If you’re really serious about SEO, you’ll have to spend quite a bit of time studying the on and off-page SEO factors of the sites that currently rank for keywords and keyword phrases with a high revenue expectation attached to them. Some of the highest competition terms are ruled by powerhouse domains with millions of links, but more specific phrases are still open to small-scale competition.
But… how exactly do you go about competing without triggering a penalty? The current Google algorithm of July/August 2009 is particularly hard on attempts at link inflation.
So… after getting caught up in a sudden keyword ranking drop, I decided to take a second look at how my link profile compared to the top five entries for the two-word keyword phrase I wanted to rank for.
Search: Keyword1 Keyword2 (no quotes)
The top spot goes to a single-purpose domain with about 20 indexed URLs. The domain itself contains Keyword1 and a word Google recognizes as a synonym of Keyword2.
The link profile is where it gets interesting, however. The strongest links pointing to the site come from completely unrelated websites, on the front page only, in a box called “sponsored.” If I’ve ever seen an obvious paid link, this is it – but it is apparently working. In all, there’s about 300 external links – a few high PR ones in blatantly paid locations (even domains with “bid” and “directory” inside the URL), and 200+ forum signatures & site-wide blog links.
The second entry is also a single-purpose site, but it doesn’t have keywords in the domain name. Instead, its got about sixty indexed pages dedicated to the keyword phrase and all of its synonyms. This site is rather well constructed: the deep pages attract all of the top search questions related to Keyword1 and cleanly funnel the topic back to the sales page. There’s a lot of information in this one.
Again, the link profile is unexpected: The site only has about 25 inbound links. None of the linking URLs display toolbar pagerank, but it jumps out at me that they are all extremely clean. While there are some forum links, they are located in the content rather than the signature footer. There’s no social bookmarking or directory links either. Everything looks 100% organic, but it may still have been carefully planned that way (wink wink nudge nudge)
The third site is a real disappointment. First of all, they’re pretending to be a user-driven shopping site where surfers can submit competing prices and deals, but they’ve actually disabled submissions that would compete with their own affiliate codes.
The URL itself doesn’t have external links, but the home page URL has a PR of 6 with 600,000 pages of indexed content related to Keyword2. This site has the highest price of any one in the top five, and it certainly cost a ton to build.
Single-purpose, thin, and ugly! And it takes a lot for me to say that, I run more than my share of ugly websites 🙂 My girlfriend is my visual/artistic side and she’s more likely to do pottery, sculpture, and painting than CSS or even Adobe. This domain at SERP #4 has four indexed URLs, and about two hundreds words on the page – with about half of those words repeated in the template.
The only thing going for it is that it has “Keyword1Keyword2s.net” as a domain name. The 30 external links pointing to it all come from a small ring of similar-looking domains that look like “KeywordxKeyword2.net”
This one is incredibly rigged too, but at least its offering a good price. I guess they haven’t put much time into it, so they don’t need as much of the cut.
Yet another single-purpose domain! This one has 20 pages and the informational value of those isn’t so great: It does stay consistently on-topic and the price is good.
And for link volume, #5 is the winner. There are over 4,000 external links pointing to the root of the domain. Primarily, these are site-wide blog links from a few dozen blogspot subdomains and independently hosted blogs. There’s also some use of the subdomain on the site, it focuses on synonyms of the target keywords and links back to the primary domain.
My URL is currently at SERP #32 after being at #5 as recently as ten days ago. The domain is multi-purpose, but there are 20 or 30 keyword-related pages indexed and pointing to the target URL. The actual page has about 1,000 backlinks, and although none of them are paid, many of them come from signatures and bookmarking sites. A few of the really strong looking ones are “editorially earned” because its easy to get support for low prices.
So what changed in ten days? Well, the only thing I can think of was a bit of overzealous bookmarking activity. I went on the hunt for some more places I could drop a link, and I must have created a footprint with a reckless move:
- A is the target URL
- B is an existing URL pointing to A
- C is newly created and points at A
- D is newly created on C’s domain and points to B
C and D popped up quickly, from the same domain and bookmarking account, and could be enough to suggest a manipulative intent. If this is the case, the door is being blown wide-open to negative SEO – but there could be some other recent change that I haven’t noticed yet. The major competitors in the keyword phrase are sitting with two dozen links – a highly contrived link scheme pointing to them might knock them down a few pages in no time.
As a result, all of the links from B and C have dropped out of my link view in Google’s webmaster tools. Interestingly enough, links from B to my other domains are still being shown under that same Google account. It would appear that any penalty involved is not transfering among domains that I own – and that’s probably because they aren’t excessively linking to each other. Specifically, one blog links to the other on a single post about a topic that involves both blogs’ subjects.
The search results lead to a few conclusions that don’t jive with Google’s official line. Ultimately, it appears as though the quickest way to top the SERPs is to build a 20-page domain for your product and buy a few links from high PR pages and SEO friendly bid directories. Of course, this might only work until someone reports you, but you could just buy some more links for the new domain with all that money you just made in the meantime!
The other way to buy SERPs is to hire a staff – or at least write a good script that lets surfers build your site for you. If you go the mega-content route you’ll also need to put a mega-advertising budget behind it as well to collect the required links and an additional crowd-sourced workforce. Crowd-sourcing may be free, but someone has to manage that and that’s still work and cost. The mega-site obviously generates the most total revenue, and the scale seems to allow them to compete at a significantly higher price than the others. What isn’t know is if the operation is profitable on the whole. The whole scheme may look impressive to Google, but it might also cost investors money to maintain.
Of course, the “squeaky clean” site with quality information ranks in there, but it appears to be the rare anomaly. The small and helpful site may be re-created, but mimicking the link profile would be a major exercise in patience and would probably need to be spread over at least a two year period to get the same “organic” effect.
A Quality Question? More Questions than Answers
I wonder, if I wasn’t biased to favor my own URL, if I would find these results satisfying. I know I’m the type to search twenty pages of SERPs until I find the perfect source, but do the Google results have the qualities that most surfers are looking for? The difference in price may be the best way for me to approach this objectively, and that obviously shows a favoritism to huge sites with lots and lots of homepage links and related content. Surely, this is the authority and branding that Google has been in search of: but does it really always provide the best user experience? If small single-purpose sites are crowded out like medium-sized multi-purpose sites are, will the field be dominated by a few major players who can’t afford lower pricing?
I’d love to get some more insights into other webmaster’s experiences. I know that every niche has its own SERP and pagerank dynamics – its own authority sites and whatnot. Is my cynical view unfounded, am I just looking at an untamed niche that needs someone to report apparently paid links? While it would put me closer to the front page again, it would put the most expensive site at #2 – and anything that moves higher prices up in the search engine isn’t the kind of optimization I want to be a part of.
How does it look in your subject area? Are the SERPs out there better than what I’m working with? Share your experience and take advantage of the clean comment links – if that’s even worth anything, anymore…