How to correctly use referral exclusion list in Google Analytics

Last Updated: May 20, 2022

What is a referral exclusion list in Google Analytics?

A referral exclusion list is the list of domains whose incoming traffic is treated as direct traffic (instead of referral traffic) by Google Analytics.

referral exclusion list google analytics

Direct traffic is a Google Analytics session (or visit) which starts without a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser.

Referral traffic is a Google Analytics session (or visit) which starts with a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser. 

Technically speaking, traffic from any website to your website is referral traffic (as long as a referrer is being passed by a user’s web browser).

But in the context of Google Analytics, traffic from search engines and most PPC/CPM ads (like Google Ads), is not reported as referral traffic.

When you add a domain to the referral exclusion list, people who arrive at your website from the excluded domain do not trigger a new GA session and the traffic from the excluded domain is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

However, there is one exception here.

If the excluded domain is a third party domain (like PayPal.com) then people who arrive at your website from the excluded domain still trigger a new GA session.

adding PayPal.com to the referral exclusion list

When you add PayPal.com to the referral exclusion list then all the sales that were earlier attributed to Paypal is now being attributed to direct traffic.

So, there is absolutely no advantage of adding PayPal.com to the referral exclusion list.

A lot of marketers add PayPal to the referral exclusion list thinking that it will help them see the original source of sales.

But it does not work like that.

If you really want to see the original source of sales then use the payment gateway where a website user can complete the purchase without leaving your website.

Otherwise, you would continue to see your sales being attributed either to your payment gateway or to the direct traffic.

How does referral traffic affect GA sessions count?

By default, all referrals (websites that send traffic to your website) trigger a new GA session. This can affect the count of the total number of GA sessions in your analytics reports.

For example, consider the following user’s journey:

  1. A user visited the website www.first-website.com for the first time.
  2. The user navigates to www.second-website.com from www.first-website.com.
  3. The user navigates back to www.first-website.com from www.second-website.com

As soon as the user arrives on www.first-website.com he will start a new GA session and will be treated as a new user.

As soon as the user arrives on www.second-website.com he will again be treated as a new user (as by default, the client ID is not shared across domains). 

However, his existing GA session with www.first-website.com will continue and a new GA session with www.second-website.com will start.

When the user navigates back to www.first-website.com his existing GA session with www.second-website.com will continue but a new GA session with www.first-website.com will start. 

Now, if you do not want the new GA session to be triggered for www.first-website.com when the user navigates back to www.first-website.com then you need to add the domain www.second-website.com in the referral exclusion list of the GA view meant for www.first-website.com:

add to referral exclusion list

Similarly,

If you do not want the new GA session to be triggered for www.second-website.com when the user navigates back to www.second-website.com then you need to add the domain www.first-website.com in the referral exclusion list of the GA view meant for www.second-website.com:

add to referral exclusion list ga

How to add a domain to the referral exclusion list?

In order to add a domain to the referral exclusion list, follow the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your GA reporting view.

‘Admin section of your GA reporting view 1

Step-2: Click on the ‘Tracking Info’ link under the ‘Property‘ column.

Click on the ‘Tracking Info link under the Property column

Step-3: Click on the ‘Referral Exclusion List‘ link:

Click on the Referral Exclusion List link

Step-4: Click on the ‘+ ADD REFERRAL EXCLUSION‘ button:

ADD REFERRAL EXCLUSION

Step-5: Enter the domain name you want to exclude from your referral traffic:

Enter the domain name you want to exclude from your referral traffic

Step-6: Click on the ‘Create‘ button.

Step-7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 to add more domains to the referral exclusion list.

Important points about referral exclusion list

#1 If you add example.com to the referral exclusion list then all of its sub-domains (e.g. www.example.commusic.example.comart.example.com, etc.) will also be automatically added to the referral exclusion list.

automatically added to the referral exclusion list

#2 If you add www.example.com to the referral exclusion list, then its sub-domains (e.g. music.example.com, art.example.com, etc) will not be automatically added to the referral exclusion list.

will not be automatically added to the referral exclusion list

#3 Whenever you create a new GA property, your domain name is automatically added to the referral exclusion list.

your domain name is automatically added to the referral exclusion list

#4 The referral exclusion list feature won’t work if you are using the outdated version of Google Analytics (ga.js library).

