If it’s just a few visits– at this site, we get about one such visit a week most of the time — you might just ignore it. Or go set up the valid hostnames filter as described in the resources linked above, and check back every month or two.
- Segment your traffic. We’ve found that geographic segments almost always get rid of ghost traffic. If you have a chiropractic clinic in Springdale, you can feel pretty sure that traffic from Nottingham isn’t actually your potential patients. Your Kansas City home health care service isn’t getting meaningful traffic from Minsk. Just focus on your local service area and ignore the other traffic. Your local traffic will give you the data you need to make strategic marketing decisions.
- If you have a national market, look at just the USA. Again, we find that this usually filters out all ghost traffic. If you have (or want) an international clientele, have your web team take the time to go through the steps of setting up a valid hostnames filter as described in the resources linked above.
- You could switch to another web analytics service. Most of the ones I’m aware of get their data from Google in the first place, so this might not improve the situation. Let me know in the comments if you are aware of a web analytics solution that has solved the ghost traffic problem.
Why hasn’t Google fixed the ghost traffic problem?
In some ways, the internet is a race between the forces of good, which provide amazing tools that improve our personal lives, education, business, and citizenship, and the force of evil, which try to pervert these wonderful tools for their own benefit. Every time Google smacks down some dirty trick, another trickster gets to work on a new dirty trick.
It’s not just the internet. The lock on your door? As soon as its superior safety design was patented, someone started figuring out how to break in.
Just so, Google is constantly working to solve the problem of spam data in Google Analytics. The spammers are constantly coming up with new ways to work around Google. We’re betting that Google will win in the long run. Until then, use filters and segments and stay aware of the problem to make sure that you don’t get tricked by ghost traffic.