SEO

Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

Searching Google for to monitor the top ranked sites for high dollar key terms is a long time habit of mine, and a useful way to find trends in search engine optimization; both organic and black hat. Today I was performing a search or “payday loans” and came across a site which is ranked #1 for this term and caught my skeptic eye, IdealPaydayLoans.com.

payday loans google ranking Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

There were numerous reasons why this site and its top position alarmed me:

  • It’s the only site in the top 10 results with a keyword stuffed title.
  • The site is only one year old where most sites in the top 10 serps are much older.
  • The site only has 8 pages indexed in Google
  • Despite its small size, youth and obvious usability issues, it has almost 4,000 backlinks tracked via Yahoo

These observations led me to investigate the inbound links to IdealPaydayLoans.com and found some even more interesting redflags for this site. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the styles of sites, a majority of which are home pages, sending links to this Payday Loan site.

The first 10 inbound links to IdealPaydayLoans.com tracked by Yahoo are:

  • Kleebs Music Center : http://www.kleebs.com
  • Michigan Gun Shows : http://www.migunshows.com
  • R&B Recording Artist Site : http://www.kissandsaygoodbye.com
  • Church of Christ : http://www.traces-of-the-kingdom.org
  • Chillhowie, VA Town Page : http://www.chilhowie.org
  • Taunton Public Library : http://www.tauntonlibrary.org

Note : A backlink check on Google shows plenty of spam too, but the Yahoo backlink results show much better and shocking examples.

These incoming links from so many different styles of sites are a giveaway of obvious link spamming, but at first glance, none of these pages have text links pointing to IdealPaydayLoans.com, nor a mention of Payday Loans on their sites.

So, a quick look at the source code of these pages and a search for “payday” in that code led to something revealing.

payday loan code Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

All of the top sites which are linking to IdealPaydayLoans.com are running a hit counter powered by HitcounterMaster.com which is using various techniques to serve both image links and hidden links to IdealPayDayLoans.com.

payday loan hit counter 1 Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

payday loan hit counter 2 Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

On most of these sites, the hit counters link directly to IdealPaydayLoans.com, but on some of them they do not. On some of these sites, a NOSCRIPT tag is being used to feed non-existent links to search engines, making it appear that all of these sites link to IdealPaydayLoans.com, when they actually do not:

<noscript>
<p>The following text will not be visible on your website but is necessary to keep your counter active. Thank You.<p/>
<p><a href=”http://www.idealpaydayloans.com” target=”_blank”>Payday Loan</a></p>
<p><a href=”http://www.yes2cashadvance.com” target=”_blank”>Cash Advance</a></p>
</noscript>

Unlike some other linking schemes like link farms or mass link buying however, the sites running these hit counters and transparent links are not fully aware that they are being taken advantage of by link parasites which have infiltrated their web sites disguised as harmless hit counters (although under further investigation it seems the hit counter company is somewhat open about this).

From Hitcountermaster.com

Q: How can your hit counters and stats be 100% FREE? What’s the catch?
A: Our counters are 100% free because we have family friendly sponsors who sponsor your counter. We get paid by the sponsor to include a small text link about their service which is never seen by your visitor.

Q: Can I remove my sponsor link?
A: No, Please respect your sponsors link because they are the ones who enable us to provide you with a free counter. We have worked an agreement with all sponsors so that their link will be hidden from your visitors.

I took it upon myself however to email some of the sites listed above which responded that they had no idea the hit counters were serving links to commercial sites:

I had no idea – I looked for a free counter and placed it on the site – how did you find out that it linked to jerks?… I have removed the counter from my site including (I hope) all the html they provided to paste on my site for the counter, thank you for pointing this out.

Thank you for the heads up. We had no idea. We immediately removed it from our web site.

I asked the site owners where they had found the free hit counters and they responded with “Google advertising” or “I searched on Google for hit counters.” So, I made some searches on Google for hit counters and found that HitcounterMaster.com is a Google AdWords advertiser.

hitcountermaster adwords Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

Although ethically questionable, the strategy used by this company is pretty smart. The hit counter linking is working perfectly and they’re probably paying much less per link than they would be actually purchasing these links from individual sites :

  • Buy Google AdWords for ‘hit counter’ and other terms.
  • Get lots of different styles of sites to run the hit counters.
  • Place links on some of the hit counter images to their payday loan site.
  • Rank #1 on Google for ‘payday loans’, a multi-million dollar placement.
  • Rinse and repeat.

