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Referral Exclusion in Google Analytics (Universal)

Timo Dechau

By: Timo Dechau

Published: 2020-01-16

Honestly, referral exclusion is a highly technical thing. It‘s because it concerns two technical concepts in Google Analytics: Sessions and Referrals. So let's start with the basics.

Service:

Google Analytics (Universal)

Difficulty:

Easy

Time Required:

15

Referral Exclusion in Google Analytics (Universal)

Important: Google Analytics currently exists in two versions: Universal Analytics (most of you might use) and Google Analytics 4. This guide is covering Universal Analytics.

Are you only looking for the solution? Skip the background and jump to the solution.

Here are the basics in short: A session is a collection of page views and events in Google Analytics: Google uses some rules to define a session (e.g., 30m length). One important rule is that a new session starts when a new referrer (or UTM parameter) is used.

The referrer is information that the browser provides. It holds the URL of the destination a user is coming from before she ended on this page. So if you click on a link on nytimes.com/abc and get to wired.com/xyz you can find nytimes.com/abc as the referrer in the browser data.

So, what is the issue with referrers and sessions?

It‘s about edge cases, but sometimes edge cases can become significant cases.

Entering payment data setups

Most setups today use some external service to handle payment data. Sometimes it is a simple JS implementation using Stripe‘s SDK. Sometimes a user is going to a payment provider page, adds their data, and gets redirected back.

We are talking about the one with the redirect.

See this example user flow of an online shop:

Referral Exclusion in Google Analytics (Universal) - Example flow

When Google Analytics is calculating the sessions, it will create this:

Referral Exclusion in Google Analytics (Universal) - Sessions

Because when the user came from PayPal, she brought a new referrer (paypal.com) with her and started a new session.

So what does that mean for your marketing analytics? Basically this:

Referral Exclusion in Google Analytics (Universal) - Conversions

Now we have a problem!

Because the initial marketing campaign gets overwritten by PayPal. We don‘t want to optimize on PayPal, so we need to fix the data issue.

Fortunately, Google Analytics is offering a setting for these cases: The referral exclusion list.

You can add domains to the list that should be ignored when sessions are built.

So when you add paypal.com to the list, this happens:

Referral Exclusion in Google Analytics (Universal) - Domain excluded

The check that Google is using is looking if the referrer contains the defined value.

So it works like this:

Referral Exclusion in Google Analytics (Universal) - Setup

Once the domain is added, Google will ignore the matching referrers from that time you added the domain. As with most stuff in Google Analytics, it will not be applied to your historical data. I know, annoying.

You added a domain but still see sessions with this referrer.

That can be explained:

It‘s just old users who haven‘t used any link (referrer) or campaign to come back to the website and instead went directly to the website. So he caused no conversion attribution problem.

But over time, the sessions with the excluded referrers should disappear.

Referral Exclusion - How to implement?

1. Check if you have a referral problem

Referral Exclusion - Select Acquisition

Referral Exclusion Google Analytics - Select Acquisition

Before we add domains to referral exclusion list. We need to find out what domains should be added and if there is even a referrer problem. So let's do this as step 1.

  • On the left sidebar click on "Acquisition"

Referral Exclusion - Select referrer report

Referral Exclusion - Select Referrer report
  • Click on "All Traffic"

  • Then click on "Referrer"

Referral Exclusion - Check the referrer table

Referral Exclusion - Look at the referrer table
  • Now you see all referrer data

  • Select a longer time period in the top right (for example last 30 days)

  • Now you can scan the list page by page for bank referrers

  • Or you use the search in the top right of the table to search for specific bank referrers

Referral Exclusion - Look for bank referrers

Referral Exclusion - Check for banks
  • the bank referrers vary based on the countries you operate in

  • there are the generic ones like paypal and stripe. Search for them using the table search in the top right of the referrer table

  • especially for 3D secure you will have very specific bank urls. They can look like these:

    verifiedbyvisa.barclays.co.uk, acs1.swedbank.se, vcas2.visa.com,...

  • add all bank domains you find to a text file - we will need them in a second

2. Add the domains to the referral exclusion list

Referral Exclusion - Open the admin area

Screenshot 2021-01-15 at 20.50.53
  • in the left sidebar, at the bottom - click on "Admin"

Referral Exclusion - Select the tracking code settings

Screenshot 2021-01-15 at 20.51.20
  • in the property settings (middle column) select "Tracking info"

Referral Exclusion - Select the referral exclusion setting

Screenshot 2021-01-15 at 20.51.32
  • in the tracking info block - select the "Referral exclusion List" setting.

Referral Exclusion - Add the domains

Screenshot 2021-01-15 at 20.52.50
  • now you see all the domains that are already in the list

  • to add a new one click on "Add"

  • Now you see an empty input field.

  • Add the domain you want to exclude (use the text file where you added all the domains in step before)

You can add just the top level domain like "visa.com" or the specific sub-domain like "vcas2.visa.com". Google will check the referrer data if it contains the domain you define.

So "visa.com" will exclude everything that comes from the Visa website (also "vcas2.visa.com" or "vcas3.visa.com"). In most cases that is the best approach, since you only add one domain and not all variants. You should not do it, when you get initial traffic from this domain. For example when visa.com is featuring your online store and links to it. Then you should only add the specific payment sub-domains.

How often should you make this check?

Under normal conditions 1x a month is sufficient.

For EU business there will be a lot of new payment referrers at the moment due to new banking security regulation that make 3D secure mandatory. Therefore there a lot 3D secure related referrers. So in that I case I would do this check on a weekly base over the next 6-8 weeks and then move to monthly.