With talking about fake news being all the rage these days, I thought it would be nice to share some “news” of my own. Theonlineadvertisingguide.com did AMAZINGLY in Russia yesterday.
Except it didn’t of course. It was a nonsense burst in traffic designed to trick me, and trick me it did (briefly). So let’s talk about some fake news that plagues everyone with a small website.
The news that FINALLY your site had an amazing day, and your analytics are going through the roof.
Fake News: Hitting You Where It Hurts
Small Businesses, IT guys, webmasters and analytics nerds have had to deal with this nonsense forever. Unlike the click-baity, election swaying, I HAVE TO SHARE THAT type of fake news, sadly no-one cares about it.
A spike in traffic that turns out to be nothing is basically not interesting to anyone, despite the fact it may have got your heart racing dangerously fast for but a few minutes. Despite THE FACT that finding out it was nonsense might have driven you to hulk-levels of rage for a minute, no-one will be retweeting you about it.
DESPITE THE FACT THAT YOU GOT YOUR HOPES UP FOR JUST ONE SECOND THAT ….
…phew….sorry, got caught up in reliving the moment there. Anyway, as I was saying, despite all your potential rage no-one cares. So it’s up to you to deal with it.
Teaching Fake News Who’s Boss
The key to dealing with all fake news is to not believe things that sound too good to be true. Or too bad to be true I suppose. Things which don’t sound true basically. It’s ridiculous having to say this of course, but here we are.
With MEGA INTERESTING political fake news, that means checking if the weird story appears on fully trustable news sources. If it’s really happening, the mainstream media will pick it up, as they didn’t get to be the big boys at the table for no reason.
With super dull Google Analytics spam, this means checking, and cross-checking, the source of the spike in traffic. It’s not so hard really, and you’re probably going to do it anyway (with temporary glee in your heart).
If you do it wrong though the spammers win, so before diving in read this.
And please note, more than anything DON’T GO THROUGH GOOGLE ANALYTICS TO VIEW SITES. This means not following the convenient button they have next to referral sites, and never copying and pasting urls out of it. You’re a grownup (probably) so you can do your own typing!
Question: Do all your analytics providers show the spike in traffic?
If you have multiple ways of tracking your site stats, check them all out before breaking out the party poppers. Different analytics will have different levels of security and bot filtering, so unless they all show your new found popularity, something is amiss.
For example, if you have ads on yours site, the ad platform should have it’s own numbers in it for you to check. When money is involved in correctly guessing page-views, you can be pretty sure they are going to err on the side of caution.
This is one of the reasons why AdSense and Analytics don’t always show the same numbers. Check and double check.
If you only see a massive spike in numbers in one place, something is definitely wrong.
Question: Are your new users AMAZING?
For analytics spam to work, it has to get your attention. Therefore it is not uncommon, for this fake traffic to be (on the surface) much better than the rest of your traffic.
For example, they might have an incredible average page view time, or click through an amazing amount of pages each. Don’t believe it – if you’ve been watching your stats you’ll have seen how stable they are.
Maybe you’re boosting them with some great optimisation, but not all at once for one segment just like this. It is possible that your site has gone viral for some reason with some small set of users – but it’s not amazingly likely. It’s also exactly what the scammers want you to believe.
Question: Has a popular site started sending you tons of referrals?
If this is the case, then the first thing to do is make sure it is indeed the popular site in question. Use a Google site search to see if their URL mentions your URL. To do a site search on Google, simply type “site:” then the URL in the search box and then you’ll only be getting results from the site in question.
For example “site: theonlineadvertisingguide.com CTR” will bring up every reference to CTR on this site. Do a few searches with different variations to make sure, (as maybe someone linked to you all casual like “hey bro’s check out this super cool online ad guide” etc).
REMEMBER: DO NOT COPY AND PASTE THE REFERRAL SITE FROM YOUR ANALYTICS ACCOUNT.
