How Black Hats Are Still Gaming Google for Competitive Keywords – Case Study

By Amar Sagoo July 9, 2013

This is a guest article by Modestos Siotos who works at iCrossing UK as an SEO Strategist. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily the views of MajesticSEO.

The last couple of years saw Google taking serious actions against sites relying on what its algorithms identify as “manipulative links”. Penguin 2.0 according to Matt Cutts was supposed to look deeper into a site’s inbound links and not just pay attention to those pointing to a site’s  homepage.

However, despite Google’s actions black hats seem to still be able to game Google’s SERPs by applying sophisticated spam links attacks by generating a quite high number of links over a short period of time on hacked websites. Most websites are hacked by certain Joomla plugins that allow black hats to generate hundreds (or even thousands) of links at no time, with various anchor text combinations. There are a couple of great examples of the above, both targeting one of the UK’s most competitive keywords: car insurance.

Case Study #1: Citadel Insurance

Citadel-insurance.co.uk appeared in the UK SERPs around the middle of June (15/06), ranking on Google’s first page for “car insurance” and “cheap car insurance”. Clicking through to the site users were landing on a page that had no content, other than a Joomla login page. Indeed, the site ranking on Google’s first page for such competitive keywords consisted of just one page site with NO content. The domain was registered just 3 days before it appeared ranking on Google’s 1st page.

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Two days (17/06) later Citadel was ranking at position 5 for “car insurance”, the holy grail of all finance keywords.

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So, according to Google’s SERPs on that day Citadel-insurance.co.uk was more important than long-established insurance providers such as Tesco Bank and Money Supermarket. In other words, Citadel-insurance.co.uk, a brand new domain with a website that had no content, managed to rank within just a few days in positions that other big budget long-running businesses with big spends may have never reached after years of effort.

On 18/06 its rankings rose further and the site ranked 4th for “car insurance”. Finally, some relevant content was added onto the site, although the site wasn’t functional yet but at least from that day onwards there was some sort of content relevancy. However, as the site’s quotes facility wasn’t functioning yet users must have been abandoning it within seconds, as they couldn’t get a quote.  In any case, the site’s terrible bounce rate and negative user signals did not seem to be enough for Google to devalue its rankings that kept rising further.

However, on 20/06 as more and more people were getting annoyed by Google’s inability to detect the manipulative intent of this site, started complaining to Matt Cutts on Twitter. Matt’s response was rather odd, insinuating that a new multi-week update would deal with such cases although more about what may be sitting behind Matt’s cryptic tweet can be found here and here.

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One day later (22/06), Citadel-insurance.co.uk was almost certainly manually removed from Google’s index leaving everyone wondering why this site ranked so highly in the first place.

How Did Citadel-Insurance Game Google?

It all seems to be down to its enormous link velocity and anchor text manipulation.  In total, Majestic reported a staggering 127,047 links generated on 2,923 hacked domains over just one week (14/06-21/06).

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Just seven different variations of the anchor text were enough to go undetected, despite “car insurance” comprising 53%.

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It is also worth noting that the vast majority of linking sites had low citation and trust flow, 34 and 21 respectively.

The site appears to be registered to Mr Ahmed Mamdouh who also owns “www.payday-precise.co.uk” and “jim-loans.co.uk” and apparently is an expert at gaming Google’s algorithms and manipulating its SERPs as Barrie Smith explained in his post not too long ago. Ahmed (or Silver Hat as it was the name of the company that appeared on the site) didn’t lose any time and right after the site was removed from Google’s index, took down all the links from the hacked websites as we can see from Majestic’s lost links tab:

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Case study #2: Charming Ferret

Charming-ferret.co.uk was registered on 24/06 by Ahmed Mamdouh and exactly one week later (01/07) hit the UK car insurance SERPs in a similar way as Citadel-insurance had done a couple of weeks earlier.

