Gaming Google: 3ac Domains SEO Case Study

For upwards of the last six months I have been getting my hands really dirty and trying to push Google as much as possible to manipulate the ranking of 3ac.co.uk for the term domains. This is my case study, an open, honest and completely transparent look on how underhand SEO techniques can get you great rankings quickly, but as a tactic is short lived and will only get you one result…penalized.

Foreword

First and foremost, before I begin…The Foreword.

This post is a testament to Google and their Web Spam team who have clearly done a HUGE amount of work at creating great algorithms to clean up much of the rubbish that litters the search engines’ results pages. Matt Cutts did a video just recently where he admitted Google’s algorithms don’t catch everything but that they are doing as much as possible to catch up with sites that are spamming the SERPs. You can view that video here:

So what made me want to create a post like this? Well, I’ve seen many SEOs writing blog posts about “tests” they have done on sites they never actually reveal; very rarely transparent and although you can take away some learnings, I always feel somewhat let down by the end result of their posts…usually a weak summary condemning black hat techniques etc. I suppose it’s the nature of the job, who wants to admit they do bad SEO? Or that it works?!

Many of you will know I own 3ac.co.uk, my domain registration and web hosting site which I have nurtured since 2009, probably most famous (or infamous, I never can tell) for my damning series of 1&1 Internet reviews…it has been my favourite project of all and has been used by me in various case studies, guest posts and SEO conferences around the world. You could probably say that if there were one site I would rather not mess up, it would be this one! Which is why it was so important to me that I put my money where my mouth is and used it as my guinea pig. If you are going to f*ck something up, you may as well do it in style…

So there’s the foreword over and done with, you can see my reasoning behind this post…this isn’t a test domain I set up and don’t care about. This is the real deal and the risks I took had the consequences of ruining a great site that I have developed over the last four years.

A Wise Man Said, Start With The End

As I am writing this post I can already tell that it is going to be a long one…so I will take direction from a wise man who told me always start with the end.

Here goes…A few months ago I challenged myself to get to the first page of Google for the term “domains” by the new year, basically by doing everything that Google said you shouldn’t…and it worked.

Twitter1

And so, on the 26th December 2012 (5 days before my target deadline) it hit first page and I verified this with other people on Twitter to be sure my personalised search wasn’t affecting my results:

Twitter3

Twitter4

Now, I’m no fool and I’m sure most of you reading this are only bothered about the dirty details…the exciting stuff…so let’s cut to the chase with a list of techniques I used to “game” Google to achieve a first page rankings for a competitive industry term, because let’s face it, that’s all you’re probably interested in.

  • Manual SEO directory links with keyword text links
  • Automatic submission directory links with keyword text links
  • Paid-for SEO blog posts with spun content
  • Paid-for SEO blog posts with unique content
  • Paid-for Twitter re-tweets and Facebook likes from real accounts
  • Paid-for Twitter re-tweets and Facebook likes from fake accounts
  • Same as the above for Google+ Plus 1’s
  • SEO micro-sites just for link building purposes
  • Paid advertorials
  • Aged-domain development just for link building purposes
  • Manual forum commenting
  • Paid-for forum commenting
  • Link wheels, 3-way links, web 2.0 profiles with link equity
  • Page rank sculpting of my internal site links
  • Keyword stuffing

I’ve pretty much done everything within the realms of legality (short of hacking other people’s websites and stuff like that)

Now I don’t know exactly how many links were built during the period I started the onslaught and in fact I’m still getting automatic directory submission approvals through today from link building packages I purchased back in November!

Here’s what all this looks like at a glance

339 Suspicious Links and 56 Toxic Links

Feb_Links

Big increase in referring domains

Referring_Domains

Massively skewed percentage of keyword anchor text

Anchor_Text

The timely spike in links resulting in the first page ranking

Backlink_Spike

So let me run you through a handful of examples of these SEO nuggets of gold…

Manual SEO Directory Links

Now we all know what these look like and they used to be the foundations of any great SEO campaign…a decade ago. But I did a bunch of these, and it brought back good memories of hours of submissions!

This little beauty is called the Web Hit Directory a PR4 site with an SEOMoz Domain Authority of 52 and a Page Authority of 34 for my listing page. Pure quality…

Directory_Screenshot

Feedburner For The Win!

