Web Analytics Referral Spam

Referral Spam Attack from 15-reasons-for-seo.com

After a long period of a minimal Google Analytics referral spam, on December 4, 2019, I got a “referral” from 15-reasons-for-seo.com for a non-existent page on my website. A cursory log review shows no requests for the non-existent page, so it appears that this was a spoofed referral attack where the attacker made calls to Google directly without ever touching my site. It is not clear to me whether this is an attempt to get webmasters to sign up for SEO audit services, or to get webmasters to go to a website that will attempt to load malware.

Whois indicates that the domain was created on December 5, 2018 and registered with the “Center of Ukranian Internet Names&rdquo.; this is the day after the referral spam attacks from 99-reasons-for-seo.com started. when Googled, the second item is a reference to an article on security, but no references within the article. The registrar’s website gives the domain owner as

Admin Name: Iurii Iakovenko Admin Organization: Jap.fm ltd Admin Street: 03038, Kiev, Fedorova 32 b1, Admin City: Kiev

who is also the owner of 99-reasons-for-seo.com.

A Google query on “Iurii Iakovenko” returns a reference to a Linkedin page where Iurii Iakovenko is listed as the CEO of Semalt which was an early SEO spam attacker.

The command

curl 15-reasons-for-seo.com

returns nothing as of December 9, 2018 but

curl -L 15-reasons-for-seo.com

returns a simple web page selling audits, but no clear links to what happens on the START NOW button. It references an iframe for semalt.com.

ping returns an host response of server45-vm01.openfrost.com (217.23.10.44) as of December 9, 2018.

Figures 1, 2 and 3 below show recent Google Trends data on queries for referral spam in general and 15-reasons-for-seo.com in particular, indicating that this type of attach has returned.

Figure 1. Google Trends for search terms “referral spam”.
Figure 2. Google Trends for search terms “15-reasons-for-seo.com”. in last year.
Figure 3. Google Trends for search terms “15-reasons-for-seo.com”. in last year.

Fixing the Problem

My first reaction in addressing referral spam was to add a line to .htaccess to block these spam referrals (see http://www.htaccess-guide.com/deny-visitors-by-referrer/ for a description of how to do this) but with more research, it turns out these referrals weren’t referrals to my site at all, but were insertions of fake referrals into my Google Analytics reports. As was the case with darodar.com, the clear intent is to cause webmasters to go to an unfamiliar site when they see a reference in their Google Analytics reports. Whether the motivation is to generate traffic to their site or to cause webmasters to visit a site that will download malware is unknown.

Based upon the instructions in Removing Referral Spam from Google Analytics, I checked the hostname on the referrals, and all showed “(not set)”–a clear sign that no one ever touched my site and that these were inserted into Google Analytics to get me to click social-buttons.com to generate traffic or download malware onto my computer.

Removing Referral Spam from Google Analytics provides a good description of the problem and some solutions. Understanding and eliminating referrer spam in Google Analytics gives another good description of referral spam and a programmatic solution that is appropriate for plug-in developers but not for administrators of WordPress, Joomla and other content management system (CMS) based sites.

An alternative is to switch to self-hosted Piwik for your web analytics; if you do this, it will be immediately clear that the vast majority of Google Analytics referral spam is of the spoofed variety rather than the crawler variety. Piwik does not have the advertising integration nor does it have the demographic information, but for many small-traffic sites it can provide much more information. See Using Piwik as an Alternative to Google Analytics on this web site for more information on why Piwik might work for you and how to implement it.

Useful Commands and Web Sites for Investigating Referrers

For investigating a referrer, here are some useful commands and web sites:

  • TCPIPutils is a great site for looking up data on an domain or IP address
  • For domain registrations, the command line whois social-buttons.com is very convenient as is https://www.whois.net/
  • For IP lookups, dig social-buttons.com is convenient, as is http://ip-lookup.net/index.php
  • Better Business Bureau
  • To view a site in character mode so that malware doesn’t get downloaded, use curl and curl -L. These are commonly installed on Linux machines, but will require additional software on Windows and OS X, as discussed below.
  • To look up a lot of information on an IP address in one place http://www.tcpiputils.com/browse/ip-address will give you a lot of information quickly.

Command Line Utilities

To use the whois, dig and curl commands on Windows and OS X, you will need to install additional software:

  • On Windows, install Cygwin and add the curl package.
  • On OS X, install MacPorts and add the curl package.

Cygwin and MacPorts have many additional command line and graphical utilities that make life easier in Windows and OS X.

More Information

For more information on referral spam, see

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