What is Referral Traffic in Google Analytics? (2023)

You know that word-of-mouth referrals are worth their weight in gold when it comes to sales and conversions.

But did you know that a referral can come from Google, as well?

And it can work like magic.

What is Referral Traffic in Google Analytics? (1)

A referral in Google Analytics happens when one website refers traffic to you—resulting in a new user clicking through to your website. Essentially, it’s a recommendation from one site to another.

Let’s take a dive into referral traffic for Google Analytics. Plus, we’re covering how to stop referral spam — so you can keep your metrics and marketing running smoothly.

What Is a Referral in Google Analytics?

A referral in Google Analytics occurs when one website refers to your website, and the user clicks through to wind up on your website. This can happen through a URL, media embed or another website mention.

Referral traffic in Google Analytics is just one of three types of traffic. The other two are:

  • Search traffic: Visitors who come from a SERP on Google, Bing or elsewhere
  • Direct traffic: Visitors who directly type in a URL to get to a website

Google Analytics takes note of where your visitors are coming from to tell you how you’re getting traffic and what actions those users are taking once they’re on your site. In short, referral traffic is just one route to your home page (or any other landing page you may have).

What is Referral Traffic in Google Analytics? (2)

Referral Traffic Google Analytics Image Source: Analytics Edge

What Do Referral Reports Measure?

Google Analytics offers something called a Referral Report.

Referral Reports in Google Analytics offer data about your referral traffic, or visitors who’ve been referred to you by another website.

You can get to your Referral Report by following this pathway in Google Analytics:

Acquisition → All Traffic → Referrals

What is Referral Traffic in Google Analytics? (3)

Google Analytics: Referral

If you’re a professional SEO or digital marketing expert, you’re likely familiar with reading and dissecting analytics in the name of growth. But how much time do you spend on Referral Reports? Maybe it’s time to focus some more energy there.

Here’s what these types of reports actually measure:

  • What sites referred you (including advertising and organic-based visitors)
  • Session volume for each referrer
  • Traffic volume, engagement and conversions — per source and overall

This last measurement is key. It’s one thing to know how many referrals you’re getting and from where. It’s another thing to know how effective those referrals are at driving leads home. What are the KPIs telling you about your marketing campaigns and business goals?

Use Referral Reports to measure traffic from social media, analyze sites that have your business listings and determine your PR reach. You can also use them to learn how to stop referrer spam (more on this invaluable lesson below!).

Real World Examples of Using Data from Referral Traffic in Google Analytics

These metrics you get from your referral data go a long way. One key way you can use them is to help measure your social media ROI.


Adding UTM parameters to your social-based URLs helps you determine just how effective your social media campaigns are. How do your posts drive site traffic? What’s going on with lead generation and conversions? Which platforms (Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, you name it…) work most effectively for your audience?

All in all, you’ll have clear answers to what is and isn’t working in your social approach.

Another way referral data helps you is by allowing you to track marketing results from influencers. Each influencer you partner with gets their own UTM parameter to add to the URL. That way, you can see which influencers are doing their part by, well, influencing.

Clearly, Google Analytics has really fine tuned the Referral Report data. You can do so much with just this one report that it’s truly worth investing time and energy into evaluating it.

How to Stop Referral Spam Traffic from Google Analytics

Once you know what referral traffic in Google Analytics is, you’re ready to learn the downside: referral spam (AKA referrer spam).

So, what is referrer spam in Google Analytics? Referrer spam is basically spam website visits.

It may seem like bots giving you website hits doesn’t really make a difference in the long run, but it does. It can mess up your digital marketing if you use Referral Reports to measure your campaign’s progress. If you’re getting a lot of referrer spam in Google Analytics, then your referral traffic statistics are going to look a lot higher than they actually are.

Not only that, but the bots aren’t actually reading your website, ingesting information or even spending time on your domain. That’s because they’re, well, bots. This means your bounce rate and average time spent on page is going to take a hit, too.

To make it even worse, referrer spam mostly affects small- to medium-sized businesses, plus small- to large-sized marketing agencies. That’s not very cool of you, bots.

Fortunately, there is a really effective way to stop referral spam in Google Analytics. We’ll run through it here.

Spam-Filtering and Spam-Blocking Segments

First, you’ll want to clear out your existing spam attempts on Google Analytics. Instead of clicking “Referrals” under “All Traffic,” click “Channels”. Then, under “Secondary Dimension”, hit “Source/Medium”.

What is Referral Traffic in Google Analytics? (4)

Spam Segment Image Source: Brain Clifton

Add a new segment and refer to advanced conditions settings. Filter by Behavior Hostname and Contains Matches Regex. To the right of these options, you’ll see a box you can type in. In this box, you’ll copy and paste the following string of text on one line:


And then below the “OR” section, you’ll copy and paste this string of text on one line:


Below another “OR” section, do it again with this string:|justprofit.xyz|nexus.search-helper.ru|rankings-analytics.com|videos-for-your-business|adviceforum.info|video—production|success-seo|sharemyfile.ru|seo-platform|dbutton.net|wordpress-crew.net|rankscanner|doktoronline.no|o00.in

And one more time, with this string:


These will all be matched up with hostname and matches regex filters.

This is not a full list of spam sources, but it’s pretty extensive. It comes from Brian Clifton.

Once you’ve gotten rid of the existing spam, you can go ahead and filter out spam to block in the future. Just create filters right in Google Analytics. Look for referral spam on a monthly basis and keep the filters updated.

Find the spam domains under your Referrals section (you’ll know which ones are spam based on the full bounce rate and empty session time), and block them within the Admin tab by adding a spam domain filter.

How to Use Your Referral Report to Monitor Referrer Spam

As promised, we’re also covering how to stop referrer spam using Referral Reports in Google Analytics.

Head to your Referral Report and sort the data to go from the highest to the lowest bounce rate. Any referrers with 100% bounce rates are going to be spam.

You’ll also want to visit the advanced filter on the same page. Here, you can show the lowest session times (remember, low session times are spammy).

While you’re on the report, you can manually add any referrer spam in Google Analytics to an exclusion list. And keep in mind, this isn’t considered a full-proof method because it needs to be continuously updated to be effective.

Understanding Referral Traffic for a More Accurate Digital Representation

You may think you know the ins and outs of your digital marketing strategy, but a quick visit to your Referral Report could show otherwise. You could have a wealth of referrer spam in Google Analytics and have no idea.

But learning how to stop referral spam — and thoroughly evaluating referral traffic in Google Analytics — can really put things into perspective. You won’t be able to eliminate referrer spam for good, but these efforts will get you ahead way faster than otherwise.

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