But what’s even better than directory listings like this is when you go to the efforts to register an aged-domain, build a micro-site with unique content on it, get a Feedburner account for the site and put a keyword text link in the footer so that every new post you do gives you a juicy do-follow link…(I have made the site anonymous purely because the domain is now owned by someone else.)

Feedburner_Links

SEO Microsites

So who said micro-sites aren’t a legitimate SEO strategy? If you want to hear me talk more on this subject I wrote a pretty comprehensive post about it here on James Agate’s website, SkyRocketSEO.co.uk.

I reckon I’ve probably done about 10-15 micro sites like this, ranging from one-pages to full blown sites. (Well I should say, purchased sites that I have just stuck a link in) … Here’s a beautiful example on www.amkhosting.com of stunning SEO mastery whereby I hand registered an expired domain with a BOTW listing relevant to the domain/hosting industry, populated it with content and stuck a link right in the middle of the home page back to my blog.

With the template it took about 30 minutes to set up the hosting package, create the site, re-churn a load of old content and the cost of registering the domain itself. Highly cost effective I’d say! (tongue in cheek…)

Automating And Outsourcing (Oh And Looking Authoritative!)

I knew if I was going to get some traction I couldn’t be doing it all by myself. I didn’t have enough time (nor the patience) but I knew I had to build a few hundred links in a short space of time. (Just like you have seen those pay day loans spam sites cluttering up the SERPs) I was also concerned/nervous about how this sudden influx of links would look to Google and the thought of an impending penalty dawned on me… but I cracked on nonetheless, commissioning the man or woman power (I’m not sure which) of India’s and The Philippines’ finest.

I sourced a great company, I won’t give you their name because that’s unfair on them, they are just doing their jobs, but here’s my shopping list which cost me the princely sum of approximately $125 and comprises of:

  • 500 directory submissions
  • 200 article submissions with spun content (because I couldn’t be bothered to provide my own article)
  • 50 PR2+ directory submissions (pushing the boat out for that)
  • 100 Facebook Likes
  • 100 Twitter Re-tweets
  • 50 Google Plus Shares

Link_Building_Tasks

They even give you a weekly CSV report to show you where the links have been built. A brilliant service to be honest with you, I can’t fault them for efficiency and good customer service.

Here is an example of one of their articles for 3ac.co.uk on goodinfohome.com:

Article_Example

So three months on…

I am no longer on first page and in fact it lasted just a week or so before my site was re-crawled and it seems now as every day goes by my ranking for the term “domains” is getting harder to maintain. I’ve now got over two third’s of my link profile taken up by crappy SEO links all going against Google’s quality guidelines for Link Schemes.. a dangerous place to be… and have just run a Link Detox report again today using LinkResearchTools.com which I would highly recommend and am ready to get rid of as many of these links as possible and disavow where necessary to clean up my profile, before I get any penalty (which to today’s date I have yet to receive, thankfully!)

I even tried some last minute keyword stuffing last week; see below, before writing this post to boost my rankings…it didn’t work. Google is clearly too savvy now.

Keyword_Stuffing

So it appears that Google are doing everything possible to keep their SERPs free from dastardly tactics like these. Again I commend them, because short of doing something really untoward/illegal. It’s now very, very difficult to get quick wins.

Of course, we need to bear in mind that what I have done was based around an extremely competitive term and my guess would be that some longevity of ranking would have occurred in a less competitive industry, but that doesn’t make it right.

Preaching To The Converted?

So do you think you can cut corners? Are you comfortable trying to game Google with bad SEO tactics? Funnily enough I’ve seen worse from people who should know better, and an important point to make should be that when you are dealing with national brands, or any company for that matter, big or small, you are playing with their future revenue and earnings. Messing with their sites rankings and cutting corners could mean a penalty for your clients…a penalty that could cost them revenue and earnings that pay their staff’s wages.

So next time you want to play Captain SEO and go for glory, the likelihood is you’ll only end up with one military-grade nick-name…Major F*cking Dumb.

I’d like to dedicate this post to my mum.

Thanks!

P.S – To Matt Cutts and the Google Web Spam team, if you’re reading this please don’t penalize my site…I’m doing an Interflora sized clean up as we speak! ☺

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Author:Gary

Gary has been an online marketer since 2002. An SEO/Analytics specialist he is Digital Director at TMW. As an affiliate, Gary owns and operates a number of UK and South African websites. He is also an industry speaker at events like SMX, SAScon, Think Visibility, On The Edge Live and won the Midlands Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2008. You can find him on Twitter, Linked In and Google+

8 Responses to “Gaming Google: 3ac Domains SEO Case Study”

  1. April 2, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Thank you for doing this experiment and posting about it! We really don’t have many people publishing studies on this type of thing and when they do, it is usually using test domains and not real sites and as such the results may not be the same in real life.

