This is only a “note” because I am not an expert in the subject and therefore cannot speak with authority but feel it is a matter worth bringing to the attention of fellow bloggers who may be altogether unaware of it.
My remarks will be based on WordPress but similar considerations perhaps apply to other platforms.
When you view your WordPress Dashboard, you see some statistics, including a bar chart showing the daily number of visits to your blog. At the bottom of this entry is a button labelled View All. If you click on this, you are taken to another page with more information about visits to your blog. The section I am concerned with is the one entitled Referrers.
In theory, the list of URLs in this section shows sites on which people have clicked links that have led them to your blog. For example, if your blog is in the blogroll on Fred’s blog and someone clicks that link and visits your blog, then the URL of Fred’s blog will appear in the referrers’ list.
It would be a natural impulse to click on these referrer links to see where your blog is being mentioned. Quite often, you will find that the page you arrive on does in fact list your blog. In other cases, however, you may be mystified, as I was, to find no mention of your blog at all. From occasional instances, the frequency of these increased to the point where a majority of my referrers were such sites. I decided to find out what was going on.
If I have understood correctly, what is happening is that people seeking cheap publicity for their sometimes dodgy Web sites manage to insert a spurious link to your blog. The idea is that such links (not just to your blog but also to many other blogs) help improve their ranking in search engines. It makes them seem more popular than they really are and pushes their link nearer to the top of the list in searches.
Such spurious referrer links are called “referrer spam”. WordPress tell me that they are working on the problem, but they obviously haven’t found a solution yet to judge from my inflated referrers list.
Is there anything wrong with this? Well, yes, there are at least two things wrong with it. Firstly, in my book these people are immoral: they are pretending to promote your blog when they are promoting only themselves and behaving as deceitful parasites. Secondly, there is a worse threat, as such sites could be harmful, as explained below.
What should we do? I don’t think there is much we, as bloggers, can do, though there is one thing we can refrain from doing. In word, don’t click on referrer spam links!
How do you know they are referrer spam? Good question. Probably you cannot be sure without clicking which, of course, you don’t want to do. I would say don’t click on any referrer link unless you are certain it is a genuine referral, e.g. that it comes from a site you know or from a reputed site. It’s not enough that the link looks like a link from another blog. Such a link may be genuine or it may be referrer spam because some referrer spammers disguise their sites as blogs or use redirection from a patsy URL to the real URL of their site.
My reason for posting this is because I found in my referrers’ list today an URL that McAfee’s Siteadvisor considers possibly dangerous. If McAfee is right, then that indicates that clicking on referrer URLs in your list could lead to harm or infection of your computer. For all I know, this might be a false alarm, but I think it worth taking note and being careful.
This alerted me to another possible risk also. When people comment on your blog, they are asked to supply an email address and, optionally, their URL. They may also insert URLs in the body of the comment. While these URLs are usually legitimate, some may not be. So far, the worst cases I have found are where people have tried to place URLs advertising porn sites or their businesses, but there is also a possibility that some might try to insert the URL of an infected site. We obviously owe it to our readers not to put them at risk of clicking on dangerous links. We need to check the URLs that people insert in comments.