Why Am I Seeing More Referral Traffic? Internet Marketing Mysteries

Referral traffic can be a wonderful thing. What could be more exciting than knowing people are not only linking to your site, but they are actually sending traffic your way?

referral traffic up

Before you get too excited about an increase in referral traffic, there's something you need to know. As with all things related to the internet, data is not always what it seems. In this case, more referral traffic in your Analytics report doesn't necessarily mean you have more visitors coming to your site—and it certainly doesn't mean you have more qualified visitors coming to your site.

Whenever you see a big change in your data, you need to investigate the reason behind the change. A sudden increase or decrease in referral traffic is easy to detect and easy to investigate. However, you need to use some caution when conducting your investigation. Many of these referrals aren't your friends.

Referral Madness

Within the last couple years, there have been a handful of questionable sites that have likely made a splash in your Analytics reports. Recognize any of these?

  • semalt
  • buttons-for-websites
  • blackhatworth
  • darodar (usually preceded for "forum.topic" and a string of numbers)
  • hulfingtonpost
  • priceg

At first, you might say, "Wow, Huffington Post is linking to my site! I'm going to be a millionaire!" Don't spend your fortune just yet. Notice anything fishy about that spelling? Is Hulfington Post a new offshoot of the popular news website? Not likely, but before you even noticed the misspelling, you were already visiting the domain to see what amazing article was linking to you. And that's what the owner of hulfingtonpost.com was hoping you would do.

What Do They Want With Me?

I don't advise visiting any of these sites. They aren't sending you real visitors. In some cases, they aren't even real sites. Rather, they are sending bots to your site or directly to your analytics. While Analytics programs do filter out some bots (such as Google and Bing bots), they don't filter out what they don't recognize. This is exactly what these sites want to happen—they show up as "legitimate" referrers in your reports. Curious about why these sites are linking to your site, you pay them a visit. Your visit accomplishes one of two purposes for them:

  1. You see they offer a service and you become interested and fork over money for something that isn't worth a thing (as is the case with semalt and buttons-for-websites)
  2. You boost their traffic, which increases their site's "worth"

There are new versions of these sites popping up all the time, and I suspect most sites with low referral traffic will continue to see steady increases. If you don't get much in the way of referrals, you may even see this source doubled or tripled thanks to these bots.

Finding the Good Referrals

Fortunately, you don't have to let these phony sites prevent you from gaining information about actual referrers. When you see an unfamiliar referral source in your Analytics report, you can run a quick test to determine if a site is worth checking out:

  • Look at the Bounce Rate. If it is 100%, then it's probably a bot that's jumping off your site right after landing.

referral spam

See how semalt has 31 new sessions and 31 bounces? You can pretty safely assume this is a bot sending fake traffic to your site.

If the referrer passes the simple bounce rate test, then there is one more test you can run before digging deeper into the referral mystery:

  • Look at the % New Sessions. Is it 0% no matter how far back in the reporting you go? If so, then it's probably a spam bot.

more referral spam

The above report is expanded back to the beginning of time for this particular website. Notice how blackhatworth and hulfingtonpost are still at 0% new sessions. How is that even possible when this report goes back to the very beginning of tracking on this site? Don't sessions have to be new at some point? This tells us something is very fishy about these particular referrers.

Of the 6 referrers in the above report, 4 have failed one of our two tests. One of the remaining sites, forum.topic50593798.darodar, is very close to failing both. We can probably safely rule them out as well, especially given the spammy name. That leaves us with one potentially legitimate referrer.

If the referrer passes both tests, you can check out the site and see why it is linking back to you. Just to be safe, you will want to Google it first rather than simply following the link from Analytics (unless you know for sure it is a trustworthy site). The referrer in question above happens to be a legitimate website with a valuable link.

What Should I Do About These Phony Referrers?

There are many articles available with directions on how to block bot spam from visiting your site, but it might not be worth your time. If you try to block by IP address, you'll end up entering thousands or even millions of IP addresses before the bot finally disappears. If you try to block by country, you could miss out on some real traffic. If you try to block by domain, you will always be on the lookout for more and more domains to block. It will become a never-ending process that isn't worth it. Rather than blocking these bots from your sites completely, you can remove them from your Analytics report by creating a custom filter.

This is starting to look like another case of a report that isn't as great as it once was. Remember when the keyword report showed all of the keywords visitors used to find your site? Now, you're lucky if you have more than 10% of the keywords—and most of those are branded. The same is becoming true of your referring domain report; for many sites, the majority of referrers aren't real.

Before you abandon your referring domain report completely, remember there is still plenty of valuable data there. This is especially true if your site gets a lot of real referral traffic. In these cases, you might not even notice the sudden presence of all these fakers. For sites without much referral traffic, it's just a bit harder to sort through now.


This post is part of Internet Marketing Mysteries, a weekly column addressing actual client questions related to SEO, analytics, website best practices, and any other topic connected to internet marketing. Have a question you'd like to see tackled in a future post? Let us know in the comments. 

2 thoughts on “Why Am I Seeing More Referral Traffic? Internet Marketing Mysteries”

  1. Imagine that… not only a clear, concise description of the issue at hand, but shines a bright light on my top three offenders.
    Thanks for a very informative post!

  2. I enjoy occasionally looking at my referral traffic and spotting the bots…some of the deliberate misspellings are quite clever.

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