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Referrer Spam from Rankscanner.com

On Wednesday, July 8, 2015, rankscanner.com appeared in my Google Analytics referrer list for the first time. Because of previous investigations into malicious referrer spam, I did not immediately go to the web site. I did a domain lookup with Tcpiputils and found that the site was registered in Denmark on September 15, 2013 and updated in August of 2014 by Rune Jensen. Most of the referral spam comes from domains that were issued in the last few days or weeks, and which are registered using domain registration privacy services.

I next did an IP address lookup on Tcpiputils and found out that the domain is hosted by Gearhost in Englewood, Colorado. The server is not on a block list for malicous domains and only has one host listed on an email spam blocklist; this is not unusual for a multi-hosting server. None of the domains look to be associated with other referral spammers.

Next, I looked at the referral path in Google Analytics: /Domain/mooresoftwareservices.com which is a URL that does not exist on my web site. Clearly, this is not a real referral, and is a machine-generated URL intended to get past some of the basic referral spam checking, since most referral spammers point to the root page of a web site.

Next, I went to the web site in FireFox’s private mode, and was presented with a data entry box where I could enter my domain name and sign up for search word analysis or something like that.

I decided to filter the domain out of my Google Analytics.

Removing rankscanner.com from Google Analytics

I added rankscanner.com to my Google Analytics filters as described in Removing Referral Spam from Google Analytics, the best article on the topic that I have found. There are a number of articles about adding redirects or allow/deny code to .htaccess. These don’t necessarily work and can open some serious security holes if incorrectly implemented.

Trends

There is no way to really tell how many sites are getting hit by this referral spammer, but you can use Google Trends to get an understanding of how frequently web masters query Google looking for information on this site. The figures below show the relative frequency for searches on “referral spam” and “success-seo.com” respectively. At this writing, the second figure does not have enough data to be populated, but experience shows that about a week after this writing, Google will have enough queries to populate it.

Figure 1. Google Trends for search terms “referral spam”.
Figure 2. Google Trends for search terms “rankscanner.com”.

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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