Central Question: What can we learn from sites that rank high for traditionally spammy queries?
Grab a fork, or a spork if that’s your thing. We are going to feast on all kinds of salty web spam today. For science. For SEO. And for the love of great content.
Why spammy queries? What are ya, sum kinda black hat?
I chose to deep dive into Spamville because it’s an area of high competition.
Now there are plenty of highly competitive queries we could choose from. But in addition to their competition, these spammy queries have been in Google’s crosshairs for more than one algorithm update. They’re being watched closely by the big G.
The specific query we’ll be looking at here is “Payday loan”. After all, we’re
already on 3.0 of an algorithm update named after it.
Not all SERPs are created equally
I’ve consulted for clients across a variety of industries where Google’s guidelines fall through the cracks. They are the SERPs that look like a lawless, post-apocalyptic freak show.
You know what I mean, right?
They are the industries where manipulative tactics actually work (for awhile) and your client demands results like competitor XYZ.
Let’s face it – sometimes Google looks more like a drunken pirate haphazardly ranking websites in between sips of rum.
Like when I want to live stream sports to my computer…
But these niches won’t suffice for our analysis here.
The point of looking at the SERPs of
high profile spammy queries is that these industries are under the microscope. I consider this content battle-tested. If what we learn can work in the dark alleys of Spamville, it’ll probably work for your industry.
Why are some queries more likely to be spammed?
When people spam the web, 99% of the time they are doing it to make money. You’ve heard it said, “Love of money is the root of all evil”, but surely I tell you, “Love of money is the root of all web spam”.
Unless you are running a test, or just want to
spite Matt Cutts, web spam efforts most likely have a financial interest lurking in the shadows.
That’s why it’s no coincidence that the most commonly spammed queries are ones that have high payouts for the spammer (some are paying commission of $100+
Our Focus Query: Payday Loan
Using Moz’s keyword difficulty tool, we can quickly find the top 10 ranking sites for this search query.
Here’s a few quick takeaways from this overview:
A. 5/10 of these rankings are actual lenders of PayDay loans
B. 3/10 are affiliate sites
C. 2/10 are informational sites: a Wikipedia page and a news article
So far so good. We know that Google prefers brands. Sure enough, Google is returning some of the top lenders of Payday loans. These results bring the user right to the source. No middleman affiliate pages.
It’s no secret why the #1 ranking site, Ace Cash Express, is earning all kinds of high authority editorial links. They are a real brand, doing buzz-worthy stuff
in real life.
Now granted, a lot of their best links are coming from people who are pissed off at them. But at least for SEO purposes, it pays to piss off people with authoritative sites:
|Site||DA||Reason for link|
|Huffington Post||98||Texans pissed at their involvement with collecting tolls; don’t mess with Texas|
|Business Insider||95||They got sued for $10m|
|AARP.org||94||More about the lawsuit|
And those are just a few examples of external links that resulted from negative press. It doesn’t even scratch the surface. They also have links from .edu directories, and .gov sites (like
this one in Alabama for helping send money to inmates via Ace).
Ok…Google loves brands. Got it. Let’s take another look at the top 10 rankings sites for this query. Anything else we can spot?
Note: If you count 9 dots, it’s because I’m omitting Wikipedia from this part of the analysis. Also, the x-axis is the SERP ranking.
Not a huge story to tell here.
The outlier with the high domain authority is a news site, which explains why it snuck onto the first page without being a lender with an established brand. Otherwise, we’re looking at a bunch of sites with moderately competitive domain authority across the board.
Looking at the total linking root domains to the page that’s ranking, it’s clear that quantity ≠ quality. The middle of the pack rankers have the most links.
As we should expect in a post-penguin era, high amounts of exact anchor text links aren’t in vogue with Google, and with the exception of one outlier, you won’t see the top performers loading up on exact match anchors.
So what have we learned so far?
Frankly, nothing earth-shattering.
So far, the top performers are brands that, for better or for worse, are able to earn links from high authority sources based on what they do in real life. They also possess a moderately high domain authority and avoid some of the more traditionally spammy practices like exact match anchor linkbuilding.
So all of the top ranking Payday loan sites are sparkly white hat?
Remember, three of first page ranking sites are actually affiliate sites.
Since links are still the name of the game, I had to ask,
how are these affiliate sites getting legit links?
And that’s when everything unraveled….
Next Stop: Spamville
It didn’t take me long to find some of the manipulative SEO practices we all have grown accustomed to seeing in a space like this.
The highest-ranking affiliate site (#4) is Personal Money Store.
Google is ranking an interior page (/payday-loans) that is not overly optimized on-page. But when you look at the external link profile, things go bananas.