So, in conclusion here is what is wrong with this linking and ranking picture:

  • Google is giving top ranking to IdealPaydayLoans.com, a site which is using hit counter links and transparent link spam to build its backlinks.
  • Google should not be doing this and their quality engineering team should be able to pick up on such an unethical linking method for such a high dollar and competitive term. I hope that Matt Cutts and Adam Lasnik can offer their thoughts on the matter and how Google treats such linking techniques.
  • Although the HitcounterMaster.com people are being somewhat transparent that their hit counters link to advertisers in their site’s FAQ area, they are still taking full advantage of the unknowing sites using their counters via not being transparent enough.
  • Hitcountermaster.com is putting these sites at risk by embedding transparent link spam code & script into these sites.
  • Google and other search engines should take action to prevent hit counter providers from using these techniques to manipulate rankings in their system.
Screen Shot 2014 04 15 at 7.21.12 AM Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam
Loren Baker is the Founder of SEJ, an Advisor at Alpha Brand Media and runs Foundation Digital, a digital marketing strategy & development agency.
Screen Shot 2014 04 15 at 7.21.12 AM Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

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104 thoughts on “Google Loves Transparent Links & Hit Counter Spam

  1. Simply amazing. I don’t know what’s more impressive, the fact that you spent the time to dig all of this up or the fact that Google was allowing this to happen. Seriously, great article!

  2. Makes me feel rather naive – I never in a million years would have thought up a scheme like that. And I actually work hard on my SEO improvements – who knew it could be this easy to rank in my niche! :P

  3. This is a common method of SEO among really competitive keyword phrases. In the design industry I was up against a number of these. An algorithm that would address relevancy on backlinks would take care of a lot of this. Sometimes I don’t think search engines are as smart as a lot of people give them credit.

  4. I can’t believe that still works. It seems far easier to catch this sort of thing than to find paid links within blog posts, etc., yet here we are with another example in mid ’07.

  5. Adam hit the nail squarely on the head – search engines aren’t nearly as smart as they’d have us believe. For all the high profile hypocrisy about paid links, the hit counter spam goes completely undetected.

    And to make it 100 times worse, they’re using AdWords to propagate their business model. They’re using Google to spam Google.

    Well done Loren. Great investigative work on your part.

  6. Yes this is gross and has been happening for a long time. Dont see how Google could catch it as it is just another example of hidden irrelevant links. Instead of catching them, maybe they should try putting some higher relevance between page content and the link instead of this “blind” PR vote that seems to work well.

  7. i really enjoyed this article. lots of amusement and respect. this is really smart social engineering. sometimes i wonder how clever people act. nevertheless, you as sherlock did the reverse engineering and you lifted the curtain. maybe they crash now.

  8. The hitcounter people DO tell those websites that the hitcounter is free because someone’s sponsoring their site. So, since the site owner got something for free they should expect (especially because they’re told) that someone is sponsoring their page then they should realize what’s going on.

    Google, for that matter, needs to discount some of these links–after all, they’re hidden links anyway, right?

    Turns out that this stuff has been going on for a long long time and Chris is right–web analytics and a bunch of other industries need to be straightened out, as well.

  9. I was doing this for another highly targeted keyword – google found it, we are the tip of the iceberg. They are currently altering their algos to deal with this type of spam

  10. This is not uncommon. A few months back on a Joomla site I was running someone used a buffer overflow to insert hidden advertising using this method in our footer. It was a food recipe site, and sure enough in google it was number one for its terms but the majority of its links were from using this hack. I did report it.

  11. @ Mark
    I think Matt Cutts receives feeds from SEJ- so he would be knowing!
    Also great find Loren. The forums and blogs are full of cries for drop in SERPs and most webmasters believe and Matt and other Googlers would make us believe that the new algo is able to counter not only paid links but also SPAMs like these.
    It certainly is not the case and hopefully, Matt and his SPAM protection team at the Plex would not rush to put the new algo working so soon as it seems its worse than the previous ones.
    SERPs has been real cause for worry during last few weeks or so with irrelevant and spammy sites dominating.

    Another point to note is – sites with seemingly authority-score are dominating search results with spammy contents in their deep pages.
    Tnx.

  12. Great job tracking down what they are doing! I would hope, in time,Google will figure out what is going on with the transparent links and spammy techniques and black ball these guys. While they may reap the benefits of being #1 in the short term, being delisted will not help their ROI!

  13. very revealing.. all these years of hard work put to shame.. for google and for that payday loan site.

    I know many other sites out there that generate backlinks by offering free tools. Links to their websites are embedded within these free tools.

    If google thinks paid links are a problem, then of-course these types of links are a problem too as they are artificially generated in exchange of something free.

    Time to add something more in the great google webmaster guidelines?

  14. He sure is clever, and its a new idea for Counters owners. Just put the links and get top positions. But I’m confident that this method will be blocked by Google Soon :)

  15. The solution is for web designers and developers to use a non-counter service like google analytics to track their users. It is entirely possible that although the parasite site was gaining benefit from the site, the victim sites were losing Trust Rank, which is very difficult to get back.

