Stop Ghost Spam in Google Analytics with One Filter

Posted by CarloSeo

The spam in Google Analytics (GA) is becoming a serious issue. Due to a deluge of referral spam from social buttons, adult sites, and many, many other sources, people are starting to become overwhelmed by all the filters they are setting up to manage the useless data they are receiving.

The good news is, there is no need to panic. In this post, I’m going to focus on the most common mistakes people make when fighting spam in GA, and explain an efficient way to prevent it.

But first, let’s make sure we understand how spam works. A couple of months ago, Jared Gardner wrote an excellent article explaining what referral spam is, including its intended purpose. He also pointed out some great examples of referral spam.

Types of spam

The spam in Google Analytics can be categorized by two types: ghosts and crawlers.

Ghosts

The vast majority of spam is this type. They are called ghosts because they never access your site. It is important to keep this in mind, as it’s key to creating a more efficient solution for managing spam.

As unusual as it sounds, this type of spam doesn’t have any interaction with your site at all. You may wonder how that is possible since one of the main purposes of GA is to track visits to our sites.

They do it by using the Measurement Protocol, which allows people to send data directly to Google Analytics’ servers. Using this method, and probably randomly generated tracking codes (UA-XXXXX-1) as well, the spammers leave a “visit” with fake data, without even knowing who they are hitting.

Crawlers

This type of spam, the opposite to ghost spam, does access your site. As the name implies, these spam bots crawl your pages, ignoring rules like those found in robots.txt that are supposed to stop them from reading your site. When they exit your site, they leave a record on your reports that appears similar to a legitimate visit.

Crawlers are harder to identify because they know their targets and use real data. But it is also true that new ones seldom appear. So if you detect a referral in your analytics that looks suspicious, researching it on Google or checking it against this list might help you answer the question of whether or not it is spammy.

Most common mistakes made when dealing with spam in GA

I’ve been following this issue closely for the last few months. According to the comments people have made on my articles and conversations I’ve found in discussion forums, there are primarily three mistakes people make when dealing with spam in Google Analytics.

Mistake #1. Blocking ghost spam from the .htaccess file

One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to block Ghost Spam from the .htaccess file.

For those who are not familiar with this file, one of its main functions is to allow/block access to your site. Now we know that ghosts never reach your site, so adding them here won’t have any effect and will only add useless lines to your .htaccess file.

Ghost spam usually shows up for a few days and then disappears. As a result, sometimes people think that they successfully blocked it from here when really it’s just a coincidence of timing.

Then when the spammers later return, they get worried because the solution is not working anymore, and they think the spammer somehow bypassed the barriers they set up.

The truth is, the .htaccess file can only effectively block crawlers such as buttons-for-website.com and a few others since these access your site. Most of the spam can’t be blocked using this method, so there is no other option than using filters to exclude them.

Mistake #2. Using the referral exclusion list to stop spam

Another error is trying to use the referral exclusion list to stop the spam. The name may confuse you, but this list is not intended to exclude referrals in the way we want to for the spam. It has other purposes.

For example, when a customer buys something, sometimes they get redirected to a third-party page for payment. After making a payment, they’re redirected back to you website, and GA records that as a new referral. It is appropriate to use referral exclusion list to prevent this from happening.

If you try to use the referral exclusion list to manage spam, however, the referral part will be stripped since there is no preexisting record. As a result, a direct visit will be recorded, and you will have a bigger problem than the one you started with since. You will still have spam, and direct visits are harder to track.

Mistake #3. Worrying that bounce rate changes will affect rankings

When people see that the bounce rate changes drastically because of the spam, they start worrying about the impact that it will have on their rankings in the SERPs.

bounce.png

This is another mistake commonly made. With or without spam, Google doesn’t take into consideration Google Analytics metrics as a ranking factor. Here is an explanation about this from Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s web spam team.

And if you think about it, Cutts’ explanation makes sense; because although many people have GA, not everyone uses it.

Assuming your site has been hacked

Another common concern when people see strange landing pages coming from spam on their reports is that they have been hacked.

landing page

The page that the spam shows on the reports doesn’t exist, and if you try to open it, you will get a 404 page. Your site hasn’t been compromised.

But you have to make sure the page doesn’t exist. Because there are cases (not spam) where some sites have a security breach and get injected with pages full of bad keywords to defame the website.

What should you worry about?

Now that we’ve discarded security issues and their effects on rankings, the only thing left to worry about is your data. The fake trail that the spam leaves behind pollutes your reports.

It might have greater or lesser impact depending on your site traffic, but everyone is susceptible to the spam.

Small and midsize sites are the most easily impacted – not only because a big part of their traffic can be spam, but also because usually these sites are self-managed and sometimes don’t have the support of an analyst or a webmaster.

Big sites with a lot of traffic can also be impacted by spam, and although the impact can be insignificant, invalid traffic means inaccurate reports no matter the size of the website. As an analyst, you should be able to explain what’s going on in even in the most granular reports.