    I have a couple of questions/comments. First of all, you mentioned that you are losing your rankings for “domains”. Did this happen gradually or all of a sudden? Prior to reading your article I thought that sites that spammed keywords like this would flourish for a while and then when Penguin refreshed would be punished. But, it sounds like Google was able to pick up your spamming without refreshing Penguin.

    Next, do you believe that you have been penalized for the keyword “domains” or have you just had your spammy links devalued? In other words, are you ranking where you were before you did the experiment, or much lower?

    Thanks!

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  2. April 2, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    Hi Marie

    Firstly, thanks for your comments

    In response,

    It happened quite suddenly actually around the middle of January if I remember correctly, it bounced up and down from 1st page, 5th page, 2nd page then as low as 7th page before settling at 3rd page. There wasn’t a particular update that it coincided with (and I haven’t received any notification of a manual penalty being applied)

    I think a bit of both, I was on page one of Google for the term way back in 2010 and then let my rankings drop as I focused on other content, such as my reviews. My personal opinion is that the spammy links have been devalued and it the high % of links with just the anchor text “domains” has had an adverse effect…it no longer looks natural (purely speculation, but I reckon it has broken one of Google’s algorithm “barriers” for too much of the same anchor text)

    Lastly, I’m now ranking lower, usually fluctuated up and down the 2nd page with little effort. I have also noticed my Domain Authority on SEOMoz drop since building these links, perhaps a sign of less trust? I would invite Rand and the guys at SEOMoz to shed any light of truth on this?

    Hope that helps

    Best

    Gary

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  3. April 4, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    Great post Gary. Thanks for being so transparent about what you did and how you did it.

    Will you being writing a follow up post when you’ve finished the clean-up? Stuff like cost of implementing bad SEO vs cost of cleaning up bad SEO and how your rankings fluctuate throughout the process would be really interesting.

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  4. April 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Hi Loved your article, I suppose we all toy with the idea of how we should approach SEO, Im a begginer punching way above my weight with the site we are trying to promote, However I don’t know how but we are ranking page 2 and 3 on average for our keywords. Being 2013 what do you think the most important factors are these days? Everyone has there opinion, and I have seen our competition with thousands of “spammy backlinks” or links from there own domain and it seems to still be working for them? I mean how do you generate quality backlinks these days?

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  5. Toby Drysdale
    April 4, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Great article and case study Gary. Quick question, you say that you are ranking lower for the “domain” keyword and that there has been a drop in DA on SEOMoz – but have you had a drop in rankings for other keywords/phrases i.e. is the possible drop in trust for one specific campaign, affecting anything else that you have done in the past for a none-associated keyword?

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  6. April 5, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Hi John

    Thanks for comments

    Yes I will be doing a follow up, and this is in progress as we speak, stay tuned!

    Best

    Gary

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  7. April 6, 2013 at 1:38 am #

    Hi Steve

    There are so many factors to take into account. I did a short post called “Do Your Link Building As If Google Didn’t Exist” on my personal blog…which may help. If you get creative you can build links naturally.

    I work on the basis that people share (and link to) good, useful content. Find the audience you want to attract to your website, research the type of content they like to browse and then go about creating engaging content that will attract them to you.

    If you focus on this, high rankings just become a by-product. Similar to my posts about 1&1 Internet.

    Hope this helps

    Best

    Gary

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  8. April 6, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    Hi Toby

    Long time no speak, I hope you are well?

    A very good question. In fact I have seen a significant drop in rankings for the term Domain Name Registation, which have ranked as high as 2nd page on Google previously. However this is likely to be because many of the links I had build also allowed for “deep links” of which I got them to use “Domain Name Registration” as the anchor text..

    The rankings for all of my “money” terms like “{domain reg company name} + review” e.g “1&1 Internet Review”, “Siteopia Review” “Domain Monster Review” etc etc. all remain very strong.

    Proof in the pudding that I have destroyed the rankings on generics by using too much of the same anchor text and low quality links.

    Best

    Gary

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