Google Still Allows Paid Links to Influence Rankings, Despite Protestations
Optimistic SEOs all believe that Google's message is consistent: meritorious links win the day. Content is king. Play by the rules, and you will be rewarded. Blackhat SEOs believe the opposite - that Google is pragmatic in allowing some paid links to influence search results while punishing other companies who use them. Officially, Google tells us that paid links are a one-way road to nowheresville in the search engine. However, there is evidence that Google allows spam to make it through - despite its much-touted Panda and Penguin solutions.
Proof That Google Allows SERP Manipulation
Our site specializes in sending traffic to other sites - a service that, arguably, a lot of webmasters need. Last month, we noticed a significant drop in traffic:
While this could happen for any number of reasons, we decided to look into the problem a bit further. What we discovered shocked us. Another site had taken our spot in the SERPs for one of our keywords using less than honorable tactics. All available evidence shows that almost all backlinks (90 percent) pointing to this competitor's site come from a Russian link network - sites that are clearly set up for the purpose of linking out to other sites with the intent of manipulating the search engines.
Google is supposed to be largely immune to this kind of thing, but here's what we found: for the keyword "buy traffic," the website "buybulkvisitor.com" ranks #1 in the SERPs (as of this writing):
Rather than being ranked meritoriously (via merit-driven backlinks from other websites), we find that this site's backlink profile shows that it has been using foreign link networks to achieve its rankings:
It appears that "buybulkvisitor.com" knows something we don't. Can Google be manipulated using cheap tricks from the past? Apparently so. So much for Google filtering out linkspam.
There is a Widespread Problem With This "Article Marketing" Stuff
If this were just an isolated case, you might be able to chalk it up to pure dumb luck. Computer programs and algorithms are only as good as the engineers and programmers behind them. Even then, glitches happen. It's reasonable to assume that something could slip by the great Google once in a while. However, this isn't an isolated case. We have evidence of so-called "SEO firms" all over the world that use linkspam as their primary weapon for ranking clients' sites - and these SEO companies are successful at gaming the search giant year after year despite Google's protestations.
Some of the more insidious tactics include very spammy article marketing - content pieces that no sane human being would enjoy or get any value out of. These articles are "spun" using an advanced spin "syntax" that replaces one word (or an entire paragraph) with another word or paragraph. The result? Well, the companies peddling this software claim that users can create thousands of unique articles, and receive thousands of backlinks, from just one "seed article."
These "seed articles" pass through a software program that "randomizes" the article and then submits it to article directories owned by the SEO company (or "article distribution" company). Make no mistake about it. These spun articles don't produce gibberish like the old article spinners. No, they produce very clever facsimiles of the original article that are technically 50 or 60 percent "unique." The uniqueness is a superficial technicality though - since the article is essentially unchanged.
"Dog" may be replaced with "cat," "he" may be replaced with "she," and so on. But the message of the article is the same. These articles must be written so generically, that word substitutions can easily be made to make the article appear "unique" once it's been through the article spinner. How valuable are these articles to end users? How valuable can they possibly be with simple word substitutions? Would your average Internet user find 500 variations of the same article (with no substantially new information between articles) helpful or insightful? It's doubtful.
If these spun articles were valuable, they wouldn't end up on article directories owned by the article distribution company. They would end up in major publications, on A-List blogs, or on real authority blogs. But who would want to publish an article that's very similar to what's already been published? Would 500 or 1,000 different, high-quality blogs, really want to publish something that's already been published 500 times before? Not likely.
...and here's where things get ugly. The superficially unique articles are blasted out to a huge blog network that exists solely to improve the ranking of member sites or customers of the article distribution company. These articles eventually start doing their magic. Google recognizes them. Then, as if by some kind of magic, a website with no merit-driven backlinks suddenly gets ranked for a keyword or keywords with decent search volume. If all of this sounds a bit complicated and convoluted, it's because it is.
These article distribution and "SEO" companies are trying to skirt Google's Webmaster's Guidelines. They shouldn't be outranking whitehat sites but they are.
We've Found Lots of Networks
We were surprised to find that Google didn't kill "paid links" with its last major algorithm update. When we contacted Textlinkbrokers.com, Campusblvd.com, textlinks.me.uk, textlinks.com, text-link-ads.com, and Unique Article Wizard, we found that these sites would openly sell us backlinks (or arrange for member sites to link to us for a "broker fee") for the purpose of improving (or trying to improve) our standing in the SERPs.