You only need one filter to deal with ghost spam

Usually it is recommended to add the referral to an exclusion filter after it is spotted. Although this is useful for a quick action against the spam, it has three big disadvantages.

  • Making filters every week for every new spam detected is tedious and time-consuming, especially if you manage many sites. Plus, by the time you apply the filter, and it starts working, you already have some affected data.
  • Some of the spammers use direct visits along with the referrals.
  • These direct hits won’t be stopped by the filter so even if you are excluding the referral you will sill be receiving invalid traffic, which explains why some people have seen an unusual spike in direct traffic.

Luckily, there is a good way to prevent all these problems. Most of the spam (ghost) works by hitting GA’s random tracking-IDs, meaning the offender doesn’t really know who is the target, and for that reason either the hostname is not set or it uses a fake one. (See report below)

Ghost-Spam.png

You can see that they use some weird names or don’t even bother to set one. Although there are some known names in the list, these can be easily added by the spammer.

On the other hand, valid traffic will always use a real hostname. In most of the cases, this will be the domain. But it also can also result from paid services, translation services, or any other place where you’ve inserted GA tracking code.

Valid-Referral.png

Based on this, we can make a filter that will include only hits that use real hostnames. This will automatically exclude all hits from ghost spam, whether it shows up as a referral, keyword, or pageview; or even as a direct visit.

To create this filter, you will need to find the report of hostnames. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the Reporting tab in GA
  2. Click on Audience in the lefthand panel
  3. Expand Technology and select Network
  4. At the top of the report, click on Hostname

Valid-list

You will see a list of all hostnames, including the ones that the spam uses. Make a list of all the valid hostnames you find, as follows:

  • yourmaindomain.com
  • blog.yourmaindomain.com
  • es.yourmaindomain.com
  • payingservice.com
  • translatetool.com
  • anotheruseddomain.com

For small to medium sites, this list of hostnames will likely consist of the main domain and a couple of subdomains. After you are sure you got all of them, create a regular expression similar to this one:

yourmaindomain\.com|anotheruseddomain\.com|payingservice\.com|translatetool\.com

You don’t need to put all of your subdomains in the regular expression. The main domain will match all of them. If you don’t have a view set up without filters, create one now.

Then create a Custom Filter.

Make sure you select INCLUDE, then select “Hostname” on the filter field, and copy your expression into the Filter Pattern box.

filter

You might want to verify the filter before saving to check that everything is okay. Once you’re ready, set it to save, and apply the filter to all the views you want (except the view without filters).

This single filter will get rid of future occurrences of ghost spam that use invalid hostnames, and it doesn’t require much maintenance. But it’s important that every time you add your tracking code to any service, you add it to the end of the filter.

Now you should only need to take care of the crawler spam. Since crawlers access your site, you can block them by adding these lines to the .htaccess file:

## STOP REFERRER SPAM 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} semalt\.com [NC,OR] 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} buttons-for-website\.com [NC] 
RewriteRule .* - [F]

It is important to note that this file is very sensitive, and misplacing a single character it it can bring down your entire site. Therefore, make sure you create a backup copy of your .htaccess file prior to editing it.

If you don’t feel comfortable messing around with your .htaccess file, you can alternatively make an expression with all the crawlers, then and add it to an exclude filter by Campaign Source.

Implement these combined solutions, and you will worry much less about spam contaminating your analytics data. This will have the added benefit of freeing up more time for you to spend actually analyze your valid data.

After stopping spam, you can also get clean reports from the historical data by using the same expressions in an Advance Segment to exclude all the spam.

Bonus resources to help you manage spam

If you still need more information to help you understand and deal with the spam on your GA reports, you can read my main article on the subject here: http://www.ohow.co/what-is-referrer-spam-how-stop-it-guide/.

Additional information on how to stop spam can be found at these URLs:

In closing, I am eager to hear your ideas on this serious issue. Please share them in the comments below.

(Editor’s Note: All images featured in this post were created by the author.)

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Why Effective, Modern SEO Requires Technical, Creative, and Strategic Thinking – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

There’s no doubt that quite a bit has changed about SEO, and that the field is far more integrated with other aspects of online marketing than it once was. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand pushes back against the idea that effective modern SEO doesn’t require any technical expertise, outlining a fantastic list of technical elements that today’s SEOs need to know about in order to be truly effective.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to do something unusual. I don’t usually point out these inconsistencies or sort of take issue with other folks’ content on the web, because I generally find that that’s not all that valuable and useful. But I’m going to make an exception here.

There is an article by Jayson DeMers, who I think might actually be here in Seattle — maybe he and I can hang out at some point — called “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise.” It was an article that got a shocking amount of traction and attention. On Facebook, it has thousands of shares. On LinkedIn, it did really well. On Twitter, it got a bunch of attention.

