Spam or Clever Marketing?

Note: This was an experiment that I tried for about a week. I'm not advocating this approach, but merely throwing it out there for discussion. A couple of website owners (see the comments) have already voiced their opinion and I'd love to hear yours.

Anyone that runs a website, big or small, should be checking some basic web traffic statistics. Web analytics software is an important tool to confirm that things are working correctly, but it's also a good way to learn more about a site's users. One report worth looking at is the referrer (often misspelled referer) report.

Referrer information is transmitted by most web browsers and serves as an indication of where the user was just before coming to your site. This is a good way to find other sites that link to your site because in such cases, the location of the link will be what's transmitted as the referrer.

Since the referrer is something controlled by your web browser, it is possible to wield some control over it. Many people block the information entirely in an attempt to maintain a level of privacy. Blocking a referrer can be done with easily with browser extensions or with the use of a firewall or proxy server. For me, a more interesting approach is to change the referrer to always be my website (thanks to Bjorn for the idea). The idea being that a percentage of the owners of the websites I visit will see my site as the referrer and choose to investigate. This can result in more visitors, feed subscribers, and maybe even links.

Bjorn suggests using Privoxy which is a free proxy server that you can run on your computer. For just referrer spoofing I found this tool to be overkill. It also resulted in a lot of errors when I was visiting sites. A better solution, in my opinion, is the RefControl Firefox extension. Aside from being easier to use, it also makes it possible to send different referrer information depending on the site you're visiting. So if you happen to run a financial blog (like I do) and are visiting a financial site, you can use a different referrer than if you run a technology blog (again, like I do) and are visiting a technology site.

So the question is whether this is spam or clever marketing. Some might consider it spam because I'm consciously manipulating data that you might rely on for reporting purposes. Also, this tactic is in effect tricking other website owners in to thinking that a link to them exists on my site. Others might argue this is clever marketing because it doesn't affect anything that is publicly visible and therefore not detrimental to the site.

I'm going to skirt the issue in my case for the time being. My initial test will be just to determine if the tactic works. What's your take?

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  1. I think webmasters don't get it. It is the client's right to manipulate the referer anyway they want. (btw it's referer that got into the http spec not the correctly spelled referrer and distributed since). Personally I would recommend blocking the HTTP referer if you care about security. Servers you connect to, may know things, like exploits, about the specific browser version you just sent over with the headers, and you may not.
    I don't care if some block or ban access to their sites for unknown referrers, there's always a next link down the results to follow and read an article of interest. As of the tools mentioned in some of the comments here, I would say they can be countered in many different ways. If the landing server connects to the referrer server trying to verify a link or something, someone can generate web content of his choice on the fly and present it back. Plus search engines or customers can also be redirected to the detected honeypots, getting banned and so these addons may do more harm than good.
    As of the marketing aspect of it (ie: having your site's url exposed with the referrer), it can also backfire as your site now, can be a target for various "experiments".

  2. MaskedGuru,

    The trick works well with bloggers who are notorious for checking their stats especially the important ones. Regardless, I'm not using this tactic anymore. It was an experiment rather than a long-term approach to attracting notice.

    As for nofollow, comments convert to "dofollow" once there are a certain number of them i.e. not the first or second one.

  3. BTW, you'd get more comments if you made this into a 'dofollow' blog.

  4. It's an interesting trick, and I won't comment on the ethicallity of it. What I WILL say, is that you may be surprised what TINY proportion of website owners ever bother to check their logs, or even have the stats package turned on.


  5. Business to Consumer relations should be characterized by the consumer having a right to maneuver free of intentional deception.

    But ya know what? It's all fair in 'Business to Business' providing it's within the scope of the law.

    Why should you be obligated to assist other webmasters when you could just as easily assert a right to benefit yourself and your own employees?

  6. IncrediBILL,

    Thanks for your input. That's 2 against the use of this technique now.

    Also, thanks for pointing out the ref-karma plugin. I'd be interested to see if it catches anything coming to my site.

    I went ahead and corrected the spelling mistake. I even looked it up when I first made the post, but somehow managed to flip them by the time my fingers did the typing.

  7. People that play these types of referral games are why tools like "Referrer Karma" exist:

    Just keep pushing the envelope and more people will install such tools and you'll soon find yourself unwelcome at every turn.

    BTW, "referer" is misspelled in Apache as the dictionary claims the proper spelling is REFERRER.

  8. John,

    I appreciate your feedback. Opinions are what I'm looking for and your argument against the technique is a sound one. I'll be interested in seeing what kind of commentary the post on your site generates as I've failed to generate any other than yours thus far.

    I've disabled the plugin while I see if others feel the same way. I was going more for the "pleasant surprise to find your blog" effect rather than to establish immediate mistrust.

  9. What's my take? It's referrer spam and it's unwanted. It mis-leads me, and consumes my energy with no payoff except for negative feelings about you. I won't link to you. When I read your words I do so with a belief system tainted with distrust. Because you spammed my referrer log 8 times, I have no interest in perusing your bog but a strong interest in writing a comment such as this (and republishing the same, along with your words quoted, on my blog (sans back link).

    I'd say that's a pretty undesirable outcome, but you have to judge that for yourself.

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