In June 2013 Google launched a new search update to target heavily spammed search queries such as pornography and payday loans. In Search, spam websites attempt to game their way to the top of the search rankings using techniques that often violate Google’s guidelines. Such sites are particularly prevalent for payday loans keywords with healthy financial rewards on offer for those able to manipulate their way to the top ranking positions.
Last years’ update was a veritable success for Google with almost all spam removed from the payday loans search results in one swift move. In the months following the algorithm change any occasional spam results that started to rank were quickly dealt with. The rapidity of spam removal from the payday loans search engine results pages (SERPs) led to the theory that Google were monitoring the SERPs and manually removing any spam whilst simultaneously working on an algorithm update.
In recent months spam results started to creep back in to the payday loans Google SERPs. Some spam sites even ranked in the top 10 results for several weeks at a time. The situation was starting to get out of hand; on the 14th May eight of the top twenty results for the search query ‘payday loans’ were spam results:
The lack of direct manual action by Google and a fluctuation in rankings over recent weeks caused many in the SEO industry to correctly speculate Google would be rolling out an algorithm update specifically to target spammy queries.
Below is a snapshot of Mozcast over the past 30 days. The Mozcast tool measures the algorithm temperature via changes in Google’s rankings and clearly highlights the extreme ranking fluctuations in rankings.
Last week, almost a year since the first payday loans update, Google announced an algorithm update to specifically target spammy search queries; many people have dubbed this update the ‘Payday Loans Algorithm 2.0’.
The latest update proves there is little doubt that Google will eventually catch up with spammers. However just one week after the latest update and the #1 ranked site for the keyword ‘payday loans’ is already a spam result: www.coolpaydayloans.co.uk
So what sort of tactics are these spammers deploying to game the search engines:
This is when a site is displaying different content to human users than is shown to the search engines or when a site redirects users to a different page than Google can see. Cloaking is a violation of guidelines as it provides users with different results than they expected.
When a website is hacked it’s quite common for hackers to use cloaking. This makes it harder for the site owner to detect.
Doorway pages are pages written to rank for a particular phrase and then funnel users to another destination
This tactic is currently being used by www.coolpaydayloans.co.uk, #1 in Google for ‘payday loans’. If you were to navigate to this URL you’d be presented with the page below that is optimised for payday loans:
Once you’ve clicked through, the URL sneakily redirects to this URL www.loanswithinamin.co.uk:
They are clearly displaying one set of content to Google while redirecting users to another page.
Leveraging Expired Domains
Often domains that have existing authority expire and become available to purchase. As these sites already have authority and are trusted in the eyes of the search engines spammers are able to leverage this authority get them to rank for desired keywords rather than grow a sites authority from scratch. Expired domains are readily available to purchase at sites such as expireddomains.net and domcop.com
If you visit http://www.rugbyaccessories.co.uk/ you can see that this expired domain is being prepared to try and target the payday loan SERPs by leveraging the existing authority the site has. The meta title clearly indicates the site will eventually be flipped to ‘Kitty Payday Loans’ (see below).
Hacked Sites/ Hacked Content
Hackers are often able to gain access to a site through security vulnerabilities. Once gaining access to a website they are often able to add content to existing pages. Such pages are often meant to manipulate search engines and sometimes the added content is hidden from users and webmasters through cloaking
They can often be distinguished by content that is completely irrelevant from the domain name. For example In July last year http://www.parliament.uk/ was ranking 7th for payday loans; it had clearly been hacked and hidden contented injected in to the site to help it rank for this keyword. At some later date the hacker would then look redirect this page.
Leveraging Google+ Accounts
Spammers have been using fake Google Plus accounts to help build trust in Google’s eyes by manipulating Google Authorship. This allows them to get a picture of a person next to their search result which in turn helps make the website more legitimate. Not only that but it also increases the number of people who click through to that search result.
Only a couple of months ago leanbenchmark.co.uk linked their website to a Google+ account by the name of ‘Winifred Beane’. This is how it appeared in the search results:
If you clicked through to the Google+ profile it was clearly affiliated with leanbenchmark.co.uk:
The spammers have subsequently moved on and leanbenchmark.co.uk now redirects to electric-media.co.uk which displays content for Kitty Payday Loans.
Outlined here are just a few of the tactics spammers are employing to game the search engines. These are often used in combination for maximum deception and such tactics are evolving and becoming more sophisticated all the time. Although these spam tactics are easy to spot with the naked eye it is much harder to identify and exclude them algorithmically; while Google's algorithm is so dependent on links spammers will always be able to leverage new and expired domains in combination with Google bombing to game the search results. Based on the fact it took only one week for spam to reappear in the payday loans SERPs I would speculate it will be some time before these tactics become obselete.
Read more about the hidden dangers behind Google’s Payday Loan search results.