However, this one managed to rank straight at position 10 right after 150k links were generated.  What must have helped it jump straight on page one must have been the fact that this time relevant content was added to the site before it started ranking as the people behind it (again Silver Hat) probably thought to start monetising it early rather than later, as they were probably expecting it to rank highly given the previous experience they had. This time the site offered some decent design and was powered by a insurance quote engine making the site more useful.

It is worth noting that this time the volume of links was significantly higher as Silver Hat must have been more ambitious, aiming at Google’s top spot for “car insurance”.

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Also, the linking domains were of much higher authority/trust with citation flow 62 and trust flow 56.  Charming-ferret.co.uk was removed from Google’s index on 02/07, as again several people brought it to Google’s attention.

Further thoughts

It is unclear how much longer these two sites would remain in Google’s SERPs if no one had reported them but both cases are quite embarrassing for Google. Black hats (as any savvy SEO would do) think in scale, hence it will be interesting to see what would happen if say black hats try to capitalise on Google’s loopholes by orchestrating a simultaneous attack with 5-10 new domains, following the same process as above. If that works even for a day that would be Google’s biggest ever embarrassment.

****** Further Comments are now Closed on this Post ****************

Posted In: Case Studies

38 Responses to “How Black Hats Are Still Gaming Google for Competitive Keywords – Case Study”

  1. Yannis G said:

    July 09, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    This post hit a nerve with me,but after a few seconds I calmed down. It is annoying when people manipulate the system but:

    It’s very short term as I would hope google would have picked it up sooner or later. Otherwise google would lose the trust factor and its market share.

    User bounce rate would do the website ranking no good anyway as what good is traffic with no conversions.

    At the end of the day it’s an algorithmic machine so it will always have loopholes, but with google’s sheer number of updates in 2012 (and I’m sure more in 2013), it should be getting harder to abuse (I would hope)

    Good things come to those who wait.

    Yannis

    • Karl Herrenberg said:

      July 10, 2013 at 12:59 am

      If a new domain is registered and only 2 days later has more than 150k backlinks it is 99.9% manipulated. I think google could programm a system wich trigers an manual check if new domains get up in page rank to quickly.

  2. Eugenio said:

    July 09, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    It is embarassment for Google, and few times this happens for several keywords. I’ve been checking this website, serviziseo .com which has content made only for robots, no shares or likes, and nothing, but has lot of links from 2 websites selling domains (that investigating i found out being of the same owners). It has been more than 2 months already, and Google did not take any action. I understand those keywords are not very popular, especially abroad (its italian website) but are those algos working? Its making me think that maybe its better keep the old SEO style, as (as per your examples above and mine) it keeps ranking websites

  3. Jason said:

    July 09, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    As someone just now getting into this market, I’m floored by what someone with a cash, intelligence and alot of experience can do. I don’t know whether to be encouraged or discouraged by reading these case studies about how people can game these algorithms.

  4. Pierre said:

    July 09, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    I sincerely fail to understand how such in-your-face cases could still occur in the post-panda-penguin-Vxxx era. Why could not a simple fetching of said newly-ranked page trigger an alert underlining it served no relevant contents (a CMS login page, doh !), and consequently anihilate any ranking the algorythm wrongfully granted ?
    I gather even a limited 24-hr position in this kind of competitive market can mean serious {dollars|pounds|euros|dough}, and it may have latest much longer without human red flaggging. So yes it is embarassing indeed, and loopholes are serious. Fed up to have us compelled to obey one-way laws, just to be replied with partial or 2-faced communication when we are indeed of clear explanations ourselves. Google (as in the Search Engine part of the company) needs to step up in terms of clarity. I personally have been looking at DukDukGo and the recently revamped Qwant search engines to try and have alternatives.
    Thanks for yet another informative post from the MajesticSEO blog, as only such an independantly-run indexes databases could draw such conclusions and publish such experiments, and hi from France to Dixon !
    Pierre, Rennes.

    • agentblackhat said:

      July 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      It is simple really.

      This wasn’t possible before Panda and Penguin.