If you are using the following version of the Google Analytics tracking code:

outdated version of Google Analytics

#5 Referral exclusion does not work retroactively.

#6 When you add your own domains to the referral exclusion list then the traffic from excluded domains does not trigger a new GA session.

does not trigger a new GA session

How to remove a domain from the referral exclusion list?

Step-1: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your GA reporting view.

Step-2: Click on the ‘Tracking Info’ link under the ‘Property‘ column.

Step-3: Click on the ‘Referral Exclusion List‘ link.

Step-4: Click on the ‘remove’ link next to the domain, you want to remove from the referral exclusion list.

remove from referral exclusion list

How to check whether the referral exclusion list is working?

Let us suppose, you added the domain ‘www.second.com‘ to the referral exclusion list of the GA property associated with the website ‘www.first.com

Now follow the steps below:

Step-1: Install the Google Tag Assistant Chrome extension in your Google Chrome web browser.

Step-2: Navigate to the web page of the website www.first.com (in your case your own website).

Step-3: Click on the tag assistant icon in your web browser:

tag assistant icon

Step-4: Scroll down and click on the ‘Record’ button to turn on the Google Tag Assistant Recording:

record google tag assistant

Step-5: Now reload the web page of your website (in our case www.first.com) from where you want to start the recording. This reload will send a request/hit to Google Tag Assistant and your recording will actually start.

Step-6: Navigate from your website (in our case www.first.com) to the website www.second.com and then return back to the website www.first.com.

Step-7: Stop the Google Tag Assistant Recording by clicking on the ‘STOP RECORDING‘ button.

stop recording

Once you clicked on this button, you will be redirected to the ‘Google Tag Assistant Recordings’ interface.

Step-8: If you see a notification like the one below then click on the ‘Dismiss‘ button:

dismiss button

Step-9: Analyze the ‘Recording Summary‘ and look for the following similar alert: “This hit starts a new session, most likely because the client ID changed“:

referral exclusion list this hit starts a new session

If you see such an alert for your website (in our case www.first.com), then your referral exclusion list is most likely not working.

Note (1): Referral exclusion list feature won’t work, if you are using classic Google Analytics (ga.js)

Note (2): Referral exclusion does not work retroactively.

Why do you sometimes see the traffic from excluded domains?

Let us suppose, your GA property has been set up to track traffic across www.first-website.com and www.second-website.com

Let us suppose a user arrives on the website www.first-website.com from www.second-website.com before www.second-website.com was added to the referral exclusion list. 

Now the GA session on www.first-website.com will be attributed to www.second-website.com

You then added www.second-website.com to the referral exclusion list.

Now let us suppose the same user visited www.first-website.com but this time directly via a bookmark and within 6 months of the last visit.

Now the second GA session on www.first-website.com would still be attributed to www.second-website.com instead of the direct traffic.

This is because,

By default, Google Analytics uses the last non-direct click attribution model which assigns all the credit for a session to the last non-direct click. 

The last non-direct click, in this case, is www.second-website.com

Had the user directly returned to the website www.first-website.com after 6 months from the last visit, the second GA session on www.first-website.com would be attributed to direct traffic. 

This is because the default campaign timeout is set to 6 months. 

So for up to 6 months from the last visit, the last non-direct click continues to get all the credit for the second GA session.

Impact of referral exclusion list on cross-domain traffic

If your GA property has been set up to track traffic across multiple primary domains then you should add all your primary domains to the referral exclusion list.

Let us suppose, your GA property has been set up to track traffic across www.first-website.com and www.second-website.com

So you should add the domain www.second-website.com in the referral exclusion list of the GA property meant for www.first-website.com. 

Similarly, add the domain www.first-website.com in the referral exclusion list of the GA property meant for www.second-website.com

Let us suppose you decided not to add your own websites to the referral exclusion list.

In that case, every time a user navigates from one of your websites to another, a new GA session would be triggered. 

That way cross-domain traffic can end up inflating the total session count in your reporting view.

Impact of referral exclusion list on cross sub-domain traffic

If your GA property has been set up to track traffic across multiple subdomains then you should add your own domain name to the referral exclusion list.

add your own domain

When you add your own website to the referral exclusion list, then users can navigate from one subdomain on your website to another subdomain without triggering a new GA session.