Some folks in the SEO world have already pointed out some issues around this. But because of the increasing popularity of this article, and because I think there’s, like, this hopefulness from worlds outside of kind of the hardcore SEO world that are looking to this piece and going, “Look, this is great. We don’t have to be technical. We don’t have to worry about technical things in order to do SEO.”

Look, I completely get the appeal of that. I did want to point out some of the reasons why this is not so accurate. At the same time, I don’t want to rain on Jayson, because I think that it’s very possible he’s writing an article for Entrepreneur, maybe he has sort of a commitment to them. Maybe he had no idea that this article was going to spark so much attention and investment. He does make some good points. I think it’s just really the title and then some of the messages inside there that I take strong issue with, and so I wanted to bring those up.

First off, some of the good points he did bring up.

One, he wisely says, “You don’t need to know how to code or to write and read algorithms in order to do SEO.” I totally agree with that. If today you’re looking at SEO and you’re thinking, “Well, am I going to get more into this subject? Am I going to try investing in SEO? But I don’t even know HTML and CSS yet.”

Those are good skills to have, and they will help you in SEO, but you don’t need them. Jayson’s totally right. You don’t have to have them, and you can learn and pick up some of these things, and do searches, watch some Whiteboard Fridays, check out some guides, and pick up a lot of that stuff later on as you need it in your career. SEO doesn’t have that hard requirement.

And secondly, he makes an intelligent point that we’ve made many times here at Moz, which is that, broadly speaking, a better user experience is well correlated with better rankings.

You make a great website that delivers great user experience, that provides the answers to searchers’ questions and gives them extraordinarily good content, way better than what’s out there already in the search results, generally speaking you’re going to see happy searchers, and that’s going to lead to higher rankings.

But not entirely. There are a lot of other elements that go in here. So I’ll bring up some frustrating points around the piece as well.

First off, there’s no acknowledgment — and I find this a little disturbing — that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.

So being able to look at a web page, view source on it, or pull up Firebug in Firefox or something and diagnose what’s going on and then go, “Oh, that’s why Google is not able to see this content. That’s why we’re not ranking for this keyword or term, or why even when I enter this exact sentence in quotes into Google, which is on our page, this is why it’s not bringing it up. It’s because it’s loading it after the page from a remote file that Google can’t access.” These are technical things, and being able to see how that code is built, how it’s structured, and what’s going on there, very, very helpful.

Some coding knowledge also can take your SEO efforts even further. I mean, so many times, SEOs are stymied by the conversations that we have with our programmers and our developers and the technical staff on our teams. When we can have those conversations intelligently, because at least we understand the principles of how an if-then statement works, or what software engineering best practices are being used, or they can upload something into a GitHub repository, and we can take a look at it there, that kind of stuff is really helpful.

Secondly, I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google. So he mentions two sources. One is things that Google tells us, and others are SEO experiments. I think both of those are true. Although I’d add that there’s sort of a sixth sense of knowledge that we gain over time from looking at many, many search results and kind of having this feel for why things rank, and what might be wrong with a site, and getting really good at that using tools and data as well. There are people who can look at Open Site Explorer and then go, “Aha, I bet this is going to happen.” They can look, and 90% of the time they’re right.

So he boils this down to, one, write quality content, and two, reduce your bounce rate. Neither of those things are wrong. You should write quality content, although I’d argue there are lots of other forms of quality content that aren’t necessarily written — video, images and graphics, podcasts, lots of other stuff.

And secondly, that just doing those two things is not always enough. So you can see, like many, many folks look and go, “I have quality content. It has a low bounce rate. How come I don’t rank better?” Well, your competitors, they’re also going to have quality content with a low bounce rate. That’s not a very high bar.

Also, frustratingly, this really gets in my craw. I don’t think “write quality content” means anything. You tell me. When you hear that, to me that is a totally non-actionable, non-useful phrase that’s a piece of advice that is so generic as to be discardable. So I really wish that there was more substance behind that.

The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to “the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank.”

Wow. Okay. Again, I think broadly these things are correlated. User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one. This is not like a, “Oh, well, that’s a 1.0 correlation.”

I would guess that the correlation is probably closer to like the page authority range. I bet it’s like 0.35 or something correlation. If you were to actually measure this broadly across the web and say like, “Hey, were you happier with result one, two, three, four, or five,” the ordering would not be perfect at all. It probably wouldn’t even be close.

There’s a ton of reasons why sometimes someone who ranks on Page 2 or Page 3 or doesn’t rank at all for a query is doing a better piece of content than the person who does rank well or ranks on Page 1, Position 1.