      Blackhat is now easier than ever. What became hard after Panda and Penguin is building an authoritative long term website.

      Regards

      Agent Blackhat

      • jorge said:

        July 12, 2013 at 2:18 am

        > Obvious salesman here pimping his blog.

    • Modestos said:

      July 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm

      Great points Pierre.

      This doesn’t seem to be very hard to solve algorithmically. It doesn’t make any sense for any site to rank so quickly even if there are loads of quality links pointing at it.

      If Google want people to believe that building an online brand should be the ultimate objective as this is what their search engine rewards they need to show this in practice.

      Examples like the ones I included in this post can still be found into the wild. Interestingly, I didn’t spot the aforementioned sites ranking on Bing and Yahoo if that says anything.

  5. cash202 said:

    July 10, 2013 at 3:33 am

    Please don’t post this anymore. Those who know, know. Those who don’t know shouldn’t know. You want more wannabe spammers out there or what?

  6. LeeRit said:

    July 10, 2013 at 4:48 am

    Very thrilling 2 stories.

    These 2 stories seem to once again highlight the importance of backlinks.

  7. RAM said:

    July 11, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Blackhat methods always been a challenge to Google.
    I just wonder why Google can’t flag out the websites those are ranked by blackhat methods.
    Thanks to Majestic SEO, for this article and the tool, by which we can analyse such sites ranked by blackhat methods.

  8. Artevia said:

    July 11, 2013 at 10:48 am

    The problem is that if Google doesn’t react to that kind of problems, there will be more cases as above. People who play fair using WHS, will come to the point when they say “Ok, that’s it. We’re done with beeing good guys, because it makes no sense or profit”. And in that scenario, SERP will be one, huge, SPAM playground.

    • Modestos said:

      July 11, 2013 at 11:00 pm

      > Exactly!

      If Google would like SEOs to stop thinking of taking shortcuts they need to make sure that shortcuts don’t work at all, not even temporarily.

      • Lahiru Jay said:

        July 31, 2013 at 8:29 am

        Exactly. It’s rather annoying when the rules apply only to white hats.

  9. jarek said:

    July 11, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Problem is that these are examples on biggest and most competetive keywords on planet. But when I work on smaller ones, local ones I see things like this every day, mostly websites with steroids from link farms.

    In my local market there is no big Matt Cutts who will remove them manually, and Im not going to report this every day cause I have better things to do.

    SEO is now like lottery, you can make hard shitty black hat – 5 websites will be in top 3 for next 3 years, 5 of them will be in top 100. And you can be white and you know what? You will spend 10 times more time and money and results will be same.

    And tell this to your clients, they really dont want to hear about all this mess. So they will buy adwords. And this is Google.

  10. Dale said:

    July 11, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    I think the biggest question is whether or not the sites would have stayed up in the rankings if not manually removed? The same guy is probably targeting other large, but second tier keywords and having no problems unless someone reports it.

  11. Modestos said:

    July 11, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Great question Dale.
    What is concerning me about these methods being able to game Google’s algo so easily is that in a way Google’s vulnerabilities are encouraging this type of attacks. Just think about what could happen if a few black hats join forces and apply the same methodology in a bigger scale targeting multiple keywords with multiple sites simultaneously…scary!

  12. Guy said:

    July 12, 2013 at 9:27 am

    It is so furstrating to see this kind of manipulation happen in 2013, after you are explaining your customers that this is no the way anymore…
    What are you supposed to answer them when they are asking you how come you are working for them for a long term wgile a competitor of them just rises out of the blue…

    Did I mention frustration???

  13. Matt said:

    July 12, 2013 at 9:40 am

    I think that back linking is kinda what Google are asking us to do – but in a laborious way. Manually. Ahmed Mamdouh is clearly using back linking software and doing it automatically. So he’s doing what Google asks but using tools and doing it quicker and without having to create time consuming content – and probably is making a killing off it too. An interesting case study that shows that what Google says and wants is not always necessarily what their algorithms can easily check. How can their bots check to see if content is… good? Speed of back linking would be an indicator but something is amiss but how would they cope with viral stuff surfers love? A quandary!