For example, if optimizesmart.com is your website and it is in the referral exclusion list, then users can navigate from www.optimizesmart.com to say music.optimizesmart.com (and vice versa) without starting a new GA session.

Let us suppose you decided not to add your own website to the referral exclusion list.

In that case, when a user navigates from one subdomain on your website to another subdomain it triggers a new GA session.

That way cross subdomain traffic can end up inflating the total session count in your reporting view.

Impact of referral exclusion list on third party domains

If you add a third party domain (like amazon.com) to the referral exclusion list, a new GA session is still triggered by the referral but the referral is reported as direct traffic.

Let us suppose your domain name is www.abc.com and you have not added www.amazon.com to the referral exclusion list. 

Let us also suppose a user navigated from www.abc.com to www.amazon.com in order to checkout. 

Now when the user returns to your website from www.amazon.com, a new GA session will start and GA will attribute the user session to www.amazon.com.

Let us suppose you added www.amazon.com to the referral exclusion list.

Now when the user returns to your website from www.amazon.com, Google Analytics will still start a new session but this time will attribute the user session to direct traffic instead of www.amazon.com

Impact of referral exclusion list on payment gateways

Many businesses use PayPal and other third party payment gateways to accept online payments. But this can create tracking issues in Google Analytics.

Whenever a customer leaves your website to make payment via a third party payment gateway and later returns to your website from the gateway website, Google Analytics often attributes sales to the payment gateway instead of the original traffic source.

This is quite common in the case of PayPal. 

You can often find PayPal.com appearing as a top revenue source in the Google Analytics Referral report:

top revenue source in the Google Analytics Referral report

Many optimizers add PayPal.com to the referral exclusion list under the impression that it will help them track the original referrer.

However, adding paypal.com to the referral exclusion list will NOT help you track the original referrer.

Google Analytics will then report the traffic from PayPal.com as direct traffic. 

The best way to track original referrals while using paypal.com is to use one of the direct payment gateways solutions provided by PayPal like: ‘PayPal Payflow Pro‘ or ‘PayPal Payments Pro‘.

When you use a direct payment gateway, your customers can complete transaction without leaving your website and Google Analytics do not attribute sales to paypal.com but instead to the original traffic source.

The referral exclusion does not work retroactively. So,

Any visit/sales attributed to paypal.com before adding paypal.com to the referral exclusion list will still be attributed to paypal.com in GA reports.

Therefore you need to make sure that once you have added a domain to the referral exclusion list, you look at the referral report from the time period when you first implemented referral exclusion.

Is referral exclusion not working for PayPal.com?

Google Analytics uses the last non-direct click attribution model for non-multi channel funnels reports.

This model assigns all the credit for conversions to the last non-direct click on a conversion path.

Consider the following scenario

A user returned to your website (say ‘www.abc.com’) from ‘www.paypal.com‘  before you added ‘www.paypal.com‘ in the referral exclusion list of the ‘www.abc.com’ GA property.

Now, here GA will attribute the user session to ‘www.paypal.com‘.

You added ‘www.paypal.com‘ in the referral exclusion list of the ‘www.abc.com’ GA property.

The same user directly returns to your website ‘www.abc.com’ within 6 months.

In that case, GA will still attribute the second session to ‘www.paypal.com‘ and not direct traffic because of the last non-direct click attribution model.

So even when you excluded the website  ‘www.paypal.com‘, the returning users from the excluded domain can still appear in your reports.

In order to minimize this problem, set your campaign timeout setting to 1 month:

campaign timeout google analytics

Frequently asked questions about how to correctly use referral exclusion list in Google Analytics

What is a referral exclusion list?

referral exclusion list is the list of domains whose incoming traffic is treated as direct traffic (instead of referral traffic) by Google Analytics.

When you add a domain to the referral exclusion list, people who arrive at your website from the excluded domain do not trigger a new GA session and the traffic from the excluded domain is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

What is the difference between direct traffic and referral traffic?

Direct traffic is a Google Analytics session (or visit) which starts without a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser.

Referral traffic is a Google Analytics session (or visit) which starts with a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser. 

What is the impact of the referral exclusion list on cross sub-domain traffic?

When your website is in the referral exclusion list, then users can navigate from one subdomain on your website to another without starting a new session.
For example, if example.com is in the referral exclusion list, then users can navigate from www.example.com to say music.example.com without starting a new session.

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