Referrer Spam: Messing With Your Traffic Without You Knowing
Yesterday our in-house SEO guy was going through Google Analytics, as one does on a Thursday afternoon, and he came across this:
It sent him and by proxy myself down a rabbit hole. Semalt advertises itself as an SEO tool. Like the millions of other ones it promises: traffic, better rankings and all you have to do is sign up – simple as that.
Yet why is it affecting our traffic? We didn’t sign up for it. We didn’t have any knowledge of its existence till 4pm on a Thursday. Yet it’s artificially inflating our numbers with bogus traffic. Look at the time on page and page visits. Nothing, that’s the first time I’ve seen a less than in regards to time on page. It’s all noise, pure noise. If we weren’t looking closely, we could’ve concluded that traffic was on a rise. We came across a referrer spam scheme.
How To Filter Out Semalt From Google Analytics
The good news is that this type of spam does not pose a security threat, or have any visible side effect on our website. This is what makes it extra sneaky. Because it’s so well hidden and affects us so little it’s so easy for this type of spam to go unnoticed. But spam is still spam.
Since we inform our SEO choices and measure their success by collecting traffic data, faulty numbers can lead to faulty decisions and that costs money. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to getting rid of this and what we’ll doing for all of our clients affected by such traffic.
It should be mentioned that this is the quick and dirty approach to fixing the problem. There is a more permanent version but it’s complexity is above what I could adequately explain in a blog post. If you’d like to learn more feel free to reach out.
What Is Referrer Spam and Semalt?
Referrer spam, in its simplest form, is the creating of bogus links to fool Google into thinking that a website is more popular than in reality. It works by accessing publicly available logs and inserting a link into them. Because search engines crawl these logs, the links can trick the crawler into thinking that it’s a valid link.
The people over at Incapsula explain it in detail in a post on Semalt. The jist of it is the following:
- A bot accesses thousands of websites in bulk.
- The bot sends a bunch of requests with an automatically generated referrer header.
- Each header contains a URL to the website Semalt is trying to boost.
- All requests are automatically recorded in access logs thus creating a HTML link.
- The access logs are crawled by search engines as regular.
- Fake link.
Our Analytics pictured above shows evidence of the second step. That’s why Semalt is of a concern. Semalt is just doing its thing and it’s affecting us. It’s jumping red lights and leaving us with the ticket.
Black Hat Versus White Hat
We face a niggling feeling in the SEO world. We want our webpages and client’s websites on the first page, at that top spot, like an Olympian to gold. But we’re also aware that in order to do so we need to convince a search engine that said page deserves top of the podium. We want to create good content for our clients, but sometimes it feels like we have to answer “these questions three” before the wizard will let us pass the bridge and onto page one.
Some try and cheat and it seems that Semalt is yet another attempt into tricking Google. In the future there will be some change to Google’s algorithm and the technique that is referrer spam will stop working.
However, it tarnishes those of us who are trying. It makes SEO feel like an icky shady word. The bad action of one can drown out thousands of the well intentioned.
The best thing we can do is to point out this bad practice. If only to separate us as other, as better, but also to hammer the message that the number of visitors, inbound links, and so on isn’t the goal. It’s about making content that is useful, reliable and accurate. In the long run that’s what gets top billing.
Numbers inform us to whether we’re doing a good job. Their relationship to our work is purely correlatory. It is those who obsess over gaming the system, finding holes to exploit, cheating, all to increase their numbers artificially will naturally fall down the black hat path. What’s that grade school motto, “you’re only cheating yourself”.