How To Break Every Google Guideline Going (And Rank For Insanely Competitive Keywords)


An interesting experiment/case study today. I decided to take a mega competitive (and lucrative) keyword for our industry – ‘SEO’ – and take a look at what the top guys were doing to rank there.

The results were shocking .

Before I start, let me say that I’m not advising you follow what these guys are doing. This is meant more as a comment on where we are currently at with SEO and spam detection.

Is It Morally Wrong To ‘Out’ These Guys

Firstly, I won’t be giving away any url details here, or filing any spam reports, although I guess it will be pretty obvious to find out who I am talking about if you so wish.

Update- 02/05/14: I checked this morning and the case site is still in the top 10, but has now moved down a few places.

Update – 10/05/14: Case site has moved down, but still in the top 50

Update – 11/05/14: Case site now appears to have been deindexed

I read a great article yesterday by Josh Bachynski about how google had no right to act as moral arbiters of the web and it was wrong of them to take punitive action against sites – directly affecting jobs and livelihoods.

To a certain point I agree with this sentiment, however, I feel no compunction for writing this article (based around the spam tactics of an SEO company) for a couple of reasons.

1) They Should Know Better

An SEO Company cannot hide behind any excuses of not knowing about google guidelines, web spam or penalties.

2) They May* Be Using The Same Tactics For Their Clients

* I would say probably here, but let’s allow a little benefit of the doubt.

I would imagine they are charging a pretty penny for their services and if they are using the same spammy tactics for rankings, then their clients will eventually be caught and banned (costing lots of jobs and livelihoods).

3) They Are Outranking Those Who Are Working Hard To Do Things The Right Way

Hard work and genuine excellence should be rewarded. Maybe these guys are the best (although I very much doubt it), but it is certainly not why they are ranking for such a competitive keyword.

If this sounds like a bit of an oxymoron (I am saying they are not the best, yet they are ranked at the top) then it is because I still believe that these results will not last (more on that later).

Disclaimer: There is a (very slight) chance that this company has been a victim of a negative SEO attack and did not build these links themselves. But if that is the case, then it’s certainly not done them any harm!

The Search

I searched for “SEO” (no quotes) on

The search returned 95,900,000 results and google’s keyword planner tells us that on average there are 40,500 searches for this keyword in the UK each month. Tasty!


I ignored the first 3 results (wikipedia, majestic SEO and a highly detailed article from hobo-web) and looked into the rankings of the site at number 4, which was a UK based SEO agency.

So Why Were They Ranking So Highly?

Well, you probably guessed – the answer is pretty much links, but as we will see they are not the high quality ones that google should be using to rank sites.

The Analysis

For the purposes of the link analysis in this study I used opensiteexplorer.

I am well aware that there are more comprehensive link analysis tools (ahrefs seems to win most test in terms of sheer volume), but the moz tool works perfectly well for what we need here.

The Stats & Numbers

Here are the raw numbers from opensiteexplorer for the top 10 along with my assessment (who appointed me king of the internet you ask…) of whether they deserve their rankings.

In addition to our main case study site (the one at number 4) I will also go a little into the rankings of the site at number 7.

PositionSiteDomain AuthorityPage AuthorityLinking Root DomainsTotal Links Assessment
2Majestic SEO7983310740915fair enough
3Hobo Web605649185great article
4Our Case Site5260524895link spam
5Position 54755721341deserved – very clever linkbuilding
6Position 6536119509487link spam
7Our Anchor Text Case Site29403031anchor text spam
8Position 8273924155reasonably clean
9Position 9313954326reasonably clean
10Screaming Frog SEO Spider647014384257fair enough

Here is how the linking root domains stack up in a chart for positions 2-10. We’ll ignore wikipedia as they are a bit of anomaly and ruin the chart!




What Does This Tell Us?

The Good News

The sites at positions 5, 8 and 9 have a relatively low number of backlinks, but the quality of those links (I really liked the tactic of the site at position 5, although I won’t reveal his secret today…) is helping them to rank.

The Bad News

Our case site (position 4) and the site at position 6 have sledgehammered their way into the top 10 by building low quality links (very low quality as we will see) at scale.

The site at position 7 doesn’t have a large number of links and the ones they do are very low quality. What they do have (which isn’t supposed to work anymore Matt Cutts!!!) is basically every single one of those links is an optimised anchor text link.

Have a look at this…



Anyway, let’s start to take a look at the kind of links our case site has been acquiring.

Roll Up For The Mystery Tour!

