How to fix self-referrals in Google Analytics

Last Updated: January 7, 2022

In this article, I am going to talk about how to fix the ‘Self-Referrals’ notification in Google Analytics.

This article will focus on the following points.

  1. What are self-referrals?
  2. Why should you fix the self-referrals in Google Analytics?
  3. What are the reasons for getting self-referrals in Google Analytics?
  4. How to fix self-referrals in Google Analytics
  5. Frequently asked questions about self-referrals in Google Analytics?

What are self-referrals? 

Self-referrals are referral traffic generated by your website domain. If you see your website domain in the referrals report, that means there are some issues with your Google Analytics set-up. Having self-referrals in Google Analytics means your traffic is not attributed correctly and session counts are also incorrect.

When there are any issues in your analytics implementation, Google Analytics will alert you using Google Analytics notifications. In the case of self-referrals, you will get notifications like the image below

fix self-referrals in Google Analytics

You are more likely to get this notification if:

  1. You are using the classic Google Analytics tracking (ga.js) instead of the latest version
  2. You have implemented cross-domain tracking
  3. Your website has got some pages with missing GA tracking code.
  4. Some of your website pages are using the GA tracking code of another website.
  5. Google Analytics not working on some pages of your website because of non-standard implementation or client/server-side errors.

Why should you fix the self-referrals in Google Analytics?

When self-referrals start to show in your Google Analytics reporting, it also starts to affect your session, acquisition, conversion, behavior, in fact, all of your Google Analytics data. Let’s understand this in detail. Why should you fix self-referrals?

Session discrepancy

Self-referrals inflate your session data. This happens because if you have some untagged pages on the website, every time a self-referral is detected, Google Analytics will create a new session. This may lead to inaccurate session data resulting in bad decision making.

Conversion and behavior data

Self-referrals can also affect your conversion data and behavior data. 

For example, let’s suppose user A arrives on your website using a paid search ad and lands on the webpage and the session starts. 

User A then navigates to another page of your website which is not tagged properly.  Now because of some inaccurate Google Analytics configuration or untagged page the sessions do not continue here. 

Now user A again navigates to another page of your website which is tagged correctly. This triggered self-referral resulting in a new session. Now user A continues the purchase journey and completes the transaction. In such cases following data issues will be triggered

  1. User A triggered two sessions here, one that was the original session triggered when the user landed on the website after clicking on the paid search ad and the second false session triggered by self-referral while browsing the website. This will lead to incorrect session counts.
  1. Since two sessions are created each session will have its behavior data like time spent on a page, different sets of custom events, pages per session, etc. This will lead to inaccurate data about the users and you won’t be able to understand exact user behavior on the website
  1. When it comes to conversion, in this case, the conversion will be attributed to the referral traffic and not the original paid search traffic. This may lead to incorrect conversion data by channel. You will also have misleading data in attribution reports.

What are the reasons for getting self-referrals in Google Analytics?

There are some common causes for having self-referral in Google Analytics as below

#1. Untagged pages 

The most common reason for having self-referrals in Google Analytics is untagged pages of the website. Many times it happens that whenever you have any new functionality to deploy on the website, the dev team forgets about adding the GA tracking code and publishes the website to production.

Let’s understand this in detail, So whenever the user visits your website, the analytics tracking code checks for the referral source and this source is attributed as the referrer. 

Now if a user visits page A that is not tagged with a valid tracking code or has a missing tracking code, then Google Analytics won’t be able to attribute the referrer here. 

When the same user visits page B that has valid tracking code, Google Analytics will consider page A as a referrer and hence you will get your website domain as a referral (self-referral). 

#2. Incorrect cross-domain tracking

Another major reason for having self-referral in Google Analytics is incorrect cross-domain tracking. Many of the organizations have more than one domain in the digital ecosystem and they have to be connected as well to facilitate hassle-free user journeys across all the domains. 

In such cases, you need to connect all domains using cross-domain tracking and add the list of all domains in the referral exclusion list. Here you need to ensure that your analytics cookie remains active when users move from one domain to another. Failing to do so will lead to self-referrals.

To learn more about setting up cross-domain tracking you can visit Cross Domain Tracking in Google Analytics – Complete Guide

#3. Session time-out

This is a very rare cause for having self-referrals, but if your website tends to keep it running in the background for more than 30 min. The session timeout will occur and when the user comes back and generates a new hit, it will create a new session and your current page will be a referrer which is nothing but self-referral.

This generally happens on websites where the user has to fill a long form in an iframe like on the career page of the websites, or travel website while selecting every field in the itinerary. This may also be the case if your website is a reading website and the articles are much lengthy.

How to fix self-referrals in Google Analytics

According to Google, a marginal level of self-referrals should be expected if you have implemented cross-domain tracking.

It is only when your domain name starts showing up as one of the top referrals, that you should be concerned about the ‘self-referral’ issues.

Based on the reasons here are a few solutions that will help you fix self-referrals in Google Analytics.

  1. Make sure that every web page on your website has got the correct Google Analytics tracking code installed and it fires on page load. This task alone can fix many self-referral issues.
  1. Add your domain/sub-domain to the referral exclusion list.
  1. Set up cross-domain tracking correctly. Badly configured cross-domain tracking can create a lot of self-referral issues.
  1. Migrate your GA account to the latest version of analytics. If you are using classic GA, then you are more likely to see self-referral issues.
  1. Make sure your website is not using the GA tracking code of another website.
  1. Make sure that you are using standard implementation throughout your website.
  1. Consider increasing the session time for your website if it tends to keep running in the background for more than 30 min.
  1. Google Analytics Notifications and Alerts Guide
  2. How to Fix Clicks and Sessions Discrepancy in Google Analytics.
  3. How to fix Goal Conversion Irregularities in Google Analytics
  4. How to fix ‘Missing Tracking Code’ in Google Analytics
  5. How to Fix Missing Ecommerce Data in Google Analytics
  6. How to Fix Missing Campaign Parameters in Google Analytics
  7. How to configure a goal flow in Google Analytics
  8. How to fix No Hits in Google Analytics
  9. How to Fix Tracking Code Mismatch in Google Analytics
  10. How to fix ‘Destination URLs Not Tagged’ Google Analytics notification
  11. How to fix ‘Incomplete Google AdWords Linking’ in Google Analytics
  12. How to fix ‘Untagged Email Campaigns’ in Google Analytics

Frequently asked questions about self-referrals in Google Analytics?

What does ‘self-referral’ mean in Google Analytics?

Referral traffic is traffic to your website from another website. A self-referral is a condition where you see your domain name showing up as a referral in the ‘All Referrals’ report in GA. So in other words self-referral traffic is referral traffic that originates from the pages within your domain.

Why are you getting self-referral notifications in Google Analytics?

You are more likely to get this notification if:
1. You are using the classic Google Analytics tracking (ga.js) instead of the latest version
2. You have implemented cross-domain tracking
3. Your website has got some pages with missing GA tracking code.
4. Some of your website pages are using the GA tracking code of another website.
5. GA tracking code is not firing on some pages of your website because of non-standard implementation or client/server-side errors.

How do I find self-referrals in Google Analytics?

To check self-referral in Google Analytics, you can follow the below steps.
1. Go to Google Analytics Console
2. Click on “Acquisition”
3. Click on “All Traffic”
4. Click on “Referrals”
5. Check if the report contains your website domain as a top referrer.

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About the Author

Himanshu Sharma

  • Founder, OptimizeSmart.com
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