  16. How embarrassing for Google. An how humiliating for being caught sponsoring this kind of spam. It totally adds legitimacy to the claim that Google has no problem with spam, so long as they make a nice share of the cut.

  17. This Counter Link Spam issue has been around for a while, thanks for the best example yet Loren.

    What interested me the most here was the tie into AdWords. Unknowingly, Google has provided the leads to HitCountMaster to help them grow the invisible link network to the point of being effective. I don’t know of a better example of “Gaming” Google .. they hit them from all angles.

  18. Now if there was only proof from Google that this is indeed why they rank well and not a combination of many things as is usually the case.

  19. There are no limits to the creativity of the motivated mind, and such are the perils of free services. This scheme will likely wane in effectiveness but not before a new one comes around the corner. Providing quality and relevant content is still the best long-term bet for SEO results.

  20. As John points out this counter link spam has been around for quite some time. Another interesting twist on this issue is providing free counters and pointing all links back to the parent website. The parent website then reaps the page rank value and link juice.

    Case in point, check out statcounter[dot]com. They point all links back to their website and turn around and sell space on their PR9 website (Recommended) for $3k per month. Not a bad little busienss model.

  21. While many have known that this is effective and occurring for quite a long time, it is a hard one to deal with. I suppose on a case by case basis, it is easy to handle, but algorithmically it gets more complex. The tag has relevant uses – even Google makes you use it to use Website Optimizer. Unfortunately, I don’t see this technique going away anytime soon.

  22. I have noticed the tag being abused and received well by the engines for at least the past year. Often makes me wonder why the engines even consider any of this content relevant what-so-ever. More times than not what is in these tags is garbage anyway. Yes, there are times when there is legitimate content within, but until you can verify whether it is legitimate or not, I as an engine would totally discount them 100%.

  23. @ Justin

    ” Often makes me wonder why the engines even consider any of this content relevant what-so-ever”

    Who says they do?

    Matt C (it kills me to quote him) has said sites can have obvious spam techniques at work which are filtered and still rank well for the targeted search terms.

    Hitcounter links, mortgage calculator links, weather applications, etc have had their tons of backlinks filtered to very little effect.

    Peace!

  24. Dan

    If one were to look at things in a broad context…every WordPress theme, free website template, script, tool, etc, ad nausem – and even RSS feeds from searchenginejournal…..can/ do the exact same thing.

    ;->

  25. Interesting how critical you are of that one particular site when the #2 site has hundred of thousands of bought text links.
    This is not considered spam as well? Ohhh disregard that last question as I see you allow advertising for text link ads.
    After going through the hit counter site it is obvious to the customer on the final page that their counter contains a sponsor link.

  26. I found out about this a couple of months ago as there is a site with top SERPS for both “affordable web hosting” and “cheap web hosting”. Guess what, they market hit counters!

  27. Interesting, insightful piece of information. But this quality backlink issue goes a lot deeper and relevance is the problem. Put Mining Tires into Google and tell me what you think of the SEO techniques of the Company consistently ranked no 1.

  28. I agree with Myles and must add that now I question your ethics Loren.
    How out of hundreds of sites just as guilty as the one mentioned, why would you pick this particular one out? Are you in the payday loan business?
    Out of the top 10 for that term I see what “ethically speaking” might have some ethic issues as well.
    I could understand you exposing a ‘general’ ethic problem you find but to single one person(s) out like this is not good writing period imho.

  29. Jerome,

    I see your point about singling out one website, but maybe that is the only one Loren spotted when writing this. Sure through this thread we know of may more now, but that is not Loren’s fault.

    Outing a website that is clearly using hidden link techniques to manipulate the Google algo is hardly unethical. I am not sure where you got this from.

  30. Jaan’s completely right. Loren saw something questionable and then wrote it up into a case study with an important warning for unsuspecting webmasters who were caught up in it. He even took the time to contact them to see if they knew what they were doing. Pretty absurd to question Loren’s ethics for that effort.

  31. I hope so, to bad we need to call them out on it to get them to stop websites one by one. You would think they would employ people like us that can easily find this type of SPAM everyday.

  32. It is shocking to see that Google has not been able to tackle such crude level of spam.

    We hear about site ageing, search engine saturation, quality one way link and latent semantic indexing as key factors that Google is using to improve search results.

    However what you has investigated in this case is absolutely shocking.

  33. interesting article and comments – nevertheless: what I see over years is, that many of obviously unwantzed methods are criticised again and agin and the “threat” of being banned is shouted out (as well, like a Mantra), but finally, all or most these techniques seem to work fine, which lets me ask the question, why, and further: what´better: making much) quick money for a while and gone after, or always dumpling somewhere and never getting a foot on the ground… what´s the effect, when ou business is “ethical” and only used “correct ways” of SEO or content but others with bad techniques hit us financially??? Who are the ones with “success” – The ethical ones or the egoistical ones… evolution is virtual as well…

  34. You would think that letting people decide what was relevant would work to prevent some of this from happening. If each link that Google displayed allowed a (registered google member) person, to vote on the relevance of the term or quality of the site, then perhaps this could serve to counterbalance the effect of albiet undiscovered spamming techiques.

