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The “Payday Loans” SERP has changed – for better or for worse?

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Jordan Peck

Off page SEO Executive

Yesterday (June 11th), at an SMX expo in Seattle, Matt Cutts made a very telling comment.  When discussing recent algorithmic changes, including Penguin 2.0, Cutts commented on another new algorithmic update: “The change we launched earlier today [June 11th] was targeting things like payday loans on google.co.uk, and we have more stuff launching in a couple weeks.”

This is a change that has been called for for some time. It is a particular SERP that has been covered by spammers for a long time. Martin MacDonald covered the area at length during his talk at IonSearch in April.

He went into great detail as to why certain sites appear to rank very highly for the term “payday loan”, when the sites has seemingly not even been around than 2 weeks, and in that time, early analysis will show that they have hardly any links pointing at the domain (he was using the SEO Quake toolbar to see these initial figures).

However, once you dug a bit further, you could see that one of these sites had nearly 4,500 referring domains and about 500,000 backlinks pointing at it (despite it being around 3 weeks old) as well as having around 95 per cent of the links having the anchor text reading just “payday loans” or similar – natural or what!

How have they done it though?  Mainly through very old school and very spammy link building techniques. But they’ve even used malicious, hacking techniques, such as hacking into Joomla CMS plug ins that websites are built on and injecting hidden links into the source code of thousands of websites.

They’ve even done it to sites that are reputable and powerful, the Ecuadorian tourist board was one example MacDonald gave in his talk. This tactic means that sites can only exist around 2-3 weeks before Google’s more complex algorithms figure out what’s happening, and de-index the domain.

In that time though, the site has appeared in the top 10 for “payday loans” and already got all the traffic it needs to get. The webmaster will then just repeat the process with a new domain and the whole saga continues. Matt Cutts calls this process running a domain into the ground and starting the process again with a new one - “churning and burning”.

Matt Cutts even said in a recent webmaster video that the Web Spam team had received feedback on this SERP, from various high profile people in the industry, and said they were planning on doing something about it. Well, it seems they have. If you do an exact match search for “payday loans” (today being June 12th 2013) the results look quite different than they did not too long ago.

The number one result now is paydayloans.money.co.uk, a very trusted and authoritative domain, as well as the Guardian’s money section, and the Telegraph is also appearing in the top 10. This is definitely an improvement over how it was before. Finally there are some trustworthy websites appearing in the results, offering the users some actual usable websites. However, it is still far from perfect.

At the time of writing, the sports news website, www.isportconnect.com ranked 6th for “payday loans”. This seems incomprehensible, why would a sports news site, a fairly reputable one at that, be ranking for “payday loans”?! When you take a glimpse at the backlink profile, you notice something very peculiar.

Over 91 per cent of links pointing at this domain (over 104,000 of them) use “payday loans” as the anchor text. A further 5,000 of the links have no anchor text at all, suggesting these are hidden links, another favoured technique of the BlackHat spammer.

This has pushed www.isportconnect.com up the search results for a term it is completely unrelated too. It appears that this is an example of Negative SEO, although it is too early to tell, and there is never really any way to be certain.

There are further examples of this. A site designed to give help to students trying to revise for exams, www.revisionaidline.co.uk (12th position at time of writing) also appears to have become a victim of this. A huge proportion of the links pointing at it use the anchor “pay day loans” or derivatives of, including “payday loans direct”, “pay day loan uk” and “quick guaranteed payday loans”.

Again, there appears no reason for all these links to be there for anything approaching what might be described as natural, and the possibility of Negative SEO or hacking come to mind. And in amongst all the news sites (the Metro, the Sun and Channel 4 all appear in the top 20) and the random, unrelated domains, there are still plenty of the traditional “churned and burned” domains, with doorway pages, and a huge amount of spammed links.

This is clearly a work in progress for Google, who are obviously trying to clean up this area of their search engine. Even as I write this post, the SERP is changing, with results moving up and down without warning.

It appears to be the Google’s first foray into cleaning this up and we can obviously expect further changes in the very near future. Some cynics have already claimed it is a poor effort, whether by just ramming in some news sites articles about payday loan issues in the media they are actually fixing the problem.

It remains to be seen if recognised, reputable companies can possibly rank sustainably in this space, or if Google can manage to prevent the massive “churning and burning” we have come to be familiar with in the long term.

(Please note that some of the statements I made may be inaccurate after time of writing. Some of the results and their positions may be different after the day of writing, and even changed during the writing of the article.)