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.
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.
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.
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:
<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>
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).
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.
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.