How to correctly use 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.

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 Adwords), is not reported as referral traffic.

When you add a domain to the referral exclusion list, people who arrive to 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.

If you want traffic arriving from a specific website, to trigger a new GA session then do not include that website in the referral exclusion list.

By default all referrals trigger a new web session in Google Analytics

So if you are excluding certain referrals then this could affect the count of GA sessions, in your analytics reports.

Let us suppose, a user started his journey (GA session) on www.abc.com website.

The user navigated from www.abc.com website to www.paypal.com website and then returned to www.abc.com website.

Now, here is how GA will count sessions for the www.abc.com website:

Case-1: You added the domain ‘www.paypal.com in the referral exclusion list of the ‘www.abc.com’ GA property, before the user started his journey (GA session) on www.abc.com 

In this case, only one session would be counted for www.abc.com website.

Case-2: You did not add the domain ‘www.paypal.com in the referral exclusion list of the ‘www.abc.com’ GA property, before the user started his journey (GA session) on www.abc.com 

In this case, two sessions would be counted for www.abc.com website (one for each arrival at www.abc.com)

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 Google Analytics property and then click on the link called ‘Referral Exclusion List in the ‘Tracking Info’ section under the ‘Property’ column:

Step-2: Click on the ‘Add Referral exclusion’ button:

Step-3: Enter your domain name and then click on the ‘create’ button:

Note (1): If you add example.com to the referral exclusion list then all of its sub-domains (like www.example.com, music.example.com, art.example.com) will also be automatically added to the referral exclusion list (because the domain name contains example.com).

However, if you add www.example.com to the referral exclusion list then its sub-domains (like music.example.com, art.example.com etc) will not be automatically added to the referral exclusion list.

Note (2): Whenever you create a new GA property, your domain is automatically added to the referral exclusion list.

How to remove a domain from the referral exclusion list?

Step-1: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your Google Analytics property and then click on the link called ‘Referral Exclusion List’ in the ‘Tracking Info’ section under the ‘Property’ column.

Step-2: Click on the ‘remove’ link next to the domain, you want to remove.

How to check whether the referral exclusion list is working?

Let us suppose, you added the domain ‘www.paypal.com‘ in the referral exclusion list of the ‘www.abc.com’ GA property, before the user started his journey (GA session) on www.abc.com and then navigated to ‘www.paypal.com’

Now follow the steps below:

Step-1: Turn on the Google Tag Assistant Recording by clicking on the ‘Record’ button:

result of tag analysis.2jpg

Step-2: Now reload the web page (of website www.abc.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-3: Navigate from website www.abc.com to the website www.paypal.com and then return back to website www.abc.com.

Step-4: 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 ‘Google Tag Assistant Recordings’ interface.

Step-5: Analyze the ‘Recording Summary’ and look for following similar alert:

If you see such alert for website www.abc.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.

Referral exclusion list and the last non-direct click attribution model

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

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

Consider 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 return 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 excluded domain can still appear in your reports.

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

Impact of referral exclusion list on cross domain traffic

Let us suppose, a user started his journey (GA session) on www.abc.com website.

The user navigates from www.abc.com website to www.def.com website.

As soon as the user arrived on the ‘def’ website, he will be treated as a new user (as by default, client ID is not shared across domains) by Google Analytics tracking of ‘def’ website.

His existing GA session with ‘abc’ website will continue but a new GA session with ‘def’ website will start.

Now, if you do not want the new GA session to be triggered for ‘def’ website, when the user navigates from ‘abc’ website to ‘def’ website then you need to add the domain www.abc.com in the referral exclusion list of the ‘def’ GA property.

Let us suppose, the user navigated back to ‘abc’ website from ‘def’ website.

As soon as the user arrived on the ‘abc’ website, he will be treated as a returning user by Google Analytics tracking of ‘abc’ website.

His existing GA session with ‘def’ website will continue but a new GA session with ‘abc’ website will start.

Now, if you do not want the new GA session to be triggered for ‘abc’ website, when the user navigates from ‘def’ website to ‘abc’ website then you need to add the domain www.def.com in the referral exclusion list of the ‘abc’ GA property.

Impact of 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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Himanshu Sharma

Certified web analyst and founder of OptimizeSmart.com

My name is Himanshu Sharma and I help businesses find and fix their Google Analytics and conversion issues. If you have any questions or comments please contact me.

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