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Busting Ghost Traffic

Published: July 21 2015

Your website is haunted.

You have been watching your Google Analytics for some time now, and you keep seeing your visits go up, but for some reason you are not getting any extra phone calls or sales.

Where are these visitors that are coming to your site, and why can't you get them to convert? It seems the more visitors you get, the higher your bounce rate becomes.

Sounds like you may have a ghost. Or several ghosts. Who you gonna call?

Ghost Busting

We have been seeing a steady increase of "fake" visits to websites over the last couple years. We call this 'referral spam'. Some companies spoof a visit to your website, and it is then tracked in your Google Analytics data. It artificially inflates your traffic numbers and skews your bounce rates. If you have a low-traffic website, the effect could be quite noticeable - bumping your bounce rate to emergency levels of 90% or higher! These "fake" visits often show up in your referral report as sites such as "1-button.com" or "seoalt.com". When you type the website addresses into your browser, you end up on a site that’s trying to sell you search engine related services. The strategy is as brilliant as it is malicious.

The good news is that it is relatively easy to filter out this traffic since it leaves a 'referrer' entry. We can just tell Google Analytics to ignore traffic from a list of referrers, and it will purge the data for us. Leaving good old fashioned clean data - just the way we like it.

Now, over the last couple of months we have discovered another source of traffic spam... This time, it doesn't leave a trace. It does not get logged in your referral traffic, but it still creates the same problems; an artificially high amount of visits and a shocking bounce rate. This traffic doesn't leave a referrer name, it just gets lumped in with your direct traffic, making it a lot harder to filter out the bad data. This new type of spam has been coined by some as 'ghost spam' or 'ghost traffic'.


How to tell if you are getting spammed with Ghost Traffic

Although it is pretty sneaky, there are still some breadcrumbs that Ghost Traffic leaves behind for us to find (at least for now).

The trick is to navigate to your Audience > Technology > Browser & OS report. You will get a list of different web browsers that visit your site. Click on Chrome.

picture of GA navigation

You will then see a list of visits from different versions of the Google Chrome browser.

picture of GA stats

If you look at the bounce-rate column, you will see that one version, in particular, has a bounce rate of 100%. In every case of ghost traffic that we have stumbled across, we’ve noticed that it is version 40.0.2214.111.

In the case of this particular site, we see that this version makes up 10.3% of all the Chrome related traffic, and that Chrome makes up 32.7% of all website traffic. That means that 3.2% of all website traffic is actually ghost traffic. 

Armed with this knowledge, we can apply a filter to the Google Analytics data that will block out any traffic that comes from the specific browser version of 40.0.2214.111.

For the exact same site, if we also add in filters for referral spam, we find out that 9% of all traffic is fake!

This for a website that has around 2,000 visits a month. Sites with more traffic won't be affected as much by this new type of spam. However, if you have a smaller website, your stats could heavily skewed and distorted as a result.

Without accurate data, you can’t truly track the effectiveness of your website and marketing campaigns, so working towards eliminating referral spam and ghost traffic is an important step in reaching your business goals.

Setting up your own ghost filter

It's not difficult to quickly filter out any historical ghost or referral spam. The quick way to apply the filter is by creating a "segment" in your Google Analytics account.

If you look towards the top of the page on Google Analytics, you will see a box that says something along the lines of "All Sessions". Next to that box, it will say "Add Segment". Click that.

picture of GA segment

A new window should slide open, and in the top left corner, you should see a "+ new segment" button. Click that.

picture of GA segment overview

Select "technology" in the next view, then type in our problem version number, and make sure you change the condition to "does not contain".

picture of GA segment settings

Name your segment, and then hit save. Your Google Analytics data will now automatically filter out any traffic from that particular version of Chrome. This segment will now stay attached to your Google Analytics account, so the next time you check your data, you will just need to turn on the segment, and away you go!

Happy Ghost Hunting!