How Does Ghost Referral Traffic Really Work?

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Information in Google Analytics is transferred by HTTP requests that are ported straight to their servers. As such, spammers who want to generate ghost referral traffic can easily create false sessions, i.e. visits that never actually occur, using programs that simply send false HTTP requests to various properties of Google Analytics.

The Google Analytics IDs that the software pings on the Google Analytics server are randomly chosen, so when it reaches your ID it produces fake Pageviews in your Analytics reports. The fact that such “traffic” never hits your site can be quite frustrating because the hits that you feel your site is getting aren’t hits at all.

There are times when the traffic sources of ghost referral traffic seem to be legitimate, but if you look carefully at the URLs that send this kind of traffic your way, you will realize that there is something conspicuous about them. Former Head of the Webspam Team at Google, Matt Cutts, stated that HTTP headers show where the traffic to sites originates.

People who want to promote spammy sites alter the headers to give the impression that you are receiving lots of visits from users on the Internet. The unauthenticated HTTP headers do not truly reflect who sent the sessions to your websites, because there is no way to automatically verify ownership of the URLs you see in your Analytics report.

You are then tempted to click on those links which take you to a site you really do not want to go to.

How Do Ghost Traffic Sites Affect My Analytics Data and Metrics?

You may be wondering why all the fuss over having ghost referral traffic reflected in your Google Analytics reports. The fact is that it is a big deal indeed. No one truly wants that kind of traffic because it messes up the data and other metrics of your Analytics report. The fake visits falsely reflect the number of valid visitors to your sites, making the volume of traffic your site receives seem more than it really is.

People who use that inaccurate information to brainstorm SEO and marketing campaigns may end up making bad decisions that inadvertently affect the impact their campaigns have on their sites and bottom line. As stated earlier, sites that have low volumes of traffic are impacted more than those with high volumes of traffic. Therefore, if your site falls in the low traffic volume category, you must be very concerned.

Here is an example of how bad decisions can be made based on skewed data from ghost referral traffic:

You take a look at your Analytics data and see a vast increase in the number of visits to your websites over the past 30 days, with traffic coming from both legitimate and illegitimate sources. It is quite encouraging and you feel like your site is finally getting the hits that it deserves, so you decide to market your site a bit more to get even more hits which are generally proportional to an increase in sales. Without paying attention to the bounce rates and time spent on your site by visitors, you setup and launch the campaign.

You later realize that even though the volume of traffic increases, your sales are still stagnant. All the money you spent to implement the marketing campaign goes down the drain because ghost referral traffic gave the impression of increased sessions, which in fact are not sessions at all. It is only after the fact that you take a careful look at your Analytics data and realize that the vast majority of the visits were from “ghosts.”

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