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!
I searched for “SEO” (no quotes) on google.co.uk.
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!
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.
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.
|Position||Site||Domain Authority||Page Authority||Linking Root Domains||Total Links||Assessment|
|2||Majestic SEO||79||83||3107||40915||fair enough|
|3||Hobo Web||60||56||49||185||great article|
|4||Our Case Site||52||60||524||895||link spam|
|5||Position 5||47||55||72||1341||deserved – very clever linkbuilding|
|6||Position 6||53||61||1950||9487||link spam|
|7||Our Anchor Text Case Site||29||40||30||31||anchor text spam|
|8||Position 8||27||39||24||155||reasonably clean|
|9||Position 9||31||39||54||326||reasonably clean|
|10||Screaming Frog SEO Spider||64||70||1438||4257||fair 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…?
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…
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING GOOGLE?!!!?!
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
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.
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.