Self-referral Google Analytics 4 – Referral exclusion GA4

A quick recap of Referral traffic

Referral traffic in Google analytics 4 is a Google Analytics session that starts with a referrer being passed by the users’ web browser. When a Google Analytics session starts without a referrer being passed by the users’ web browser then that GA session is reported as ‘direct traffic‘.

Technically speaking, the traffic from any website to your website is referral traffic.

You can see the referral traffic in GA4 by following the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate to Acquisition > Traffic Acquisition report:

Step-2: Type ‘referral’ in the search box and then press the enter key:

Referrals Exclusion List vs. List Unwanted Referrals

Referrals Exclusion List vs. List Unwanted Referrals

Google Analytics 4 allows you to set condition(s) that identifies unwanted referrals and prevent them from being reported as referral traffic:

This way you don’t see the referral traffic from certain domains (like your own domain or from a payment gateway like Paypal) in your GA4 reports.

In the earlier version of Google Analytics (Universal Analytics) this functionality was called the referrals exclusion list. We use the referral exclusion list to create a list of domains whose traffic will be reported as direct traffic instead of referral traffic. 

Now in the case of Google analytics 4, the ‘referral exclusion list’ is known as the “List unwanted referrals” or better say “unwanted referrals” list

When you add a domain to the “Unwanted referrals” list, Google Analytics 4 will evaluate the events from the excluded domain and appends “ignore_referrer” parameter with a value “true” to every event that matches the conditions (ignore_referrer=true).

Let’s take an example here.

Suppose you have two domains as “www.abc.com” and “www.paypal.com”. 

A user navigates from “www.abc.com” to “www.paypal.com” to complete a purchase and then navigates back to www.abc.com

In this case, the traffic from “www.paypal.com” will be reported as “www.paypal.com/referral” in Google Analytics 4 reports of  “www.abc.com”.

Now if you do not want the traffic from “www.paypal.com” to be reported as referral traffic then you add this domain to the “Unwanted referrals” list:

Similarly, if you want to avoid self-referral issues (where your own domain appear as referral traffic), you should add your domain to the “Identify Unwanted domains” list:

Automatic self-referral detection

Google Analytics 4 can automatically detect and fix self-referral issues (where your own domain appear as referral traffic) as long as the following conditions are met:

  1. The referrer contains your domain name and the current URL contains the global site tag.
  2. The referrer is as a result of cross-domain tracking set up between the domains you own and the current URL contains “_gl” parameter (Note: with cross-domain tracking implemented, when the user navigates to a different domain, analytics cookies are passed from one domain to another domain via the linker parameter identified as “_gl”.)

The Automatic self-referral detection feature of GA4 may not always be able to fix the self-referral issues

The Automatic self-referral detection feature of GA4 will not be able to fix the self-referral issues if some of the pages of your website do not contain the global site tag and a user navigates to such a page.

So the best practice is to add your domain name to the unwanted referral list.

How to configure the ‘unwanted referrals’ list in GA4?

Follow the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate to your GA4 view and then click on ‘Admin’:

Step-2: Click on ‘Data Streams’ under the ‘Property’ column:

Step-3: Click on the name of the web data stream for which you want to configure the unwanted referrals list in GA4:

Step-4: Scroll down and then click on ‘More Tagging Settings’ link:

Step-5: Click on “List unwanted referrals” option:

list unwanted referrals

You should now see an overlay like the one below:

Step-6: Click on the ‘Pencil’ icon:

Step-7: Enter the domain name you want to add to the unwanted referrals list in GA4 and then click on the ‘Save’ button:

Step-8: To add more domains to the unwanted referrals list in GA4, repeat the steps 5 & 6 and then click on the ‘Add Condition’ button:

Note: Conditions are evaluated using OR logic.

Step-9: Enter the domain name you want to add to the unwanted referrals list in GA4 and then click on the ‘Save’ button:

Congratulations.

You have successfully added unwanted domain(s) to the referral list. Now going forward the traffic from added domains won’t appear as referral traffic.

Note: For the previous period (i.e. the date before the domain was added to the unwanted referral list) the added domain(s) would still appear in your GA4 reports as referral traffic.

Use cases for adding domains to the ‘unwanted referrals’ list in GA4

Well there are many scenarios where you don’t want to identify the traffic as referral traffic. Here are a few examples of them.

Payment gateway

Your website is built in such a way that a user has to navigates from your website to a third-party website for completing a purchase and then navigate back to your website after the payment is completed.

In this case, the traffic from the payment gateway website (like paypal.com) will be reported as referral traffic.

In order to get unified measurement across your domain and paypal.com, you would not want traffic from PayPal to be categorized as referral traffic. Since Paypal traffic is not relevant as referral traffic, you would like to add it to the “unwanted referrals” list.

Website Users interactions managed by third-party domains

There are many scenarios where your website users interactions need to be managed by a third party domain.

For example, you could be using a third party domain/service for sending emails to your users to reset their password or to confirm their registration. And when a user clicks on a link in the email, he is first redirected to the third party domain before being redirected back to your website.

In such a scenario, you would not want the third party domain to be categorized as referral traffic. So you should consider adding this domain to the ‘unwanted referrals’ list.

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