The secured loans market is predicted to double in size to over £1billion within the next three years, according to a survey from The Lending Wizard
Once considered as a risky means of borrowing, secured loans have entered the mainstream as a result of increased lending and low interest rates. Because bad credit history is not a disqualifying factor (instead the borrower pledges some asset as collateral for the loan), they are an attractive means of borrowing in the current economic climate, alongside payday loans.
A few years ago, an increased demand for payday loans quickly led to an influx of low quality websites ranking on Google search pages. The payday loans industry became synonymous with ‘black hat’ SEO techniques and underhand tactics to gain high levels of traffic. These practices ranged from low quality links built by hacking – building high volume links with the exact anchor text phrase – to hacking into websites to divert the history and status of a legitimate business to their domain, giving unregulated brokers access to online traffic worth millions of pounds.
To combat this, in 2013 Google announced an algorithm update…
… targeting industries known for spammy results, specifically mentioning the payday loans industry. Since its launch, the ‘Payday Loans’ update has rolled out three iterations, targeting both specific sites and search queries.
When the most recent version of the Payday Loans update (3.0) was released in June 2014, Google’s Head of Webspam Matt Cutts explained that the first two versions differ to 3.0 in terms of the signals each one is looking for. The former target spammy websites, while the latter targets spammy queries. The disadvantage the Payday 3.0 update poses to broader financial lender websites is that some of the keywords they target (‘loans for bad credit’, for example) are considered by Google to be spammy and will be penalised.
This blog post will aim to discover whether or not it is just payday loan websites that have been affected by this update, or also other sites within the broader financial industry, that may not otherwise have received a penalty.
We have selected to review the websites of five prominent secured loans providers, listed below, to determine if the Payday Loans update has had any negative impact.
We examine each one in detail below.
Money.co.uk is one of the most prominent financial comparison sites ranked on Google currently, appearing on page one for competitive terms like ‘secured loans’ and ‘best credit card’. In spite of this authority, this graph from SearchMetrics shows a significant drop in organic visibility almost immediately after the Payday 2.0 rollout in May 2014:
It is also worth noting that Google’s Panda 4.0 update was released shortly after Payday 2.0, and could also be a contributing factor to this decrease in organic visibility.
While Google Payday Loans updates share some similarities with several other algorithmic enhancement projects from Google, including Panda; each of these projects has an individual search engine improvement focus.
The Google Panda algorithm updates specifically focus on low quality or “thin” content web sites by downgrading them in the search results so that higher quality sites can receive more prominent results.
Both of these Google updates judged websites based on a series of criteria, and key losers included websites which depended on aggregated content; content compiled from other sites. As a comparison broker site, Money.co.uk relies heavily on the content of other websites to populate its search results. If the aggregated content is deemed to be low quality, or is not curated to a degree where it adds new value, it is liable for a penalty, which is likely to be a contributing factor in this instance.
Money.co.uk has failed to recover from what strongly appears to be an algorithmic penalty, as their organic visibility has continued to decrease be almost two thirds in the last 10 months.
Like Money.co.uk, TheLoansEngine.co.uk is a secured loans comparison site that has seen a significant drop in organic visibility after a Payday Loans update from which it is yet to recover:
In this instance, the substantial decrease occurred after the 3.0 update, designed to combat spammy queries.
No matter how ‘white hat’ their overall SEO strategies are, if the keywords targeted are considered spammy by Google’s standards, a website can still feel the effects of Payday Loan update.
To protect your website as much as possible from future Google updates such as these, we recommend taking the following actions:
Create high quality and engaging content
Content on TheLoansEngine.co.uk is limited; with only 72 pages indexed by Google there is little to get excited about. Keyword research identifying opportunities for new, good quality landing pages that drive traffic to the site would be beneficial. The site currently doesn’t have a blog, so publishing new content is more difficult to promote. Although rectifying these issues will take a lot of time and effort, it is necessary in order to protect the site as much as possible from future updates.
At Click Consult, our teams plan, develop and implement content strategies which are designed in line with each client’s individual business goals and can include elements of copywriting, digital design and social outreach.
Remove low quality links pointing to your site
The loans industry is infamous for dubious SEO practices; consequently these websites are more likely to have poor quality links as well as being victims of negative SEO. Using Google Webmaster Tools and Open Site Explorer, you can identify links to your site and assess their quality and relevance. Be ruthless; if there is any question of the value added to your site by a link, remove it by contacting webmasters or using the disavow tool. Google will often reject reconsideration requests if even one low quality link remains.
Improve the user experience
Good user experience is good SEO practice. Google openly acknowledges this, and is constantly updating its algorithms to move in this direction. Matt Cutts has repeatedly recommended focusing less on things like PageRank and linking structures, and more about the visitors.
EvolutionMoney.co.uk saw a fall in organic visibility for approximately four months after the Payday 2.0 update in May 2014. A drastic improvement in visibility coincided with the Penguin 3.0 update; targeting aggressive link building campaigns:
There are several possible reasons behind this increase in visibility. EvolutionMoney.co.uk is a relatively new site and could have benefited from competitor penalties and seen visibility increase as competitors dropped in rankings.