Then the article suggests five and sort of a half steps to successful modern SEO, which I think is a really incomplete list. So Jayson gives us;

  • Good on-site experience
  • Writing good content
  • Getting others to acknowledge you as an authority
  • Rising in social popularity
  • Earning local relevance
  • Dealing with modern CMS systems (which he notes most modern CMS systems are SEO-friendly)

The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with any of these. They’re all, generally speaking, correct, either directly or indirectly related to SEO. The one about local relevance, I have some issue with, because he doesn’t note that there’s a separate algorithm for sort of how local SEO is done and how Google ranks local sites in maps and in their local search results. Also not noted is that rising in social popularity won’t necessarily directly help your SEO, although it can have indirect and positive benefits.

I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room. I’m not going to bother to erase and go try and be absolutely complete.

But there’s a huge, huge number of things that are important, critically important for technical SEO. If you don’t know how to do these things, you are sunk in many cases. You can’t be an effective SEO analyst, or consultant, or in-house team member, because you simply can’t diagnose the potential problems, rectify those potential problems, identify strategies that your competitors are using, be able to diagnose a traffic gain or loss. You have to have these skills in order to do that.

I’ll run through these quickly, but really the idea is just that this list is so huge and so long that I think it’s very, very, very wrong to say technical SEO is behind us. I almost feel like the opposite is true.

We have to be able to understand things like;

  • Content rendering and indexability
  • Crawl structure, internal links, JavaScript, Ajax. If something’s post-loading after the page and Google’s not able to index it, or there are links that are accessible via JavaScript or Ajax, maybe Google can’t necessarily see those or isn’t crawling them as effectively, or is crawling them, but isn’t assigning them as much link weight as they might be assigning other stuff, and you’ve made it tough to link to them externally, and so they can’t crawl it.
  • Disabling crawling and/or indexing of thin or incomplete or non-search-targeted content. We have a bunch of search results pages. Should we use rel=prev/next? Should we robots.txt those out? Should we disallow from crawling with meta robots? Should we rel=canonical them to other pages? Should we exclude them via the protocols inside Google Webmaster Tools, which is now Google Search Console?
  • Managing redirects, domain migrations, content updates. A new piece of content comes out, replacing an old piece of content, what do we do with that old piece of content? What’s the best practice? It varies by different things. We have a whole Whiteboard Friday about the different things that you could do with that. What about a big redirect or a domain migration? You buy another company and you’re redirecting their site to your site. You have to understand things about subdomain structures versus subfolders, which, again, we’ve done another Whiteboard Friday about that.
  • Proper error codes, downtime procedures, and not found pages. If your 404 pages turn out to all be 200 pages, well, now you’ve made a big error there, and Google could be crawling tons of 404 pages that they think are real pages, because you’ve made it a status code 200, or you’ve used a 404 code when you should have used a 410, which is a permanently removed, to be able to get it completely out of the indexes, as opposed to having Google revisit it and keep it in the index.

Downtime procedures. So there’s specifically a… I can’t even remember. It’s a 5xx code that you can use. Maybe it was a 503 or something that you can use that’s like, “Revisit later. We’re having some downtime right now.” Google urges you to use that specific code rather than using a 404, which tells them, “This page is now an error.”

Disney had that problem a while ago, if you guys remember, where they 404ed all their pages during an hour of downtime, and then their homepage, when you searched for Disney World, was, like, “Not found.” Oh, jeez, Disney World, not so good.

  • International and multi-language targeting issues. I won’t go into that. But you have to know the protocols there. Duplicate content, syndication, scrapers. How do we handle all that? Somebody else wants to take our content, put it on their site, what should we do? Someone’s scraping our content. What can we do? We have duplicate content on our own site. What should we do?
  • Diagnosing traffic drops via analytics and metrics. Being able to look at a rankings report, being able to look at analytics connecting those up and trying to see: Why did we go up or down? Did we have less pages being indexed, more pages being indexed, more pages getting traffic less, more keywords less?
  • Understanding advanced search parameters. Today, just today, I was checking out the related parameter in Google, which is fascinating for most sites. Well, for Moz, weirdly, related:oursite.com shows nothing. But for virtually every other sit, well, most other sites on the web, it does show some really interesting data, and you can see how Google is connecting up, essentially, intentions and topics from different sites and pages, which can be fascinating, could expose opportunities for links, could expose understanding of how they view your site versus your competition or who they think your competition is.

Then there are tons of parameters, like in URL and in anchor, and da, da, da, da. In anchor doesn’t work anymore, never mind about that one.

I have to go faster, because we’re just going to run out of these. Like, come on. Interpreting and leveraging data in Google Search Console. If you don’t know how to use that, Google could be telling you, you have all sorts of errors, and you don’t know what they are.

