(This is a guest post by Barrie Smith. His observations and insights are his own.)
I have recently been keeping a tab on Google page 1 results for “Payday Loans” – a search term historically showing results of websites ranking having used spammy, dodgy and/or underhand link building techniques.
Even in the year 2013 – more than 12 months after the Google Penguin algorithm update was rolled out for the first time, the results for “Payday loans” still provide a surprise for your average ethical SEO.
Take a look at the results of this screen grab from Friday 10 May.
Page 1 results:
And here’s what I mean by a “surprise”.
I clicked on all 10 results and 9 of them were affiliates redirecting to payday lenders (the only payday company that was on page 1 was PaydayUK.co.uk – not a client of mine I may add). But seriously, the screen shot doesn’t lie: home page affiliate redirects ranking on page 1 of Google – something that used to be rife in Google, but very rarely seen these days.
The number 1 result
Initially, I was more interested in what JimLoans.co.uk was doing to get to number 1. So I created a backlink report with Majestic SEO.
Firstly, looking at the site’s domain information; the site had an incredible number of backlinks in relation to the number of domain links they had:
This immediately raised an alarm in my head: sitewide links – thousands of them.
Downloading the backlink report into a spread sheet from Majestic allowed me to take a closer look at those 4,339 referring domains. This led me to believe that the website owner had used some underhand tactics to build them. Here’s a snapshot of that report to give you an idea:
In all, there were thousands of links from non-related websites. But how did this website get to number 1?
It’s difficult to determine. However, the more backlink profiles I checked of the sites ranking on page 1 showed that all of the results were building similar, non-related spam links. Perhaps the whole industry is just full of low quality backlink profiles that Google has no other choice but to rank websites with low quality links such JimLoans.co.uk.
And not only had this website accumulated more than 4,000 unrelated links, they had all been accumulated in the space of 48 hours, as shown by the Majestic SEO Backlink History Checker:
This tactic has worked for years: build a mass load of links in a short period of time to get to the top of Google. But Google has grown wise; once Google realises those links are of low quality, you get booted. And generally, you get found out and booted much quicker these days.
This case was no different; I certainly wasn’t expecting JimLoans.co.uk to last long in the results. And by Monday, the site was booted out.
What is a good link?
To determine the quality of an inbound link, there are a few metrics we look at. Here are the fundamentals:
- The relation of the website linking to you and your site
- The quality of the backlinks to that website
- Where the link is and the context
JimLoans.co.uk, a site ranking for “payday loans”, and with “payday loans” anchor text (and related terms) was not related to the fashion, entertainment and ice hockey industries, that were providing inbound links, amongst many other unrelated topics.
On top of this, all of the links I checked pointing to JimLoans.co.uk appeared to have been attained by hacking. The person responsible had been able to gain access to these sites in a short period of time and change them en masse.
Changes made were only visible in the HTML and not on the page itself, so Google was able to detect the links but there was no guarantee that the webmaster’s of hacked sites could easily identify them.
The website was benefiting from these links, ranking number 1 for at least a few days for a highly-searched term according to Google Keyword Tool (201,000 monthly searches), and potentially a big money making keyword.
The guy behind this is a genius. A genius at manipulating Google, at least. His name was not Jim either – at least according to his registration details:
Those registration details were the same for the sites in 2nd and 8th positions too. This person had temporarily taken control of the top two positions for “payday loans” in the UK, for a few days.
Mass anchor text
For the thousands of links that had been built, only a few different anchor text phrases had been used:
The top two terms had been a success – ranking number 1 in the short term for both “payday loans” and “payday loans uk”. Perhaps the brand name mentions were a shameful attempt at trying to stick to the modern day ethical SEO’s guidelines of building brand name links, whilst three of the bottom four keywords were “payday loans” in German (zahltag darlehen), French (les prêts sur salaire) and Russian (выплаты жалованья кредиты) respectively.
The Following Day
What were the top 3 results on Monday, after JimLoans.co.uk had been kicked out? They were 3 more of Mr Mamdou’s sites:
I had a look into the link building tactics employed for these sites, and to no surprise they were all similar to the site that was originally at the top.
It was only a matter of time before these sites too were eliminated from Google’s results. And indeed, on Wednesday they had all gone.
Google’s algorithm not so perfect?
Two weeks on from this, and 7 of the top 10 results are still sites that redirect as soon as you click on them (affiliates). The top two results at least are actual companies. So Google still has a lot of work to do in cleaning out its results.
The initial Google Penguin algorithm update certainly did a lot of “good” in my eyes – clearing out lots and lots of junk and websites that were ranking for black hat techniques. The result saw the average marketer work a little harder for those links, stopping them from using tactics such as paying $5 a time for them, or paying someone abroad for a cheap, low quality article to publish on an article directory.
But one wonders – if the results for “payday loans” are this messy, what other keywords display similar results?
What to do
If you want short-term success like Mr Mamdou then you can replicate his tactics and hope that you slip through Google’s security and rank number 1 for a short period of time. In the process, being unethical, breaking the law (hacking is illegal) and only making money for a very short period of time.
Or you can produce an ethical link building campaign which will benefit your website and your business for the long run. Staying on page 1, hopefully position 1 for a long period of time, whilst the rest of your competitors fall foul of a Google penalty.