Slight falls in organic visibility between Payday 2.0 and Penguin 3.0 could also indicate EvolutionMoney.co.uk recovered from the Payday 2.0 update when the Penguin 3.0 update was rolled out, and the Googlebot re-crawled the changes. This is a good example of an algorithmic penalty. Unlike a manual penalty, an algorithmic penalty occurs naturally when Google’s spiders crawl a website and discover recent unnatural SEO strategies such as spammy linking patterns and keyword stuffing, or perhaps in this case, keywords considered to be spammy. If your website contains any, unnatural SEO initiatives, it’s likely that its place in SERPs will be compromised the next time Google’s spiders crawl it.
To recover from a Payday update that targets specific keywords, one of the first steps is to locate the page and keyword that is currently being penalised. This is important as links and anchor text pointing to those pages need to be identified and removed.
A review of links and anchors on EvolutionMoney.co.uk identified lots of spammy, keyword-rich anchors on low quality directories still remain. This will be having a negative impact organic visibility, and should be addressed as part of the recovery strategy.
If EvolutionMoney.co.uk takes the necessary action to make improvements to the site, further increases in visibility will be likely in future.
Organic visibility for NortonFinance.co.uk is very low. Expanding the date range back to 2010 shows that visibility fell drastically in late 2011 and early 2012, and has remained very low for the last 3 years.
This fall in traffic coincided with an announcement that Norton Finance and Norton Insurance Services had both been placed in administration due to the volume of payment protection insurance mis-selling claims. However, this does not appear to be the reason behind its low visibility, as the site was not taken down during this period and overall visibility wouldn’t be affected.
There are strong indications that the site received a penalty from which it is yet to recover:
No major algorithm updates were announced that would correlate to a fall in traffic, so it can be assumed that NortonFinance.co.uk received a manual penalty. A review of their linking profile flagged several poor quality inbound links that would have a negative impact on organic visibility.
To improve organic visibility, NortonFinance.co.uk should identify low quality links and remove them from their profile, and clean up their site by fixing 404s, deleting duplicate content, updating your blog, eliminating keyword stuffing, etc.
Although this can be a lengthy process, it is likely to be more cost effective in the long run as opposed to running a paid search campaign to supplement traffic. To protect against future algorithm updates as much as possible, Norton Finance should invest in a new, more up to date website that offers a better user experience, and in effect start from scratch.
Nemo-Loans.co.uk appears to be recovering from several algorithm updates over the last 18 months. It appears that Panda #23 and Penguin 2.0 updates caused instant and significant drops in organic visibility, and the first Payday Loan update coincided with more gradual falls.
Organic visibility for Nemo-Loans.co.uk has dropped by over 90% since late 2013, strongly indicating the site has been on the receiving end of a Google penalty:
Small improvements in visibility can be seen after the Panda 4.1 update in October 2014. This gradual recovery suggests that Nemo Loans have had to disavow the majority of their links and effectively start again from scratch. This practice was advised by Google’s Matt Cutts back in 2013 on his blog:
One common issue we see with disavow requests is people going through with a fine-toothed comb when they really need to do something more like a machete on the bad backlinks. For example, often it would help to use the “domain:” operator to disavow all bad backlinks from an entire domain rather than trying to use a scalpel to pick out the individual bad links. That’s one reason why we sometimes see it take a while to clean up those old, not-very-good links
Cleaning up linking profiles and making content improvements to the FAQ pages have most likely been contributing factors to organic visibility improvements for Nemo-Loans.co.uk.
This analysis has shown strong indications that websites within the broader financial community have been negatively affected by one of more of the Payday Loan Google updates.
The Payday Loan update targets very spammy keyword phrases – the best example being the phrase “payday loans” itself; but other types of phrases that contain the words ‘cheap’, ‘easy’, and ‘free’ were also likely targeted. Therefore, websites like Money.co.uk and NortonFinance.co.uk who target ‘cheap loans’, for example, have seen their visibility drop significantly.
Many sites operating in industries such as the payday loans niche repeatedly close down sites and start up new ones each time they get devalued in the SERPs. Another common practice is for sites that have received a penalty is to redirect to a fully compliant their entire linking profile to a new site to avoid a loss in traffic, and start the cycle again. This is far from ideal, but some businesses choose to operate in this way rather than invest steadily in building up a strong brand and website built to last. This practice is having a negative effect on higher quality websites which are sometimes tarred with the same brush.
If your business operates in an industry where the search queries and search engine results tend to be spammy or excessively manipulated by webmasters in the past, it can take a lot of work to recover and compete again.
The example websites shown in the post are all at different stages of dealing with the impact of this update. Whilst some have recovered quickly, others have yet to regain the levels of organic visibility they once had. To bounce back from a penalty as quickly as possible, the reasons behind the penalty must be identified and then corrected.
Click Consult’s Link Auditing, Removal and Recovery Service
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a surge in enquiries from concerned site owners seeking assistance in recovering from Google-imposed penalties, most of which are for unnatural linking methods.
With a 100% success rate in recovering penalised websites and 67 link removal projects conducted so far, we understand the detrimental impact that Google’s manual penalties and algorithmic modifications have on your business and the amount of work required to overcome them. That’s why we have a dedicated team of link removal experts who can recover your website while you continue to focus on running your business.