World Cup SEO: Take a walk on the dark side
Published 2nd May 2014
I will preface this article by saying that there are others far more knowledgeable than me on black hat; people like IrishWonder and Dave Naylor are on another level. But as an iGaming specialist, I hope I can contribute some insight to all of this.
Also, contrary to what some believe, I don’t personally spam. It’s not because I’m ethically opposed to it, I just haven’t gone down that road because I want to have a sustainable foothold within the Google ecosystem. To do that, my agency does a lot of sustainable SEO; i.e. doing SEO that adds some value to the Internet, helping organise websites for brands so that search engines can get more useful information from them, creating and promoting content people actually want to read, and building and equity and, thus, conversions.
I don’t want to preach a moral standpoint. However, I will say that that if everyone spammed Google and if, for some reason, Google was unable to cope – making the search engine a horrible experience for users, much like a virus overtaking its host – death would follow, and everyone would abandon the search engine for another place to get their information. We saw engines like Alta Vista die in the past because the search quality wasn’t good enough. So as a black hat person, you are in a ‘special place’ ethically.
Saying all that, you may notice the vast amount of money Google makes annually. I made a calculation in the middle of last year on revenues per user in the UK, and it turns out that for every single person in the UK, Google makes about £25.02 a year in revenues. It may not seem a lot per person, but added up, that’s a mountain of revenue for one company. As a black hat spammer, you may sleep a little better knowing you can siphon some of that huge revenue from such a rich company.
Google is a ‘piece of software’, looking at signals to decide what should rank highest. Part of our problem in deciphering Google is the amount of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) it exudes. When anyone uses FUD effectively, it creates hearsay and misdirection. This means ‘SEOers’ often end up either overcomplicating things or oversimplifying them.
Spammers are special because the successful ones look at Google for what it is; a thing that is vulnerable, with many very game-able weaknesses. Because Google is ‘software’, you can test it to see how it behaves under certain circumstances. If you hang out at webmasterworld.com, you will read many discussions with SEOers talking about how an algorithm change affects this thing or that. Spammers who rank therefore prove certain ideas and clear out certain false assumptions many of us hold. That’s why, even if you are ‘Mr White Hat’, there is a lot to learn from analysing spam success stories. And this is the reason I hang out with people like IrishWonder and constantly study the search results for certain keywords.
Where black hat works
Taking sentiment and ethics aside, the reality is that search engines are progressively getting better and better at combating spammers, to the point where it’s only going to work economically if there is a very special set of circumstances, such as:
- the revenues are huge, either because the keyword volumes are substantial, revenue per user is great, or a mix of both;
- the keyword sets are relatively small so you can focus activities in a precise way.
My hypothesis is that for a short time, ‘World Cup betting’ may have the same ‘intensity’ as other spam hotspots like ‘payday loan’ phrases.
You can bunch black hat strategies into groups:
- parasite: where you get your content onto a good site and spam that page to rank.
- dropped domain: where a domain has link equity and you spam that.
- new domain: where you spam that.
From what I can see, the algorithm has a lag; i.e. you buy a large volume of spam, point the links at a site, it ranks, then the algorithm realises the site is ‘spammy’ and it drops, or is ‘good’ spam and the site holds its ranking until there is a manual review. I am most interested in sites that hold and have a manual review to take them down, because if those methods can be replicated in a legitimate and sustainable way, then you have a strategy to work with.
Now the interesting part. As I write, I have trawled through searches for ‘World Cup bet’ on Google.co.uk and found a very interesting site: bet-the-world-cup.com, ranking ninth. With this domain there is a diagnostic process:
- Look at the link history of the domain; i.e. who has linked to the site, and for that I use majesticseo.com.
- Look at the ranking history of the domain; i.e. what it ranks for and for how long it has ranked, and for that I use semrush.com and searchmetrics.com.
- Look at the Whois to see if the domain has been previously registered, and for that I use who.is/domain-history/.
- Look at the site’s history to see what content the domain has had in the past. For that I use archive.org/web/.
- Look at the site’s SEO using a diagnostic tool like woorank.com.
- See how many pages are indexed using the search operator site:bet-the-worldcup. com.
