At the time of writing this blog, Google’s first page of results retrieved some bizarre listings for the phrase “payday loans”.  Using ‘black hat’ techniques, clever SEOs have used underhand tactics to rank at the top of Google for a very popular search term.

A year ago, I reported that completely unrelated websites, froginthewall.net and sigma-cetl.ac.uk were on page 1 for “payday loans” despite not a single mention of the phrase or either word on their homepage.

We suspect some erroneous tactics are once again afoot…

How did they get there?

The links were likely built by hacking – building hundreds of links with the exact anchor text phrase.

These links were all hidden in the HTML – making them non-detectable to a regular user and potentially even the website owners.  Google however do read these links, as shown by these websites appearing on the first results page for their anchor text targeted phrase “payday loans”.

They only survived a couple of days before Google kicked them out for using ‘black hat’ techniques.

Today’s results

Despite the Google Penguin algorithm update, released one year ago – seemingly doing a good job in filtering out junk results by penalising sites – the payday loans results aren’t quite as clean.

On Friday, I took a screenshot of page 1 for “payday loans” – a search phrase with 201,000 exact match searches and 673,000 broad match searches each month according to the Google Keyword Tool.

JimLoans.co.uk was number 1:

Payday Loans Google Results Friday 10 May 2013
Screenshot of Google’s first page of results, taken Friday 10 May 2013.

“Jim” didn’t actually have a website of his own.  It was purely an affiliate redirect to an actual payday loan company, 247cashline.com.  And Jim wasn’t actually Jim.  At least not according to his registration details:

jimloans.co.uk Domain Tools
(via Domain Tools)

Ahmed Mamdouh, the genius behind this actually had 3 of the top 7 results that day, including position 2, dad-loans.co.uk.  His other website, uncle-loans.co.uk was in position 8 on Friday.

How did jimloans.co.uk get to number 1?

We had a look at his Majestic SEO backlink profile which revealed a few things.

Firstly, the site was averaging 10,000 backlinks per domain. Warning: sitewide links in this day and age can be risky.  Thousands of them are not advised for a long-term strategy.

jimloans.co.uk Majestic SEO Domain Information

Thousands of them from non-related websites is almost certain to get you penalised and thrown out of Google today.  It’s just a matter of time before Google finds you and boots you out

Downloading the report and having a look at those 4,339 domains led me to believe he had used some underhand tactics to build them.  Here is a snapshot of that report:

jimloans.co.uk sample backlinks

If you check out those domains you’ll notice they’re completely unrelated to payday loans.  Looking through the links, they were embedded by Joomla plugins that Mr. Mamdouh owns that users of these websites have installed.

These plugins allow Mr. Mamdouh to insert anchor text links onto all of these sites whenever he feels like it, allowing him to chop and change the links on sites like JimLoans.co.uk.  Then, once the site gets kicked out he can change the links to another domain etc.

Thanks to Niall Conway and Lee for pointing this out in the comments.

These links were all built over a three-day period:

jimloans.co.uk Majestic SEO Backlink History

Flow Metrics

The site’s backlinks are swerving towards low trust and high citation flow:

jimloans.co.uk Majestic SEO Flow Metrics

For those not familiar with Majestic SEO Flow Metrics, a correlation heading towards the bottom-right corner is not an ideal set of links.

Anchor Text

The anchor text targeted was heavily focussing on the money keywords – “payday loans” and “payday loans uk”.  Ahmed had been thoughtful enough to generate a few brand name and domain name anchor text links – to keep his profile “natural looking”, right?

jimloans.co.uk Majestic SEO Top Anchor Text

I said to my colleague’s on Friday “This site will be gone by Monday“.  And by Monday, the site was gone:

Payday Loans Google Results Monday 13 May 2013
Screenshot of Google’s first page of results, taken Monday 13 May 2013.

Only, Ahmed now owns the top 3 results in Google.

Similar strategies were employed with these websites.  And again, I expect it’s only a matter of time (days) before these three sites disappear from the front page.

Here is a quick snapshot of those 3 to save you time:

Comparison of 3 websites link data
(click on image for full size)

All very similar to jimloans.co.uk and all ranking well in the UK.

The UK must have a greater demand in the market for payday loans with his attempts to break into the French (les prêts sur salaire), German (zahltag darlehen) and Russian (выплаты жалованья кредиты) not so heavy.

Of the four websites that Ahmed has ranked for “payday loans”, they have redirected to three different payday sites.  Perhaps he is either testing out which converts best, or making sure not to send one company too much traffic in case he gives the game away.

Other Payday Loan Companies Rankings

Looking at the top results, there doesn’t appear to be many actual payday companies doing a good job with their SEO in terms of ranking in Google.

They appear to be heavily reliant on affiliates ranking and referring traffic to them.

The first company that comes to my mind when I think of payday loans is “Wonga”.  They’re all over the TV with their annoying adverts.  They’ve done a fantastic job with their brand over the past couple of years, so I was expecting them to appear on the first page, if not number 1.  But they cannot be found in the top 100 results for “payday loan” or “payday loan uk”.  Their SEO team/company has done something horribly wrong.  Shameful.

In fact, of the top 15 Payday Loan companies according to Money.co.uk, only PaydayUK appears on the first results page.  The top ranking results in Google are a mixture of sites that are manipulating the search engine algorithm with spammy links to rank their site, taking advantage of the actual payday loan companies who are hurting themselves with poor, unethical, penalised link strategies.

Google Quick to Act

As of Wednesday 15 May, date of publishing this blog post, Google has been quick to act on the payday loans results page, and 9 of the sites that were ranking on the first page on Tuesday are no longer there:

Payday Loans Google Results Wednesday 15 May 2013
Screen shot of Google’s first page of results, taken Wednesday 15 May 2013.

PaydayUK.co.uk is the only site that has been on the first page of Google results on both Tuesday and Wednesday this week.  They have however been leapfrogged by muggerloans.co.uk and doshexpress.com who were not on page 1 yesterday.

I wonder what tomorrow’s results will bring…

If you need help employing an ethical link building strategy, which will stand the test of time, call us today for advice…