  35. You could also check out the so-called “blog readability test”, which is a little apparently innocuous widget that rates the eduction level of your blog, eg: high school, college, genius etc. You then get a badge to post on your site…

    except the badge contains hidden links to a cash advance site, the top cash advance site in Google at the moment. It’s pretty underhanded.

  36. Who cares Sophie? What did they do?
    Bump personalcashadvance.com who is a link buyer?

    He is the one who initiated this whole thing with Loren anyways.

    Good for anyone who can scam G. I don’t work for them and don’t owe them a dime. I’m jealous of people who get one on G but not a snitch.

  37. Wow, what a sneaky technique to get thousands of backlinks. Because of this article I’m going to have to check everything on my site to make sure it has no sneaky links :P

  38. Great Article! Google should indeed improve their algorithm, however, there’s nothing free really, everyone needs to make a living. Look for example at wordpress plugins or skins. or other webmaster scripts, even social media sites filled with ads – everyone sticks their url where they can and wants to make a living.
    I think there’s no crime here, just because they are inventive… these counter guys or the loan sharks just took it a step smarter into a profitable biz model. they should inform sites using counter though about the “price”.
    Besides, you say the sites using counter need to paste html. Well, don’t they SEE the link, the anchor text and target? they could simply remove it…. doh!

  39. Great article – and some great sleuthery to uncover the story.
    Whatever way you look at this technique, it is smart – using the system (Google) to play the system (aforementioned). Although it seems unethical, everything is above board and you have to admire these ingenious loopholes.
    I’m almost tempted to implement this for my site – it seems far easier than basic SEO but does play against my ethical nature towards organic ranking, but who am I to call it?

  40. There are so many hit counters like this. A while back ago, I wanted a free hit counter that I didn’t have to sign up for and it took mea long time to find one without links in it like this one. Great article.

  41. I met a guy at PubCon who said that his site was banned from Google because he tried using this web counter linking tactic. He was looking for advice on how to save his domain. I suggested he try to take all of the links down and resubmit to Google, but I think he wasn’t willing to do all of that admin work. Does anyone have any suggestions? I couldn’t think of anything else. If it were me, I might let the domain die rather than try to save it.

  42. Wow! That is totally amazing. I was just reading about blackhat techniques yesterday because there was an affiliate program that has an ebook out about it and I was wondering what the heck that meant (blackhat). Perhaps this is an example? Anyhow, I also did research on all the links just now and none of them are in the rank you have shown anymore. Guess they got caught but they’re still in business.

    I had purchased a domain name last year from .ws domains and I like to check my stats regularly. I ran across a site that had posted my domain name somewhere on their site or keywords because after googling it they were like the second link after mine. It was a porn site and I asked .ws if they could block this person from linking to me somehow and they said no.

    Is that common too? I have since closed my account with .ws domains.

  43. i am shocked to see
    does it still works
    if so i would like to try it
    its a 6 month old post so has google has solved it or it is still there?
    because this site is not listing for the keyword that it used to do earlier

  44. Jeesus, this is realy amaising. I checked it out and saw that the site is no longer on the first page. However I wonder how many millions have they made until this article was published.

    So, this tells us one clear thing: all the bla bla google says about building websites is all crap.

    You can not do business online, waiting for your website to “naturaly” grow up, because the competition will never wait, and they will eat you up.

  45. I’m almost tempted to implement this for my site – it seems far easier than basic SEO but does play against my ethical nature towards organic ranking, but who am I to call it?

  46. Makes me feel rather naive – I never in a million years would have thought up a scheme like that. And I actually work hard on my SEO improvements – who knew it could be this easy to rank in my niche! :P

    Thank You

  47. No point getting up tight about it – online is a business for many companies and they will do what the feel they need to do to succeed. We may not agree but it is not breaking the law. We have to live with it.

  48. i think statcounter.com is also doing this i havenot kept code of in my wordpress blog but it is appearing.
    moreover statcounter code is seen in my html website nepaliunicode.tk which do not use statcounter & while checking page one by one i found nothing.

  49. Makes me feel rather naive – I never in a million years would have thought up a scheme like that. And I actually work hard on my SEO improvements – who knew it could be this easy to rank in my niche! :P

    Thank You

  50. I don't know what's more impressive, the fact that you spent the time to dig all of this up or the fact that Google was allowing this to happen. Seriously, great article!!

  51. I don't know what's more impressive, the fact that you spent the time to dig all of this up or the fact that Google was allowing this to happen. Seriously, great article!!