This was fun (yes I am that sad) and while checking out what they had been up to I went on a wonderful trip around sites including: –

  • Russian museums
  • Japanese restaurants
  • A Walt Whitman fan site
  • A site devoted to Legally Blonde (the musical)

I seen some things man… I seen some things…

Anyway, the title of this post talked about breaking google guidelines (you can read there guidelines on link schemes here). Well, to be honest, smashing, or obliterating would be a better word.

You want some examples?


Anchor Text Footer Links



Anchor text links in footers are bad right? We’re talking links that are outside of the main content and should be a doddle to detect?

Well, not if you are selling SEO services apparently.

There were *loads* of these. I would say about 30% of the links consisted of footer links (not normally site wide).

Off Topic Anchor Text Links



Google should easily be able to pick up the topic of a page and determine if a link is contextually relevant…

So how come the numerous examples (such as this optimised anchor text link from a page on astronomy!) haven’t raised any flags…?

Hidden Links



As if footer links weren’t bad enough, there were a number of them that were hidden with the link colour closely matching that of the background.

Or how about this one, which must be the smallest font size known to man (image below is actual size)!


Have we jumped in a time machine to 1998?

Just so we’re clear…

Hiding text or links in your content to manipulate Google’s search rankings can be seen as deceptive and is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Text (such as excessive keywords) can be hidden in several ways, including:

Links That Are So Bad They Are Not Fit For Human Consumption


This one gave me the lulz.

I imagined a link so bad, that starbucks decided it just shouldn’t be seen.

On A Serious Note

I suspect a lot of the linking sites had been hacked and were probably unaware of the links.

If you are taking a look for yourself, make sure you have a decent anti-virus installed!

I Could Go On…

But you get the idea…

Basically, the entire link profile is made up of spammy, optimised anchor text links from off topic sites, often contained in the footer.

Basically a massive two fingers to google’s webmaster guidelines on manipulative link building and a slap in the face for google Penguin.

And google is rewarding them for this spam with a cushy slot at position 4 for a massively profitable search term.

So What Does This Say About SEO In 2014?

Well, this raises a couple of questions…



Em, do you not think that instead of punishing mom and pop sites that might have published a couple of guest posts with some anchor text, you should be going after stuff like this?

Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees!

We’re not talking about some obscure search term here… we’re talking about SEO. SEO!!!


Does Link Spam Still Work?

It would appear that it does. To a degree. Both in terms of volume of links and optimised anchor text.

I am assuming though that this would at some point be flagged (surely to god) and that the site would lose it’s rankings.

Anyway, don’t do it. It’s not cool and you will get better long term results from white hat SEO.

Don’t risk your business!

Links Are Still King

It also tells us what we already knew really – that links are still king when it comes to rankings.

The moz post on mentions being the new links was interesting, but links are still where it’s at just now.

Recommended reading: SEO Trends In 2018: What The Experts Think

And Finally…

A few ‘open letters’ if you like.

To The SEO Company In The Case Study

Assuming this is not negative SEO and you are building these links yourself, stop it. Vandalising others property (hacking their sites) is just plain evil.

I only hope you are not doing the same for their clients or they may have some law suits on their hands.

To Matt Cutts And Google

Come on guys… what’s going on here?

How can such obvious spam like this still work? This is the stuff you need to hammer, not hard working marketers like Ann Smarty and My Blog Guest.

Seriously, this is pathetic.

To You

Finally, as I’ve said a few times. Even though this is apparently working for the case site, don’t do it.

Stick to white hat SEO , building relationships and creating quality content.

We will win the war.

Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.


About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Charles Floate - May 1, 2014

You bugger! 😉

Expected it to come out soon enough, ah well!

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    lol… make hay while the sun shine right 🙂

    MaxWeb - May 2, 2014

    Your in the first page Charles in my end. Anyways, I confirm that BH Seo still works and I saw a lot of it when doing some competitive analysis for our client sites. I believe Google is looking at the wrong side of the coin.

    Let’s do some text. Shall we. I wonder what you found with the site with low amount of links, but in quality.

    More power Dave and Charles. 🙂

      David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

      The quality links will give you a stable, long term ranking across a wide range of keywords. Unfortunately pagerank (and anchor text) appear to still be over-weighted in the algorithm and short term, sheer volume can allow you to force your way in there

    Steven - May 2, 2014

    Not really hidden though or a clever way of doing it. You’re pumping SAPE links at your website.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t work but it’s not like it’s a hidden *thing*

      Charles Floate - May 2, 2014

      I agree, but SAPE isn’t the only thing that makes it rank 😉

Greg - May 1, 2014

Wholy smokes, Great stuff here, …. even for a newbee like myself I still put my hands in the air for educatiional articles like this one. I have taken several courses from many so called Gurus for internet affiliate marketing only to discover that much of their information is now outdated. or obsolite. I am also discovering that Google would like nothing more than to buy up all the avenues to which we advertize for living and change the rules for their own greed. I would probably end up knocking the teeth out of these Google nerds and drop em where they stand just to make me feel better. I am sooo d@@Q$^^#$#@m frustrated with them. Perhaps i am unaware but do they own the internet. If so,… than we are all screwed. Sorry for the rant!!!

