Web Analytics Referral Spam

Video--production.com Google Analytics Referral Spam

On Monday, August 24, 2015, video--production.com (two dashes in domain name) showed up in my Google Analytics referral list for the first time. Because of numerous potentially malevolent referral spam sites that have appeared over the year, I didn’t click on the link. I used whois video--production.com to find out that the domain was registered to a Ukrainian privacy protection service on August 12, 2015.

It is important to note that video-production.com with only one dash has been registered since 2002, and appears to be unrelated to the form with two dashes in the name.

curl video--production.com shows nothing, indicating that the site is redirected.

curl -L video--production.com > junk cat junk | grep 'semalt'

shows a number of references to semalt.com and semalt.org indicating that this is probably related; see Semalt Hijacks Hundreds of Thousands of Computers to Launch a Referrer Spam Campaign for more information on this infamous Google Analytics referral spammer.

Tcpiputils.com shows a Worldstream server in the Netherlands at IP address; the server hosts mail.semalt.org among other others. The server is on an “Adult hosting” blocklist. This is the server that earlier hosted videos-for-your-business.com, another web site that appeared to be related to semalt.com.

Removing Video--production.com From Google Analytics

I used the instructions in Removing Referral Spam from Google Analytics to add filters to Google Analytics.


To understand the frequency of this attack and other referral spam attacks, I looked at Google Trends and Figure 1 which shows the relative frequency of searches for “referral spam” and Figure 2 which shows the relative frequency for “video--production.com”. At this posting, there isn’t enough data to generate a Google Trends chart for Figure 2, but my experience has shown that in about a week, enough web masters will be looking for this to generate a lot of data on it.

Figure 1. Google Trends for search terms “social-buttons.com”, “video--production.com” and “referral spam” from 2004 to present.
Figure 2. Google Trends for search terms “social-buttons.com”, “video--production.com” and “referral spam” from last 90 days.

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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