This is super important, as a new type of spam that’s going to come up more and more is fake URLs using the new Unicode letters for small caps.
Basically letters which look like small versions of capital letters (for example ɢ is not a G). These URLs are not the same, and these fake letter URLs will almost certainly lead you to a super spammy site.
So tell your friends, family, and anyone who might care: URLs only come in lowercase. If you notice a capital letter, it’s either a mistake or a scam. ᴡᴀᴛᴄʜ ᴏᴜᴛ!
Hacking Lifehacker (and Reddit)
A current big fake referrer is lifehacĸer.com – note the weird looking k. What’s doubly weird is that there is also a lot of fake traffic being somehow referred from this real reddit thread, discussing the fake lifehacker link.
Like the confused thoughts in your brain come to life, it’s filled with people asking why this is happening, and what’s the point? It’s a confusing read, but demonstrates the strengths of this type of spam – it’s a crime that no-one understands.
I think possibly the point of using these innocuous referrals is to try and get some link love to this fake lifehacĸer.com URL. By having a popular page link to it a lot, it gives it some amount of legitimacy in some search engines eyes. Also by having the link in a “safe space” like reddit, more people are likely to click on it.
Or it could just be an experiment to see how they can manipulate people. We’ll have to wait and see unfortunately.
Question: Are you suddenly popular in a new country?
Nuh-uh, Sweden doesn’t love you loads as of today. Ok maybe they do, but don’t take it for granted. Use the Geo report under Audience in Google Analytics to choose your new bestie, and look for weird stuff.
Are all your new page views from one region of the country? Is there a reason you are aware of for that? What about the behaviour of the users from this new area – are they too good to be true? WELL THEN THEY PROBABLY ARE! SMASH YOUR KEYBOARD! IT’S ALL LIES LIES…
Or….why not add a secondary dimension – referral Path is always a good one. If there is too much coincidence in where they all came from, then it’s probably nonsense.
How To Deal With Fake News Like An Adult
Be sceptical, and beware of dodgy sources. Just like supernewsscooper.eagleeyenews.co.news is probably not worth your time to worry about, neither is Google Analytics spam.
Just cut it out of your life.
Don’t Look At Them (Setting Up Filters)
IRL: Don’t let your brain tell you that you’ve stumbled on a truth no-one else noticed, even though you got it from a public website that others could read. If you’re not an investigative journalist, you’re almost certainly blowing the truth wide-open with your “research”.
On Google Analytics: Create a new view for your site and call it something like “Filter: Bots” so you remember what it is. You’ll want to keep your unfiltered view available to compare and contrast, so don’t just edit your current view.
Tick the box in the settings that says “Exclude all hits from known bots and spiders”. Then whatever bot your research turned up, set up a filter for it by choosing filters.
For referral spam, add a filter, then choose the Filter Type “Custom”, and confusingly then choose Campaign Source. Add the URL to box (it doesn’t need the http://). You can check it’s working by clicking the “Verify this filter” button.
For countries (which honestly is just easier, as they’ll keep rotating referrers), just choose Country from the Filter Field. Then type in who you need to block. It may seem like overkill, but blocking Russian traffic from your analytics sadly just makes sense right now.
Lots of people block Brazil and Indonesia too, but I have yet to see any malicious trends from them yet.
Final question: WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS?!?!
Money, power, influence, same old same old really. Scammers, spammers and liars all want to trick you into believing something. It might be a small thing, but if they get enough people to do it, they can profit off it in some way.
With Google Analytics spam – they want you to believe that you somehow hit the jackpot with a new load of great users. And then they want you to research your success in such a way that you go to a weird URL of their choosing. Don’t do it.
And to reduce the sadness and badness in the world, don’t tell other people about your fake news either. Maybe just break a pencil and go about your day. It’ll be alright.
Author: Justin Driskill
Justin is the founder of The Online Advertising Guide and a freelance Digital Projects Manager.