Arthur Burlo - May 1, 2014

I am sorry, but the truth is, like I repeat in every article I write, white hat SEO doesn’t pay. The people who rank for competitive keywords, save for wikipaedia, hosting sites, GoDaddy and the other big names, use gray and black techniques. I have yet to see one site using white hat SEO, that isn’t some big player who can afford to spend thousands in advertising, ranking on page one.

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    depends what you are targeting, but I’ve used white hat SEO to break into some pretty profitable niches in the past. Going back a few years for example I ranked my own ecommerce site at number 1 for ‘hair products’ using content based marketing and I was up against multi-million pound brands.

      Andy - May 4, 2014

      Likewise I am ranking page one almost at will against the biggest nsmes in our niche, just producing plenty of old fashioned content It seems that if you get your own site to a certain pitch the internal links build your ranking

Shannon - May 1, 2014

Great job David! Just proves to me (even more) that Google is so broken they are relying on website owners to rat themselves (or others out). Use nofollow, don’t use exact match (but it still works anyway), don’t guest post (but it still works anyway pffft), don’t do this, don’t do that – or we’ll give you a vague reason why we banned your site with even more vague other reasons we may have banned your site. Oh, and by the way, we took away all your page to make sure you lose massive revenue, just because we can!

Makes my stomach roil with anger grrr. Makes me mad (well crazier than usual). But what can ya do? 80% plus site visitors come from Google. >.<

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    Thanks Shannon, I know drives you mad doesn’t it!

    David Faltz - May 1, 2014

    Sick post David!!

    Your tone is solid, and I especially like the insertion of your quips from time to time. (now that I softened you up 🙂

    I see this every day on every SERP. It makes doing it the right way, aggravating, to say the least.

    As Shannon so eloquently put above :)(Hey Shannon)

    FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt) works on many, but the ones who seem to disregard seem to still perform well. At least for right now!

    There is not a day that goes by that one of my client’s does not point out someone ranking above them in the SERPs, that I do some analysis on that has me scratching my head.

    It seems that commercial anchors sill carry some serious weight. As pointed out in the small study by Rand Fishkin at Moz, in the first and recent edition of the IMEC Lab

    However, I do not fault people taking advantage of it. It works. Hopefully they have measured risk vs reward, and made a conscious decision to partake.

    Not too mention some of these links are probable pretty old (I see one from 2008), and though I never would condone hacking for a links (that’s just rude ), some of the other strategies, were pretty common place back in they day, when gaming Google was the simpler play.

    However, I have seen Penguins and manuals come for less (much less!).

    Until everyone or at least the majority get caught…it will continue to go on.

    I know I am not going down that path. I am with you 100% on doing it the right way. Err on the side of caution, especially with someone else property. That is my motto.


      David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

      Thanks mate, like I said in the post… we will win the war 🙂

chris - May 1, 2014

Brilliant post and bang on point! But it’s no surprise to me. it’s something I see all the time agency with so many footer links naming seo in every town and city possible. Or anchor text links that consume there whole articles. I’ve seen one who just copy and paste other companies infographics or posts into there blog to get traffic that way, Even seen analytic companies who sell seo tools have there whole site caked in Google ads selling link services! Lol Just such a shame that the whole industry is smeared as a shady practice because of stuff like this and as you say who do you blame,Them for doing it or Google for not sorting it out?

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    exactly, it’s google’s fault. Can’t really blame people for trying to make a buck when they see an opportunity. The thing is it’s just so obvious!

Steve Waller - May 1, 2014

Any idea on the current longevity of this ranking David? I’ve still been seeing spam in the payday loans niche so I don’t see why SEO would be any different.

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    apparently some of the sites have been there for a while. A lot of it is burn and churn, but the algorithm should be wise to that 16 years in!

Jason Chesters - May 1, 2014

I’ve seen this a lot and you are right in what you say about Google! They should be able to pick up on this easily. I did a similar case study on local rankings and I saw the same thing happening. The site ranked number 1 used footer links from another site that they actually owned themselves. Unbelievable!!

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    It’s mental – that was supposed to stop working around 2005!

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    it almost seems like google has gone backwards recently

Daniel Cuttridge - May 1, 2014

Most of us will know what site the case study is.