Note: To take a closer look at the link profile, I actually used Ahrefs as opposed to OSE. OSE filters out what appear to be low-quality backlinks, which is nice when you’re trying to find worthwhile links for your client based on competitive research. But for site audits, it’s important to see the good, bad and the ugly, which is why I keep Ahrefs in the quiver of tools as well.
I manually reviewed the first 50 linking root domains in this profile, mainly because I couldn’t stop laughing at what I found.
Here’s some of the shenanigans:
1.Tons of blog comment spam
These aren’t the automated comments that you’re used to deleting on your blog. They are actually relevant to the content on the page, but each one takes a hard left turn toward the end with some laughable tie-in to their exact match anchor text link.
The spammer used a variety of personas to add these comments, usually with headshots of attractive models.
2.The outright, no bones about it, paid link
Paid links are out? Apparently not:
Translation: Our sponsors are paying us to post this for their SEO benefit.
3. The conspicuous guest post
Apparently guest posting isn’t dead, even when talking about a payday loan.
No visual for you to look at here, but use your imagination
4. Good ‘ol fashioned HACKING for link injection
When all else fails, you can always hack vulnerable WordPress blogs on .edu sites and inject links back to your money pages.
Or sites about unicorns
Here’s the breakdown of backlinks to this #4 ranking page
How could they get away with this?
Can we just regroup for a minute?
We are talking about PAYDAY LOANS. This is the query that Google named an algorithm update after, and then they rolled out three versions of it.
It’s a competitive search space that is allegedly under the Google microscope.
So how are sites like Personal Money Store getting away with traditional webspam wizardry?
I see two potential explanations:
1.The spammy links we’ve uncovered have been disavowed or Google is ignoring them outright.
2.They are flying under Google’s radar
The second explanation is one giant kick to the title tags. So let’s explore the plausibility of the first.
Maybe they disavowed the bad stuff?
It’s possible that Personal Money Store disavowed these spammy links, some of which date back to 2009. This would mitigate any kind of penalty that they would have received (manual or algorithmic).
In fact, the trend of won/lost links in Ahrefs indicates that there may have been some active link removal over the past year:
If that is the case, then it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the webmaster also disavowed a number of links that could not be removed.
If this is what happened, the question is, do they have enough legitimate links in their profile to maintain a #4 ranking for a highly competitive term?
Looking at the Leftovers
I thought it would make sense to take a closer look at external links to the root domain, especially the ones that OSE is still reporting, assuming they are of higher quality. Maybe this interior page (/payday-loans) is staying afloat because of the strong domain authority.
Instead of finding pearly white hat, Cuttsian, Big G approved links, I found more of the same games.
Beyond the anchor text heavy, blog commenting, there was an evolution of the tactic.
Bait & Switch Powerful Sites
How do you get a followed link from the World Bank (DA 95)? Easy, just find an article that allows for followed comments.
Then create a quick piece of relevant content on your site to reference in the link (make it relevant so the moderator approves it).
Wait a little bit, but then 301 redirect this quick blog post back to your home page.
Voila! There’s a juicy, followed link from the World Bank right to your homepage.
This strategy worked brilliantly for other sites as well, including Gawker.
The first earned link
When I thought all hope was lost, I came across something marvelous. Yes, at last, an editorially earned link!
You can always count on Peta to do the right thing. In this case, they used an image of Oprah that Personal Money Store allowed for use via the Creative Commons license (?).
So, we’ve spotted the first editorial link and it’s from an animal rights organization?
Surely, there are other editorial links in the site’s link profile. But given the overwhelming evidence of manipulative off-page tactics, I’m starting to think that these guys are successfully flying under the Google radar.
Don’t hate the player hate the game
I want to make one thing clear:
I have nothing against the (presumably) kind folks who run Personal Money Store.
They are playing the game skillfully, and winning.
6 years and running, this site has survived three algorithm updates that are even named after their top “money” term. Kudos.
The intent of this post isn’t to “out” anyone except Google. Call me crazy, but the algorithm updates, the crazy animal names, the announcements, they all feel like good marketing.
Any of you remember that LifeLock commercial? You know, the one where the CEO advertises his social security number?
This is awesome marketing.
Except that the CEO later had his
identity stolen 13 times.
This kind of feels like what happened with Google’s Payday Loan updates. It was great anti-spam marketing, but at the end of the day, some of the old tactics were still able to crack the coveted first page.
Where do we go from here?
I rather not talk about the color of hats, honestly. Abiding (or not abiding) by Google’s guidelines comes down to how risk averse you or your clients are.
The truth is, despite Google’s ongoing efforts to penalize sites that attempt to manipulate their algorithm, you will come against competitors who sneak under the radar using spammy tactics. As this little study demonstrates, it can happen even in the most closely watched industries.
Do you wait it out and trust that the “system” will correct itself in the long-run? Or do you fight fire with fire?
Only you can answer that.