Ranking at the top of Google can have massive benefits for any business. Being ranked in the number one position when people search for a popular keyword or phrase can give a site a massive lift in traffic. This leads to companies spending thousands of pounds trying to jostle for the top spots. Lots of sites do it the right way, creating content that naturally gets them what Google needs: links (a sign of internet popularity and a big factor in deciding how to order search results).
With more people coming online every day, and consuming the web via an increasing number of devices, information about the latest news is now more in demand than ever before. Google always wants to give searchers the most fresh and relevant results, and sometimes, they have to give the benefit of the doubt to websites that don’t necessarily have all the trust signals they’d like.
Unfortunately, there are certain industries where top positions are dominated by sites that are using Google’s own algorithm against them, exploiting Google’s weakness for surfacing viral content, in order to rank their site high in search results and reap staggering rewards.
The infamous ‘payday loan’ industry is one of those that are abusing this loophole. Some companies in this sector exploit the flaw by registering a website for a couple of pounds, then using automated software, or code they’ve smuggled onto thousands of other sites, to generate hundreds of thousands of inbound links to this new site in a very short space of time, usually just a couple of days. Google sees this massive influx of new links as a popularity signal and so, nearly overnight, boosts the payday loans site high for searches on ‘payday loan’ and ‘payday loans’ – phrases that have a combined search volume in the UK of around 220,000 per month. Around a week later, and after Google has had the time to do some due diligence on those links, they realise the ballot box was rigged and the links aren’t authentic after all, kicking it back down to the bottom of the pile.
In the few days the payday site is at the top of Google, they can make truly huge commissions. Based on typical conversion rates and commission pay-outs, we estimate they can easily clear around £5,000 a day. Once a site has tanked, they’re free to simply rinse and repeat, by registering a new domain and starting the process all over again. For those that follow the payday loans space on Google, there’s an endless stream of new sites appearing out of nowhere, ranking highly for a week and then vanishing.
Though this could work for any niche or set of keywords, this ‘churn and burn’ method seems fairly restricted to the payday loan niche and other high profit financial services, most probably due to the lack of any physical stock changing hands, and the abundance of lenders willing to pay a premium for fresh leads.
This problem isn’t anything particularly new, either. A quick search shows complaints about this very issue going back to at least 2009. Even after the long-awaited Penguin 2.0 update in late May, this scam still seems to be working just as it always has.
From Google’s point of view, they’re between a rock and hard place. They don’t want the spam, but they do want to surface content that quickly becomes link-worthy. It seems that as it stands this is a necessary evil of their algorithm and an acceptable trade-off of quality versus timeliness.
Recently, Google did at least acknowledge the problem does exist, and has promised a further algorithm update is on the way that attempts to target this kind of manipulation. With so much money on the table, many will be watching closely to see whether Google can finally clean up these results once and for all.
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