Now don’t get me wrong it’s not ideal, but as we know it does work. One thing to be said about the site is that it’s not an authority site, not in any way… No blog etc and I know this is a conscious decision.

If you’re going to engage in this kind of link building expect to get burned eventually and don’t make this your authority site right?

That’s how you can tell this particular guy (or gal) isn’t stupid and probably wouldn’t go as full in for clients when it comes to this degree of link building.

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    yeah, it’s definitely a short term smash and grab marketing plan.

Grant - May 1, 2014

There was me about to finish editing my 3,500 word anti-link pro-content article. Forget it. I’m having a long weekend. Hopefully someone link spams me and I’ll be #1 on my return.

Well written, David.

    David McSweeney - May 1, 2014

    lol 🙂

fuzzy - May 2, 2014

was this one of the sites?
shpaaaaaaam Backlinks ahoy!

Edit: i’ve removed the name of the site as i would rather not directly name anyone here. It wasn’t the site in question, but is certainly using the same tactic to rank

Michelle - May 2, 2014

Link is still definitely the KING! Why else would Google go after private blog networks so hard if they don’t help with rankings?

    David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

    Certainly looks that way!

David Eaves - May 2, 2014

I have noticed these SEO company sites that are hacking websites to get links and rank and cannot believe Google has not taken action against them. They are very low quality websites as well, I noticed one that only had one page and my site is getting beaten by this piece of crap for my main keyword SEO company.

Why has Google let these crooks rank for so long?

I worked my ass off to get links from sites like Techcrunch, Mashable and SEOmoz – it is not fair that I am getting beat by criminals with rubbish sites.

    David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

    Hacking websites is just plain wrong

      Charles Floate - May 2, 2014

      Too confirm… I’ve never hacked a website for backlinks.. I’m sure you can look into my past though, hehe

MarK Wilston - May 2, 2014

I liked your post and truth behind this. But do you know, that someone has intentionally shared your post with mattcutts. Check on twitter

    David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

    yeah, I saw that. I doubt he will take any notice though to be honest

chris - May 2, 2014

It’s basically just a kick in the teeth for all of us using white hat methods and Matt Cutts should read this!

Mike - May 2, 2014

I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong conclusion, mate.

So, Venice is a thing on ‘SEO’ terms.

Venice means that local results get an artificial placement in the top 10, for searchers from that area only.

For any real major agency, a term like ‘SEO Manchester’ is a highly niche market that is far too small fry to bother with. (Actually, ironically most SEOs don’t bother with SEO for themselves anyway; no major business starts a search for an agency by Googl’ing, they use their contacts or at worst put out an RFP.)

So the only competitors are tiny companies and freelancers who are spamming. At present, they rank because they are the only relevant results, and if you’re based in Manchester (I’m assuming you are) they’ll appear for some generics because of Venice. If the only relevant results are a pile of shit, Venice will bring in the top of that pile. That doesn’t mean ‘Blackhat works!’. It just means that it’s a niche that’s not worth the investment.

And anyway, the question has never been ‘Does blackhat make site ranks?’. Of course it does. It’s just for how long? Most real businesses don’t want to change domain every 2 years and redo all their TV, Press, rework their PPC et all because the SEO burnt another name.

    David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

    Hi Mike,

    The term was ‘SEO’ and I am based in Glasgow, so am assuming that the results would be the same UK wide.

      David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

      I should also add that I checked the results using a London based proxy too

    Grant - May 2, 2014


    I live in Wales and the 3 of the results I see are in Stoke On Trent/Stafford, with one being Manchester. So I assume I’m getting the same as David.

    No company Google’s for a service? You’re kidding right? I had an agency with a 7 figure turnover email last year through one of my sites and they sent me a fairly substantial amount of work.

    Plus, 2,900 a month search for the exact term you mention. Roughly 30%+ CTR for #1 you’re looking at 1,000 ish 1% conversion, 10 leads a month? For one term? Seems like bothering with to me. Obviously doesn’t take into account any LSIs which could just as well double all of the above.

Marcus - May 2, 2014

Nice 🙂

the SERP for ultra competitive SEO related terms in my country ( is a lot worse. Most of the results in the top 20 use very spammy link building methods. I wonder how much the algorithm differs between countries.. or maybe Google had to make special exceptions for keywords that are traditionally heavily manipulated. For example: if the benchmark is already heavily tainted, the least spammy gets ranked the highest?

    David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

    I would imagine the algorithm was pretty much the same country to country… but it’s an interesting question!

Robert Kirk - May 2, 2014

Great post David, I had noticed this about a month ago on this keyword, but seems their are some newbies now showing from when I last checked.

