Web Analytics Referral Spam

Smarter-content.for-your.website Google Analytics Referral Spam

On December 25, 2015, Google Analytics showed the first referral from smarter-content.for-your.website; this did not show up in my self-hosted Piwik Analytics, so this is a clear example of spoofed Google Analytics referral spam. No one visited my site. In this type of referral spam attack, the spammer spoofed my Google Analytics ID, and put items into my referral report in the hope that I will visit their site. Whether this is for commercial or malicious purposes is unknown. Referral spam for build-audience.for-your.website showed up the same before, and referral spam for new-look.for-your.website showed up the day after, on December 26. Since these are all for the same domain, for-your.website, all three are likely from the same origin.

curl smarter-content.for-your.website returns nothing, indicating a redirect. curl -L smarter-content.for-your.website returns a web page with numerous references to scribecontent.com which was registered to Brian Clark of Copyblogger Media, LLC of Boulder, Colorado, USA on November 19, 2011. Because build-audience.for-your.website, new-look.for-your.website and smarter-content.for-your.website redirect to sites with at least superficially different owners, it appears that these sites are customers of the referral spammer rather than the direct referral spammer.

Google Trends in Smarter-content.for-your.website Queries

There is no way to tell the frequency of this type of attack, but Google Trends will show the relative frequency with which webmasters search for information on New-look.for-your.website. Figure 1 shows the relative frequency for queries from December 22, 2015 through December 28, 2015, while Figure 2 shows similar queries begining in 2004. Figure 2 is not populated with data at this point, but will likely have data at some point in the future.

Figure 1. Google Trends queries for “smarter-content.for-your.website”, “new-look.for-your.website”, “build-audience.for-your.website” and “referral spam” from December 22, 2015 through December 28, 2015.
Figure 2. Google Trends queries for “smarter-content.for-your.website”, “new-look.for-your.website”, “build-audience.for-your.website” and “referral spam” from 2004

Fixing the Problem

My first reaction in addressing referral spam was to add a line to .htaccess to block these spam referrals (see https://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 https://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 https://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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