  • Leveraging topic modeling and extraction. Using all these cool tools that are coming out for better keyword research and better on-page targeting. I talked about a couple of those at MozCon, like MonkeyLearn. There’s the new Moz Context API, which will be coming out soon, around that. There’s the Alchemy API, which a lot of folks really like and use.
  • Identifying and extracting opportunities based on site crawls. You run a Screaming Frog crawl on your site and you’re going, “Oh, here’s all these problems and issues.” If you don’t have these technical skills, you can’t diagnose that. You can’t figure out what’s wrong. You can’t figure out what needs fixing, what needs addressing.
  • Using rich snippet format to stand out in the SERPs. This is just getting a better click-through rate, which can seriously help your site and obviously your traffic.
  • Applying Google-supported protocols like rel=canonical, meta description, rel=prev/next, hreflang, robots.txt, meta robots, x robots, NOODP, XML sitemaps, rel=nofollow. The list goes on and on and on. If you’re not technical, you don’t know what those are, you think you just need to write good content and lower your bounce rate, it’s not going to work.
  • Using APIs from services like AdWords or MozScape, or hrefs from Majestic, or SEM refs from SearchScape or Alchemy API. Those APIs can have powerful things that they can do for your site. There are some powerful problems they could help you solve if you know how to use them. It’s actually not that hard to write something, even inside a Google Doc or Excel, to pull from an API and get some data in there. There’s a bunch of good tutorials out there. Richard Baxter has one, Annie Cushing has one, I think Distilled has some. So really cool stuff there.
  • Diagnosing page load speed issues, which goes right to what Jayson was talking about. You need that fast-loading page. Well, if you don’t have any technical skills, you can’t figure out why your page might not be loading quickly.
  • Diagnosing mobile friendliness issues
  • Advising app developers on the new protocols around App deep linking, so that you can get the content from your mobile apps into the web search results on mobile devices. Awesome. Super powerful. Potentially crazy powerful, as mobile search is becoming bigger than desktop.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and relax. I don’t know Jayson’s intention, and in fact, if he were in this room, he’d be like, “No, I totally agree with all those things. I wrote the article in a rush. I had no idea it was going to be big. I was just trying to make the broader points around you don’t have to be a coder in order to do SEO.” That’s completely fine.

So I’m not going to try and rain criticism down on him. But I think if you’re reading that article, or you’re seeing it in your feed, or your clients are, or your boss is, or other folks are in your world, maybe you can point them to this Whiteboard Friday and let them know, no, that’s not quite right. There’s a ton of technical SEO that is required in 2015 and will be for years to come, I think, that SEOs have to have in order to be effective at their jobs.

All right, everyone. Look forward to some great comments, and we’ll see you again next time for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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An Open-Source Tool for Checking rel-alternate-hreflang Annotations

Posted by Tom-Anthony

In the Distilled R&D department we have been ramping up the amount of automated monitoring and analysis we do, with an internal system monitoring our client’s sites both directly and via various data sources to ensure they remain healthy and we are alerted to any problems that may arise.

Recently we started work to add in functionality for including the rel-alternate-hreflang annotations in this system. In this blog post I’m going to share an open-source Python library we’ve just started work on for the purpose, which makes it easy to read the hreflang entries from a page and identify errors with them.

If you’re not a Python aficionado then don’t despair, as I have also built a ready-to-go tool for you to use, which will quickly do some checks on the hreflang entries for any URL you specify. 🙂

Google’s Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) does have some basic rel-alternate-hreflang checking built in, but it is limited in how you can use it and you are restricted to using it for verified sites.

rel-alternate-hreflang checklist

Before we introduce the code, I wanted to quickly review a list of five easy and common mistakes that we will want to check for when looking at rel-alternate-hreflang annotations:

  • return tag errors – Every alternate language/locale URL of a page should, itself, include a link back to the first page. This makes sense but I’ve seen people make mistakes with it fairly often.
  • indirect / broken links – Links to alternate language/region versions of the page should no go via redirects, and should not link to missing or broken pages.
  • multiple entries – There should never be multiple entries for a single language/region combo.
  • multiple defaults – You should never have more than one x-default entry.
  • conflicting modes – rel-alternate-hreflang entries can be implemented via inline HTML, XML sitemaps, or HTTP headers. For any one set of pages only one implementation mode should be used.

So now imagine that we want to simply automate these checks quickly and simply…

Introducing: polly – the hreflang checker library

polly is the name for the library we have developed to help us solve this problem, and we are releasing it as open source so the SEO community can use it freely to build upon. We only started work on it last week, but we plan to continue developing it, and will also accept contributions to the code from the community, so we expect its feature set to grow rapidly.

If you are not comfortable tinkering with Python, then feel free to skip down to the next section of the post, where there is a tool that is built with polly which you can use right away.

