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Google have announced a re-branding of Google Webmaster tools as "Google Search Console". The change follows an announcement earlier this month that the "search queries" report has been updated to become "search analytics". The new "search analytics" report makes it easier to segment data by device, pages, countries and search type.

For further information on the launch of Google Search Console please click through to the Google Webmaster blog

"Out of the box" Google Analytics captures a wide range of visitor activity on your site. By default data is collected for each page view generated.

Sometimes however you’ll need to track additional interactions – for example visitors playing videos, downloading files, progress through complex forms where URLs don’t change or clicking onto outbound links. To do so Google Analytics offers two tracking options – to either capture such interactions as “events” or “virtual page views”. Tracking can be configured programmatically on your site or using customisable ‘tags’ within Google Tag Manager. So which should you choose and what’s the difference between them?

Event tracking

Looking at events first – once configured these appear within the Behaviour / Top Events report. Events allow you to capture three levels of data – a category, action and label. The latter for example could allow you to create a category such as “Downloads”, an action associated with these (e.g. “click”) and a label – for example the file name. Data captured in this format allows you to aggregate data for particular interactions with your site and easily identify e.g. what the most popular downloads from your site were.

Virtual page views

Virtual page views however appear within your main content reports (e.g. Behaviour / All Pages) alongside other standard page view data. As such it’s considered best practice to always include some identifier for virtual page views within the page URI in order to be able to distinguish these from standard page views - for example page URIs could start with “/virtual/” or end with “-vpv”.

Effects of additional tracking

Bear in mind that virtual page views will inflate the average pages per session metric – as such you may want to create an additional view that excludes these. Both virtual pages views and event tracking can also influence your bounce rate – a virtual page view will be seen as an additional interaction and so if e.g. someone downloads a file from a landing page and you’ve set this to be tracked as virtual page view and the visitor then leaves this won’t count as a bounce.

With event tracking you can choose as to whether the event influences your bounce rate or not. By default a “non-interaction” option is set to ‘false’ meaning that events will influence bounce rate – set it to ‘true’ if you don’t want bounce rate to be influenced. For example if you had an event configured to capture scroll depth you may well decide that this should not influence your bounce rate.

Which should you choose?

So having understood the basic differences between virtual page views and event tracking which should you choose? This largely (but not entirely) comes down to how you wish to use the data and whether you want to understand navigation and visitor journeys or to aggregate data for particular visitor interactions.

For navigational purposes virtual page views have the advantage that you can configure them as funnel steps within Google Analytics goals – something not possible for events. So if for example you want to track progress through a complex form (where the URL doesn't change) with the end point configured as a goal having a series of virtual page views would allow you to configure funnel steps and allow you to analyse performance via the Goal / Funnel Visualisation report.

You’ll also be able to see these pages within the reverse goal path report – which shows up to the three page views that occurred prior to a goal being completed – and also be able to visualise progress through a funnel via the goal flow report (which will include loop backs between steps). In addition you’ll gain access to the page level “Navigation Summary” reports and the Next Page and Previous Page dimensions.

Tracking activities as events however will often make more sense. You can easily get to summary data that shows how many times a particular activity was triggered and if you’ve constructed the category / action and label well you’ll be able to drill down to additional levels of detail. Events, as mentioned above, can also be configured not to influence the bounce rate and certain activities – such as a click onto an outbound link wouldn't make sense as a virtual page view.

A new update to the Google Adwords Editor was launched earlier this week.

The new release offers full support for labels, upgraded URLs, call only ads, ads in mobile ads and more. For further details check out the Google Adwords blog.

This appears to be a new form of referral spam - most likely sent via the measurement protocol i.e. a ghost referral - that you may find both within the "All traffic / Referrals" report and "Behaviour / Top Events". The purpose of this spam referral is presumably to get webmasters to click through to investigate and the site carries advertising.

For now we'd recommend you create an include filter using appropriate hostnames to discard any that don't match. If more than one hostname is required ensure you use a regular expression to capture all of these within a single include filter or you may end up cancelling out the previous rule. As always test any new filter on a test view and do not apply it to a master copy to ensure you don't end up losting data. We'd recommend that you also create an exclude filter to specifically exclude this and other spam referrals by source. If you need any help email us at info@andersanalytics.com and we'll be happy to advise.