I just find it rather annoying, not saying Ive been a perfect white hat over the years, but never been into pure black hat techniques. But im still seeing lots of people doing things which are confirmed by google as wrong, but still sitting top in some very competitive niches. Tts annoying because Im doing my uptmost to try and clean up our link building and do everything the right way, we had a client recently get manual link penaltiy they had under 20 links, most of them url branded, but they where guest posts.

Think Google has a long way of making their updates like Penguin etc more fair.

    David McSweeney - May 2, 2014

    I was looking at a SERP for a client and the site at the top (for a reasonably competitive and lucrative term) was ranking using pretty much anchor text links from forum profiles. It’s concerning that they are missing such blatant spam, but dishing out penalties to those who may have crossed the line a little into grey.

Josh Escusa - May 3, 2014

But how long can you hold that position. I’ve seen several people do this, but typically they can only hold the higher positions for a little while before they are slapped from their ranks. That being said, while they are ranking, they are reaping all the great rewards of traffic and income and they end up seeing a ROI.
I think this would be fun if you’re looking to make a quick buck…and in my opinion…there’s nothing too bad about that 🙂

Stuart Walker - May 4, 2014

Nice analysis David, enjoyed reading that.

Also you’ve been sending me a fair bit of engaged and converting traffic recently according to G Analytics so thanks for that too.

George - May 4, 2014

Good job unearthing site. Just one doubt though, is it Charles’s site?

    Pat - May 4, 2014

    LOL! That was my first reaction too after seeing Charles’ penalty from Google!

    David McSweeney - May 4, 2014

    The subject site wasn’t one of charles’ sites

      Matt - May 6, 2014

      Yes it was, it was, which has now been penalised and de-indexed, clearly linked to godlikemarketing in the footer, and in the branded name.

        Matt - May 6, 2014

        In fact, it now redirects to another one of his sites, which has also now been de-indexed.

        David McSweeney - May 7, 2014

        Eh… I can assure you that wasn’t the site! godlikesearch wasn’t in the top 10 – it was about position 11. Charles did have another site in the top 10, but again it wasn’t the one I was discussing.

Rick G - May 5, 2014

Hey David,

Great article and it’s been something i’ve wanted to write about as well.

Google has done nothing but piss me off lately. Like you said, they aren’t seeing the forest for the trees.

How is guest blogging even a priority to them at this point. Guest blogging at least adds more content to the internet, takes a decent amount of time to do and is hard to automate and spam. And yet THAT’s their main concern?

Meanwhile AS I TYPE THIS IN MAY 2014 there are STILL exact-keyword-domains ranking for very lucrative search terms using nothing more than AUTOMATED USER PROFILES as back links.

Do these pages stay on the first page for long? NOPE, but GUESS WHAT? There are 10 more pages just as chitty just waiting to take its place once it gets taken down.

Google really needs to rethink their defensive strategy, because if they keep penalizing the wrong people, then what’s to stop those people from giving up and just going full black hat mode.

/rant hahah

    David McSweeney - May 6, 2014

    It’s mental what’s going on just now and it really seems to have got worse.

Fervil Von - May 6, 2014

Hate to think that Google allows something like while on the other hand they keep on manually punishing better sites.

Ha! This really intensifies my idea that Google is “still a company” so I won’t worship on all that’s written in their codes.

    David McSweeney - May 6, 2014

    they need to sort out their priorities

Nixan Crasto - May 6, 2014

I am so astounded to find out that such websites get away with Penguin penalty even after there have been several intense data refreshes. There can’t be hundreds of thousands of crap websites that Google have no option but to show the case site as a relevant for the SEO term.

    David McSweeney - May 6, 2014

    The sites probably won’t rank for too long (although I just checked and the case site is still riding high), but the point is they shouldn’t even be ranking in the first place. It’s such obvious spam that it should be a doddle to detect

Samir - May 7, 2014


Awesome post and surprised to see the responses of readers and I’m going through each and every comment.

I guess you are utterly right about the google insanity as it gives good ranking to the blogs where we can’t even go through the content and on the other hand it sends 2 to 3 hits where we get good content.


    David McSweeney - May 7, 2014

    Thanks Samir, there are some great comments!

David Eaves - May 12, 2014

Looks like google have bitch-slapped a lot of those sites with the hacked links

    David McSweeney - May 12, 2014

    certainly looks that way!

wes - July 15, 2014

So, when are you going to let us know that #5 site was doing? I’m extremely interested in at least the conceptual idea of it. Please let us know!

    David McSweeney - July 16, 2014

    all may be revealed in a future post 😉

Comments are closed