Still here? Ok, great. You can install polly easily via pip:

pip install polly

You can then create a PollyPage() object which will do all our work and store the data simply by instantiating the class with the desired URL:

my_page = PollyPage("http://www.facebook.com/")

You can quickly see the hreflang entries on the page by running:

print my_page.alternate_urls_map

You can list all the hreflang values encountered on a page, and which countries and languages they cover:

print my_page.hreflang_values
print my_page.languages
print my_page.regions

You can also check various aspects of a page, see whether the pages it includes in its rel-alternate-hreflang entries point back, or whether there are entries that do not see retrievable (due to 404 or 500 etc. errors):

print my_page.is_default
print my_page.no_return_tag_pages()
print my_page.non_retrievable_pages()

Get more instructions and grab the code at the polly github page. Hit me up in the comments with any questions.

Free tool: hreflang.ninja

I have put together a very simple tool that uses polly to run some of the checks we highlighted above as being common mistakes with rel-alternate-hreflang, which you can visit right now and start using:

http://hreflang.ninja

Simply enter a URL and hit enter, and you should see something like:

Example output from the ninja!

The tool shows you the rel-alternate-hreflang entries found on the page, the language and region of those entries, the alternate URLs, and any errors identified with the entry. It is perfect for doing quick’n’dirty checks of a URL to identify any errors.

As we add additional functionality to polly we will be updating hreflang.ninja as well, so please tweet me with feature ideas or suggestions.

To-do list!

This is the first release of polly and currently we only handle annotations that are in the HTML of the page, not those in the XML sitemap or HTTP headers. However, we are going to be updating polly (and hreflang.ninja) over the coming weeks, so watch this space! 🙂

Resources

Here are a few links you may find helpful for hreflang:

Got suggestions?

With the increasing number of SEO directives and annotations available, and the ever-changing guidelines around how to deploy them, it is important to automate whatever areas possible. Hopefully polly is helpful to the community in this regard, and we want to here what ideas you have for making these tools more useful – here in the comments or via Twitter.

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The Meta Referrer Tag: An Advancement for SEO and the Internet

Posted by Cyrus-Shepard

The movement to make the Internet more secure through HTTPS brings several useful advancements for webmasters. In addition to security improvements, HTTPS promises future technological advances and potential SEO benefits for marketers.

HTTPS in search results is rising. Recent MozCast data from Dr. Pete shows nearly 20% of first page Google results are now HTTPS.

Sadly, HTTPS also has its downsides.

Marketers run into their first challenge when they switch regular HTTP sites over to HTTPS. Technically challenging, the switch typically involves routing your site through a series of 301 redirects. Historically, these types of redirects are associated with a loss of link equity (thought to be around 15%) which can lead to a loss in rankings. This can offset any SEO advantage that Google claims switching.

Ross Hudgens perfectly summed it up in this tweet:

Many SEOs have anecdotally shared stories of HTTPS sites performing well in Google search results (and our soon-to-be-published Ranking Factors data seems to support this.) However, the short term effect of a large migration can be hard to take. When Moz recently switched to HTTPS to provide better security to our logged-in users, we saw an 8-9% dip in our organic search traffic.

Problem number two is the subject of this post. It involves the loss of referral data. Typically, when one site sends traffic to another, information is sent that identifies the originating site as the source of traffic. This invaluable data allows people to see where their traffic is coming from, and helps spread the flow of information across the web.

SEOs have long used referrer data for a number of beneficial purposes. Oftentimes, people will link back or check out the site sending traffic when they see the referrer in their analytics data. Spammers know this works, as evidenced by the recent increase in referrer spam:

This process stops when traffic flows from an HTTPS site to a non-secure HTTP site. In this case, no referrer data is sent. Webmasters can’t know where their traffic is coming from.

Here’s how referral data to my personal site looked when Moz switched to HTTPS. I lost all visibility into where my traffic came from.

Its (not provided) all over again!

Enter the meta referrer tag

While we can’t solve the ranking challenges imposed by switching a site to HTTPS, we can solve the loss of referral data, and it’s actually super-simple.

Almost completely unknown to most marketers, the relatively new meta referrer tag (it’s actually been around for a few years) was designed to help out in these situations.

Better yet, the tag allows you to control how your referrer information is passed.

The meta referrer tag works with most browsers to pass referrer information in a manner defined by the user. Traffic remains encrypted and all the benefits of using HTTPS remain in place, but now you can pass referrer data to all websites, even those that use HTTP.

How to use the meta referrer tag

What follows are extremely simplified instructions for using the meta referrer tag. For more in-depth understanding, we highly recommend referring to the W3C working draft of the spec.