According to who.is, this site was registered on Feb 17 2012 and there is no registrant information. According to Majestic SEO:
- there were no links going into the site prior to Jan 3, 2014;
- the site only has 82 unique domains linking into it;
- nearly all of the links are ‘follow’ links; i.e. they definitely help rankings;
- nearly all the anchor text has variations of ‘World Cup betting’;
- Trust flow is only 14 and Citation flow is only 18; i.e. the link metrics are not great.
Note on Majestic Trust Flow: I rate this as my most important metric for evaluating the ranking power of a site. Gillis Van Den Broeke who works in 90 Digital (my agency) carried out a piece of research looking at 408 ‘.co.uk’ domains and then using SEMRUSH ranking data, looked at the correlation between TrustFlow and actual rankings on Google.co.uk. There was a 75 percent correlation between the two. So, if a site has a high trust flow, you can generally say it will rank commensurate with its trust flow.1 When you analyse the inbound links in detail, most of them are spammy comment links. Figure 1 shows an example of the best links by Trust Flow.
Notice how the links have nothing to do with football. This is because, according to my research, the subject relevance of linking content is not a ranking factor; you can rank a football site from content and links from a phone card website.
The chart (Figure 2) from majestic, shows the number of referring domains and links over time. As you can see, the site picked up most of its referring domains between January 21 and February 11 2014.
According to Searchmetrics (Figure 3), the site began ranking on February 20, 2014. Rankings have risen dramatically as of March 27, 2014.
According to the WayBack machine (Figure 4):
- The site was first recorded on May 5, 2013.
- It started out as a blog talking about… betting and the World Cup.
According to Woorank (Figure 5):
- The site does fairly well on its SEO score.
- It has a solid social presence.
- Is built on WordPress.
The site has quite a lot of social activity (Figure 6): According to Google, there are 43 results i.e. 43 pages indexed on its results.
Putting it all together
This guy, Kenneth (because that’s the anchor text on some of his links) bought a domain back in February 2012. He started putting together a blog and, to date, he has 18 pages of content. Back in January, Ken must have had a New Year’s resolution to make some money,n so he started buying spam.
He started out fairly slowly, but around late January, he started buying quite a lot of spam and by March 1, the buying slowed down. About three weeks after that, Google picked up on the new links and the site started ranking.
Ken also decided to buy quite a lot of social ‘noise’, i.e. Facebook ‘likes’, twitter followers, and so on. I know the twitter followers are fake, because:
- Ken only follows 140 people.
- He doesn’t have much to talk about.
- 4,558 random people with a high number of females from Spanish speaking countries would not follow this kind of site.
Interestingly, according to Google, social signals are not yet being used in its algorithm, because they are too susceptible to being spammed, so I’m not sure if Ken has spent his money well here. Is he making money? In my opinion, no. That’s because he doesn’t have a normal affiliate site; i.e. a single page with a lot of banners offering free bets. If the page is that bad, users will just click through to the operator and Ken will start making affiliate commission off the revenue earned by these converting players.
The future for Ken and his site I think Ken is biding his time, hoping to not be penalised by Google. As the World Cup gets nearer, so will the competition on ‘World Cup bet’, so he will have to buy more spam to stay ranked. From experience, I can tell you that the vast majority of new funded accounts will come just as England play their first match of the tournament on June 14, 2014. The same principle will apply to any other country competing. Once this match has passed, the surge of accounts will die down dramatically. So, the right tactics for Ken will be to keep that domain bubbling along, buy a large dose of spam around May 24 and if he is lucky and doesn’t get a penalty, he should rank top eight when England play. Then, around the evening of June 13, he should add a section on the top of his blog, above the fold with banners offering free bets. He will have a window of about 36 hours within which to work. By the time Google re-checks his site and spots the content changes, he will have made enough money to buy a nice new car, having spent about £2,000 on spam, content, social likes, hosting and domain registration.
If you hate spamming, what can you learn? Links get you rankings. By keeping the theme of your site tight and getting a moderately small number of good links, you can rank on competitive phrases. If you are superb at Digital PR and everything you do is editorially justifiable, then you will rank and remain on Google search results in perpetuity because you are adding something good to the Internet.