  14. lynx2b4 said:

    July 12, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Who will be the winner?

    No one should use Black hats method. Let’s all be fair. :)

  15. dzydd said:

    July 12, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Maybe Google will create a third black&white animal, who will care about this…

  16. Brandon said:

    July 12, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Now just think about alllll the verticals where there is not a lot of “public attention”…

  17. claro lighting said:

    July 15, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Ok this has been done in short period of time shortly after the domain has been registered and massive number of links have been added. Now I am wondering, what happens if a long established website uses the same method but adds links gradually and regularly, then will still anyone or google robot triggers this?

  18. Robby Joe said:

    July 15, 2013 at 7:26 am

    Do you want to say that white hat SEO are not useful now?
    After recent google update i lost all my ranking but still using white hat method only
    ****Removed Link***
    can any one suggest me,what should i do for increasing PR and creating BL,as the performance of site became worse.

  19. Daragh said:

    July 15, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    This guy is punching holes in Google’s SERPS. By the time they slap the site he has probably made it worth his while… and his payday loans spamming too. I wonder how many people he is robbing blind?

  20. Robert Eriksson said:

    July 15, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Well. Creation of BL is still the KING! It always been. But Content quality if we look at html level must be correctly set. Every launguage has a 300.000 top list of the most common word. This top list are one of many factors to determinate the page quality. Its kind advanced algo which i am experiment on my site ****(Removed)*** to see how the google react on my manual (today) when i check quality of the articles. So keep strggling and you will be payed off :-)

  21. Ian said:

    July 15, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    Kind of ironic that in a post about spam baclinks that the editors at majestic deem it fit to publish the utter crap posted above.

  22. Joe said:

    July 16, 2013 at 9:53 am

    After reading that, I don’t know why I struggle every day and try to do my best with White Hat SEO… This is quite demoralizing…

  23. Sandeep said:

    July 16, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    This is something that should not happen. I mean, a novice programmer can even write a program to avoid such cases and Google claims that they add more than 500 rules on average in each of their updates.

    If they can not fix these small loop holes, I am not sure about those 500 rules.

    Are they really worth of ? Not sure…

    Even I have also found one … Majestic search shows that this sites does only have 400 links still this website ranks on number 1 from “software development company india” and what amazes me most is that, even this website is redirected to another website and Google does not do anything about such cases.

    • Dixon Jones said:

      July 16, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      Hi Sandeep,

      Sorry I had to take the example out. However – only having 400 links should NOT exclude a site from the search results. So on that count I am going to say that Google did well. As you say – Google has more than 500 rules (actually, probably 10s of thousands now) so it really is not ALWAYS about links in the serps. It Certainly isn’t always about volume. This post shows an example where the serps were gamed with links… but honestly that does not mean that every SERP is affected heavily by link influence.

      Many search results exist with ZERO external links. They are the right result for the user and whilst links do play a part, they are not always the links you think of when looking at a SERP or a URL’s backlinks. This is one reason why we developed Flow Metrics.

      Dixon.

  24. Tyler said:

    July 16, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Very Interesting read. Hopefully Penguin 2.0 will hurt black hatters even more.

  25. Modestos said:

    July 17, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    Both stories took place after Penguin 2.0 was released. We may have to wait for Penguin 3.0…

  26. raman bathina said:

    July 19, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    I think no one can blame Google with these black hat methods.They will strongly penalize these type of websites in future.

  27. Dave said:

    July 30, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Google are being fools to themselves.

    I’d spent months working on 2 sites, and had finally got them earning money. Along comes a panda (or penguin or whatever the hell it was), and destroyed my rankings for my sites overnight.

    My income gone.

    The annoying thing is that while I had spent all of this time and effort working on my sites, doing things “the right way”, the people who didn’t, who paid for low quality content written by someone else, who used link farms, automated link building software, and broke every rule in Googles imaginary book – they all prospered, because while my sites went down the drain, theirs went straight to the top.