The meta referrer tag is placed in the <head> section of your HTML, and references one of five states, which control how browsers send referrer information from your site. The five states are:

  1. None: Never pass referral data
    <meta name="referrer" content="none">
    
  2. None When Downgrade: Sends referrer information to secure HTTPS sites, but not insecure HTTP sites
    <meta name="referrer" content="none-when-downgrade">
    
  3. Origin Only: Sends the scheme, host, and port (basically, the subdomain) stripped of the full URL as a referrer, i.e. https://moz.com/example.html would simply send https://moz.com
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin">
    

  4. Origin When Cross-Origin: Sends the full URL as the referrer when the target has the same scheme, host, and port (i.e. subdomain) regardless if it’s HTTP or HTTPS, while sending origin-only referral information to external sites. (note: There is a typo in the official spec. Future versions should be “origin-when-cross-origin”)
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin-when-crossorigin">
    
  5. Unsafe URL: Always passes the URL string as a referrer. Note if you have any sensitive information contained in your URL, this isn’t the safest option. By default, URL fragments, username, and password are automatically stripped out.
    <meta name="referrer" content="unsafe-url">
    

The meta referrer tag in action

By clicking the link below, you can get a sense of how the meta referrer tag works.

Check Referrer

Boom!

We’ve set the meta referrer tag for Moz to “origin”, which means when we link out to another site, we pass our scheme, host, and port. The end result is you see http://moz.com as the referrer, stripped of the full URL path (/meta-referrer-tag).

My personal site typically receives several visits per day from Moz. Here’s what my analytics data looked like before and after we implemented the meta referrer tag.

For simplicity and security, most sites may want to implement the “origin” state, but there are drawbacks.

One negative side effect was that as soon as we implemented the meta referrer tag, our AdRoll analytics, which we use for retargeting, stopped working. It turns out that AdRoll uses our referrer information for analytics, but the meta referrer tag “origin” state meant that the only URL they ever saw reported was https://moz.com.

Conclusion

We love the meta referrer tag because it keeps information flowing on the Internet. It’s the way the web is supposed to work!

It helps marketers and webmasters see exactly where their traffic is coming from. It encourages engagement, communication, and even linking, which can lead to improvements in SEO.

Useful links:

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Big Data, Big Problems: 4 Major Link Indexes Compared

Posted by russangular

Given this blog’s readership, chances are good you will spend some time this week looking at backlinks in one of the growing number of link data tools. We know backlinks continue to be one of, if not the most important
parts of Google’s ranking algorithm. We tend to take these link data sets at face value, though, in part because they are all we have. But when your rankings are on the line, is there a better way to get at which data set is the best? How should we go
about assessing these different link indexes like
Moz,
Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush for quality? Historically, there have been 4 common approaches to this question of index quality…

  • Breadth: We might choose to look at the number of linking root domains any given service reports. We know
    that referring domains correlates strongly with search rankings, so it makes sense to judge a link index by how many unique domains it has
    discovered and indexed.
  • Depth: We also might choose to look at how deep the web has been crawled, looking more at the total number of URLs
    in the index, rather than the diversity of referring domains.
  • Link Overlap: A more sophisticated approach might count the number of links an index has in common with Google Webmaster
    Tools.
  • Freshness: Finally, we might choose to look at the freshness of the index. What percentage of links in the index are
    still live?

There are a number of really good studies (some newer than others) using these techniques that are worth checking out when you get a chance:

  • BuiltVisible analysis of Moz, Majestic, GWT, Ahrefs and Search Metrics
  • SEOBook comparison of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and Ayima
  • MatthewWoodward
    study of Ahrefs, Majestic, Moz, Raven and SEO Spyglass
  • Marketing Signals analysis of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and GWT
  • RankAbove comparison of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and Link Research Tools
  • StoneTemple study of Moz and Majestic

While these are all excellent at addressing the methodologies above, there is a particular limitation with all of them. They miss one of the
most important metrics we need to determine the value of a link index: proportional representation to Google’s link graph
. So here at Angular Marketing, we decided to take a closer look.

Proportional representation to Google Search Console data

So, why is it important to determine proportional representation? Many of the most important and valued metrics we use are built on proportional
models. PageRank, MozRank, CitationFlow and Ahrefs Rank are proportional in nature. The score of any one URL in the data set is relative to the
other URLs in the data set. If the data set is biased, the results are biased.

A Visualization

Link graphs are biased by their crawl prioritization. Because there is no full representation of the Internet, every link graph, even Google’s,
is a biased sample of the web. Imagine for a second that the picture below is of the web. Each dot represents a page on the Internet,
and the dots surrounded by green represent a fictitious index by Google of certain sections of the web.

Of course, Google isn’t the only organization that crawls the web. Other organizations like Moz,
Majestic, Ahrefs, and SEMrush
have their own crawl prioritizations which result in different link indexes.

In the example above, you can see different link providers trying to index the web like Google. Link data provider 1 (purple) does a good job
of building a model that is similar to Google. It isn’t very big, but it is proportional. Link data provider 2 (blue) has a much larger index,
and likely has more links in common with Google that link data provider 1, but it is highly disproportional. So, how would we go about measuring
this proportionality? And which data set is the most proportional to Google?

Methodology

The first step is to determine a measurement of relativity for analysis. Google doesn’t give us very much information about their link graph.
All we have is what is in Google Search Console. The best source we can use is referring domain counts. In particular, we want to look at
what we call
referring domain link pairs. A referring domain link pair would be something like ask.com->mlb.com: 9,444 which means
that ask.com links to mlb.com 9,444 times.

