– Rouven Balci, SEO at Toms Gutscheine
In the past few months, I have been watching a very unsettling trend unfold in very competitive e-commerce search results on Google. It appears that huge amounts of money are put into place to systematically and successfully manipulate highly competitive search terms in order to sell fake merchandise of almost every bigger brand out there. Some of these sites even solely exist to steal people’s money and don’t ship anything at all.
Rest assured that I am not talking about some people doing good linkbuilding or about people buying a lot of links. These operations I talk about are much, much bigger and in all cases almost certainly run by criminal organizations of some sort. They not only greatly affect US search results but are also very present in at least UK, France and Germany.
In this article, I will show you several examples of where Google’s search is absolutely broken (and by broken, I mean that 10 out of 10 page one search results are entirely fraud). I will also show you exactly how these rankings are achieved and take a look at what the impact on consumer’s may very possibly be. Last but not least, I’ll try to help you recognize these kinds of websites so you can avoid them as they become increasingly difficult to identify.
Exhibit A (“nfl jerseys”)
Let’s get started with [nfl jerseys] as our first keyword to be examined. If you take a look at the US search results on google.com with personal search disabled (add pws=0 to any search URL), you will get a list of websites which claim to sell said wear and merchandise at a significantly discounted price. Such huge discounts can be found on pretty much any of these fake shops, many ranging up to 75% in “savings”.
Here’s the search engine results page as of 01/04/2011:
(Note: I’m not trying to “out” any particular site, so I removed any domain names in question from the screenshots)
As you can easily see, all of these sites feature ridiculous keyword stuffing in their root page titles as well as the term “jersey” within their domain name. This is both very common among them. Result #5 even contains Chinese letters.
As of this writing, the entire first results page is composed of fraudulent websites. In other words, Google’s organic results have become entirely useless for this search phrase.
Exhibit B (“pandora jewelry”)
Next, [pandora jewelry], also a very popular and well-respected brand. Positions 3, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10 are fraud, which results in a 60% share of useless results.
Exhibit C (“thomas sabo”)
Looking at [thomas sabo] SERPs, they feel like a déjà-vu. Another jewelry brand, another wave of artificially boosted shops shipping either replica ware or just nothing at all: results 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 should not be listed there at all in the first place (70%).
All of these sites try to appear as legit and official as possible.
See for yourself
Before diving into the details, I urge you to take a look at Google’s results for these queries yourself. Try searching for other brands, too. Almost every popular brand is affected by this growing issue.
How they do it
Now that I’ve shown you how seriously broken Google is, let’s take a look at why Google is ranking these sites so well. Since these are no legit shops after all, it’s obvious that there is no kind of “branding bonus” or boost through actual social media activity at hand. There’s only one thing that leads to these rankings. You’ve guessed it: keyworded anchor-text heavy links.
The interesting question is though: where do these sites get their (anchor-text rich) links?
I have taken a look at many of these sites and found out that their link profiles are basically comprised of two kinds of links: automated forum and blog spam along with some hacked websites.
Let’s take a look at the anchor text variation of result #1 for “nfl jerseys”:
This site also has a page authority of 64 and a domain authority of 57, according to Open Site Explorer.
Google’s best guess for “pandora jewelry” looks similar:
And the #1 “thomas sabo” result:
You might be surprised to see plain-old forum spam work this well, but let me get one thing straight: it’s not like Google is not penalizing or de-indexing any of these sites. I see them come and go on a daily basis (although some actually seem to stick for weeks or even months).
However, these people (or rather organizations) push such huge amounts of these sites into the web that Google – obviously – is having quite a hard time catching up.
In some way, and this is my personal opinion, this might be related to the Caffeine update – Google is now crawling and ranking sites a lot faster than ever before, but it appears overall search quality has suffered dramatically in the past 6 months or so.
Furthermore, link placements on hacked websites are very difficult to spot algorithmically. Granted, many of those links are not visible to the human eye and that should raise some flags since Google is capable of rendering any page, but overall it’s not comparable to catching automated posts on tens of thousands of web forums.
What really should have set Google’s alarm off, though, are the link growth patterns. Let’s take a look at the “nfl jerseys” top 3:
Two of these sites started spamming back in April 2010 and are still ranking in January 2011. Go figure.
Same goes for “pandora jewelry” and “thomas sabo”:
You get the picture.
What Google needs to do about it
Rand talked about it already, and his advice is instantly applicable to this issue: Google needs to greatly lower the value of keyword-rich anchor texts.
Think about it: if Google had not at all taken anchor text into account for these sites, none of them would probably rank anywhere near the top 10 results. Their links come from very different sources, and almost none of those sources is even remotely related to what their pretending to be selling.
As long as anchor text links outrank links from actually related websites, this is not going away anytime soon. Same goes for exact match keyword domains, by the way.
I do realize that anchor text is very important, but its abuse has reached a point where it’s no longer a ranking signal to be trusted as much as it currently is. Heck, I’ve actually seen websites rank #3 for these terms with one single sentence on the page: “seized by Department of Homeland Security“.
What it means for SEO
Google has a serious problem, and I’m sure that they have been working on it relentlessly for quite some time now.
What it means for SEO is that whatever is working for the sites mentioned in this article – it will probably stop working soon. I would not be surprised to see Google shift even more ranking signal power from anchor-text heavy links to relevant social media “chatter”. I have a feeling that it’s gaining more traction as we speak.
Of course, tweets and status updates can be spammed, bought and faked, too. But at least it will buy Google some time.
This fight is never over nor ever “won” by anyone. Ever.
How to identify these sites as a consumer
Since I don’t want any of you to order from these guys and receive either fake goods or nothing at all, here’s some advice to identify them:
Most of these sites:
- offer unrealistic discounts (=50% are pretty much everywhere)
- have no actual postal address
- supply only a contact form or
- supply only a GMail/Hotmail email address to contact them
- feature way too many “trusted logos” in their footer
- are written in poor English
Considering that most of the sites I talked about earlier already ranked well while all the holiday shopping took place, I can only imagine the damage done to thousands of families and individuals.
Please be cautious and remember that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it very probably is.
Since this is my first article for SEOmoz, please let me know in the comments if you liked this article and give me a “thumbs up” if you did. In case you’ve even been affected by this kind of fraud personally, I’d love to hear from you, too.
– Rouven Balci, SEO at Toms Gutscheine