In fact, Campusblvd states explicitly right on its homepage:
"CampusBlvd is a network of college websites that services consumers and search engine marketing(SEM) companies by providing highly relevant text link placements. We offer monthly rented text links that appear on college websites that have hundreds and thousands of .edu backlinks."
"What are text links?
Text links are keywords that are hyperlinked on third party websites that can help improve your search engine relevance. For example, you operate a website that sells `strawberries`. You will want highly relevant websites in the fruit industry to link to your website using the term `strawberries` to help increase your relevance for that term."
It's pretty clear the company sells links. It sort of reminds us of iAcquire, which was nabbed in May of last year for purchasing links for its clients. Inside sources confirmed that iAcquire purchased links for its clients, though the company flat-out denied the allegations until it was clear that they were indeed purchasing links. With such a high-profile case behind us, you'd think all of the honest "Joes" out there would be safe. Nope. Why? Because Google won't or can't fix its algorithm to clean up this crap.
Historically, the search giant has taken a "do as we say, not as we do," approach to this sort of thing with the most visible example of this being the Chrome paid link debacle which exposed the company as either hypocritical or truly idiotic.
Unique Article Wizard is an article distribution service that promises to spin an article you write and send it out to an extensive list of article directories. Our emails from Unique Article Wizard revealed that the company does in fact still operate an extensive blog network for the purposes of boosting members' search rank - even after Panda and Penguin. It's unclear whether all of the sites are owned by UAW or whether they simply partner with other sites that are independently owned. Does Google approve of this tactic? The people over at UAW seem to think so:
...but they aren't so quick to give us all the details:
Thanks Jeff. Now we know you do indeed have a network even if you're not willing to give up its secret location. Some might argue that UAW runs a legit operation but, if that were so, why hide the blog network? If the sites can stand on their own merit, and UAW is providing a truly valuable service, then there's nothing to hide - from a business perspective. In fact, the company would actually boost its credibility by being transparent. It's the ultimate proof: show us your network and how awesome it is.
To Jeff's credit, he was willing to give us a 30-day money back guarantee. We did wonder if that guarantee would include all of the lost sales we'd suffer from being shellacked in the SERPs once we were found out but, in the end we decided it wasn't worth the risk.
We did find at least one site that published something resembling a case study (empowernetwork.com/mortsleam/unique-article-wizard/) using UAW to gain traction in the SERPs. Must be it works - the SERP rankings for this site confirm it.
Finally, Text Link Brokers advertises itself as an Adwords Certified Partner and a Microsoft Adcenter Accredited Partner. They also "build likes, tweets, shares, votes, and plus ones on popular social networking sites to your web pages, link pages, and external content pages." Presumably this service is all on the up and up but we're skeptical. Natural link building is just that: natural. Does this company somehow motivate people to like and share, "+1" and God-who-knows-what-else your content? How can they offer this as a service unless they have bought-and-paid-for users?
The company claims it just shares your URL with its own users on its own social networking sites. But then they promise that your content will receive its "maximum potential." Any kind of "done for you" system that promises (or strongly implies) rankings, frankly, sounds fishy to us.
The company also maintains a network of sites (a link network). It says, on its site: "We do not display our inventory publicly. While this makes it tougher for us to sell links it dramatically increases the chance of our inventory sites being "Penalty-Free"."
Now, this makes as much sense as Jeff's explanation. The Internet is already a hard place to make a living. Why would you make it even harder to make sales? That's just a dumb business practice.
Either your network is legit and doesn't need to be hid, or it isn't, and that's how you "avoid penalties" - because you rely on secrecy. In other words, you're doing some shady stuff.
Yep. Shady stuff. But surely Google is good enough to catch you, right? I mean, you are an Adwords Partner. It's not like they don't know who you are or what kinds of services you offer.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We're told that link networks are bad. Paid links are bad. The truth is: well we don't really know the truth and we think Google likes it that way. What we do know is that you never know whether Google approves of your actions until after you've been beaten over the head with one of their nifty little algorithms. Clearly, some companies get a pass while others don't. Maybe "don't be evil" means something different over there in Mountain View. What do you think?