Steps

  1. Determine the root linking domain pairs and values to 100+ sites in Google Search Console
  2. Determine the same for Ahrefs, Moz, Majestic Fresh, Majestic Historic, SEMrush
  3. Compare the referring domain link pairs of each data set to Google, assuming a
    Poisson Distribution
  4. Run simulations of each data set’s performance against each other (ie: Moz vs Maj, Ahrefs vs SEMrush, Moz vs SEMrush, et al.)
  5. Analyze the results

Results

When placed head-to-head, there seem to be some clear winners at first glance. In head-to-head, Moz edges out Ahrefs, but across the board, Moz and Ahrefs fare quite evenly. Moz, Ahrefs and SEMrush seem to be far better than Majestic Fresh and Majestic Historic. Is that really the case? And why?

It turns out there is an inversely proportional relationship between index size and proportional relevancy. This might seem counterintuitive,
shouldn’t the bigger indexes be closer to Google? Not Exactly.

What does this mean?

Each organization has to create a crawl prioritization strategy. When you discover millions of links, you have to prioritize which ones you
might crawl next. Google has a crawl prioritization, so does Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush. There are lots of different things you might
choose to prioritize…

  • You might prioritize link discovery. If you want to build a very large index, you could prioritize crawling pages on sites that
    have historically provided new links.
  • You might prioritize content uniqueness. If you want to build a search engine, you might prioritize finding pages that are unlike
    any you have seen before. You could choose to crawl domains that historically provide unique data and little duplicate content.
  • You might prioritize content freshness. If you want to keep your search engine recent, you might prioritize crawling pages that
    change frequently.
  • You might prioritize content value, crawling the most important URLs first based on the number of inbound links to that page.

Chances are, an organization’s crawl priority will blend some of these features, but it’s difficult to design one exactly like Google. Imagine
for a moment that instead of crawling the web, you want to climb a tree. You have to come up with a tree climbing strategy.

  • You decide to climb the longest branch you see at each intersection.
  • One friend of yours decides to climb the first new branch he reaches, regardless of how long it is.
  • Your other friend decides to climb the first new branch she reaches only if she sees another branch coming off of it.

Despite having different climb strategies, everyone chooses the same first branch, and everyone chooses the same second branch. There are only
so many different options early on.

But as the climbers go further and further along, their choices eventually produce differing results. This is exactly the same for web crawlers
like Google, Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush. The bigger the crawl, the more the crawl prioritization will cause disparities. This is not a
deficiency; this is just the nature of the beast. However, we aren’t completely lost. Once we know how index size is related to disparity, we
can make some inferences about how similar a crawl priority may be to Google.

Unfortunately, we have to be careful in our conclusions. We only have a few data points with which to work, so it is very difficult to be
certain regarding this part of the analysis. In particular, it seems strange that Majestic would get better relative to its index size as it grows,
unless Google holds on to old data (which might be an important discovery in and of itself). It is most likely that at this point we can’t make
this level of conclusion.

So what do we do?

Let’s say you have a list of domains or URLs for which you would like to know their relative values. Your process might look something like
this…

  • Check Open Site Explorer to see if all URLs are in their index. If so, you are looking metrics most likely to be proportional to Google’s link graph.
  • If any of the links do not occur in the index, move to Ahrefs and use their Ahrefs ranking if all you need is a single PageRank-like metric.
  • If any of the links are missing from Ahrefs’s index, or you need something related to trust, move on to Majestic Fresh.
  • Finally, use Majestic Historic for (by leaps and bounds) the largest coverage available.

It is important to point out that the likelihood that all the URLs you want to check are in a single index increases as the accuracy of the metric
decreases. Considering the size of Majestic’s data, you can’t ignore them because you are less likely to get null value answers from their data than
the others. If anything rings true, it is that once again it makes sense to get data
from as many sources as possible. You won’t
get the most proportional data without Moz, the broadest data without Majestic, or everything in-between without Ahrefs.

What about SEMrush? They are making progress, but they don’t publish any relative statistics that would be useful in this particular
case. Maybe we can hope to see more from them soon given their already promising index!

Recommendations for the link graphing industry

All we hear about these days is big data; we almost never hear about good data. I know that the teams at Moz,
Majestic, Ahrefs, SEMrush and others are interested in mimicking Google, but I would love to see some organization stand up against the
allure of
more data in favor of better data—data more like Google’s. It could begin with testing various crawl strategies to see if they produce
a result more similar to that of data shared in Google Search Console. Having the most Google-like data is certainly a crown worth winning.

Credits

Thanks to Diana Carter at Angular for assistance with data acquisition and Andrew Cron with statistical analysis. Thanks also to the representatives from Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and SEMrush for answering questions about their indices.

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