Read more on spam and ghost referrals.

Seeing a sudden, unexpected and potentially dramatic rise in your traffic or other unexplained changes in patterns of traffic or engagement within Google Analytics? Even if nothing appears untoward we'd advise you to check your referrals and hostname reports to see whether you've been affected by either spam or ghost referrals.

Referrers such as semalt.com, ranksonic.info, social-buttons.com or buttons-for-website (and many others) can generate large numbers of referral sessions within your Google Analytics reports and seriously interfere with your traffic figures and overall engagement statistics. You may well find traffic from these and similar sites within the All Referrals report (which appears under Acquisition / All Traffic) - regardless of whether these are services you ever signed up for.

Sometimes you may see fairly dramatic spikes in your traffic - alerting you to a problem. In many cases however the volume of sessions generated may stay low enough to be below the radar and only identified after some investigation. Whilst low though the aggregate affect of multiple spam referrals can add up. Small businesses / sites need to beware - whilst an increase of a few hundred sessions may be a tiny blip for a large site with tens of thousands of visits a month if your site has a lower volume of traffic spam referrals can seriously distort your figures.

Within the All Referrals report look out for unusual patterns of traffic from specific referring sites. You may sometimes see a large spike in traffic from a site occurring on a single day with nothing generated thereafter for some time. Look out also for referrals generating a very high percentage of new sessions (often 100%) often with a bounce rate of or approaching 100% (although this is not always the case). Any referrals matching these criteria warrant further investigation (although be careful and don't automatically visit the suspect site - do some research via a search engine first).

You should also check your event tracking reports (available within Behaviour / Top Events) as we've recently encountered spam data appearing here (via ghost referrals). Event tracking has to be specifically setup for your website and is not available by default so if there's something you don't recognise then check with your web team.

Automated Spam & Bot Filtering

Google rolled out a bot and spider filtering tool in 2014. You configure this at a view settings level (via a tick box) and need to enable this for each view you wish it to apply to.

Spam traffic is currently a growing problem within Analytics. Selecting "remove bots and filters" within your view settings however still allows some automated referrals to make their way through to your reports and so you'll need to take action e.g. via setting up exclusion filters to remove them or taking one of the steps outlined below.

Ghost Referrals

It's recommended that you also check your "Audience / Technology / Network" report and then change the "primary dimension" (link below the graph) to "Hostname" to check for anything suspicious - the hostname is the domain from which your content was viewed or tracking was triggered.

If you see unexpected results here (e.g. darodar.com) these may be from ghost referrals - this traffic never actually visited your site but tracking was triggered via the Google Analytics "Measurement Protocol". An include filter (telling Google to only include your domain and other relevant domains) can help limit such ghost referrals but for a more comprehensive (but more technical) solution LunaMetrics have described a technique using a cookie and Custom dimension.

If adding a filter as always ensure you have a master view with no filters applied to ensure that if you make a mistake no data is lost. You might also wish to create a test view and apply the filter to it before rolling it out to your main views.

As the number of sites generating automated referrals and ghost referrals appears to be growing (we've seen a big increase over the last few months) and site sources change you'll also need to be proactive about this. Having performed an initial audit to identify and exclude any suspicious referrals from your reports you may then want to set up some alerts within the Intelligence Events section of your primary analytics view.

What if we have already been affected?

If you are preparing reports based upon historic data that includes referral spam you'll need to use advanced segments to filter this data out. Identify the hostnames and referrals you wish to exclude and then create an advanced filter to exclude traffic by source / hostname. (Note if there are a lot of suspect hostnames you may instead want to use an include statement).

Ultimately this is a problem that Google will need to (and we are confident will) address or using Analytics is going to become a lot more problematic - there is a danger though that the problem could get worse (and potentially more complex) in the meantime. For now we strongly advise that GA users are proactive about identifying whether they are affected and take steps to ensure the integrity of their data and their reporting.

If you have concerns about automated referrals compromising your data get in touch and we'll be happy to explain how we can help - drop us an email at info@andersanalytics.com. It's likely that there will be further developments here - we'll provide additional updates in due course.

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