    So clearly cheating does work.

    Now I’m thinking to myself, why should I bother putting in all of that time and effort on something that Google will kill in a heartbeat, when I can just spamtasticate my way to the top and make some serious money before they catch me, and when (if) they do catch me – I’ll just repeat the process with a new site.

    Because in my experience these spammers get away with it for MONTHS in some niches before they get hit, and then along comes another identical site to replace it when they do get hit.

    Google are doing nothing to tackle spammers, they’re hitting legitimate websites so that they have to pay Google to show in the results, but Google being as greedy as they are don’t seem to get it that I’m not going to pay £5000 in Adwords fees so that I can make £500.

    They are utter morons and they themselves are encouraging spammers and will end up killing their own golden goose.

  28. cez said:

    July 31, 2013 at 12:05 am

    I personally promote in such a way as described in this article and game google to get top rankings, you may hate this but its very profitable and i have had such sites ranking at the top for terms searched for hundreds of thousands of times per month (exact match) and maintained those rankings for months, once banned just rinse and repeat.

    I have attempted the white hat way and done everything in the past with googles compliance but unfortunately it is near on impossible to compete with massive marketing giants in the profitable niches this way, and as your well aware whats acceptable with google now maybe not in a months time, leaving your “white hat,” seo efforts ruined by some form of animal.

    The only true white hat seo is natural, without any personal or software promotion to achieve, how is the average joe company going to achieve the buzz factor of a multi million value corporation…? It can’t.

    Gaming google is the only realistic way i have been able to achieve rankings and income in 5 figures per month, other methods i have entertained for test purposes have all fallen short.

    Blackhat methods will always be around irrespective of the google updates, we will continue to evolve and conquer google serps respectively, good luck matt cutts!

  29. ReubenOye said:

    July 31, 2013 at 12:11 am

    It should not come as a surprise with these two sites. I have seen sites ranking in a similar fashion in my niche. I used many tools to detect parameters such as domain age, link velocity, anchor text diversity, number of incoming links, etc. My findings were alarming.

    Over 3k links in just 4 months per site, more than 2k of those coming from blogroll widgets, less than 10 of them are nofollow and one or two links from forums, no url as anchor text, only 5 variations of the most powerful keywords in the niche.

    Then just 3 days ago I woke up to another thing that made me mad. I suddenly started to get Google alerts with the same keywords after more than a year. I visited the blogs, news and forum sites. Can you believe what I say? 4 or five of them from press releases with exact match links pointing to the sites I mentioned, title only blog pages except an anchor text to the sites and forum posts filled with no content but filled with only variations of keywords each per line.

    I brought this up because I believe that some guys have found a loophole in Google’s algorithm and making the best of it. By the time they are discovered and punished I think they would have made enough money and go on and design another one.

    By the way, thanks for this post. I hope those guys in Google will notice these and find a way to reward “Google Law Abiding” webmasters.

  30. Bitter Pill said:

    July 31, 2013 at 12:37 am

    If you stop believing everything that Google says through its official releases and its mouthpiece cutts, all this would not surprise you at all. google’s search algorithm has always been about links, as you know. All attempts to divorce itself from counting links by tweaking their weights based on the “malpractice-du-jour” will still be just that: tweaking. Yes, some will get hurt in the process but that does not change the google’s paradigm a bit.

    And this is why google resorts to jawboning via cutts. It’s because their algorithm misses a lot, so what they can not code up they codify: declare as a banned or as a good practice.

    The stories illustrate that point very well: with dedication and firepower all google’s attempts to attenuate some links will be overcome. Just a matter of prevailing force.

  31. Jeff Bernheisel said:

    July 31, 2013 at 1:54 am

    hmm…
    Not sure if this is good or bad. Part of me wants to say “slow and steady wins the race” and the other part of me wants to go fire up scrapebox! :)