Almost a year on from Matt Cutts’ announcement of plans to ‘clean’ the loans SERPS (search engine result pages) and as a precursor to our 2014 Consumer and Business Finance Sector report, we took a look at just how much the market has changed, which brands have maintained their presence in the top 20 search positions and which have dissipated into the ether of page 3+. We’ll conclude with suggestions of what this means for new brands wishing to penetrate the market and brands who wish to ensure longevity in the SERPs.
A Dirty 2013
In April 2013 the Loans and Payday Loans SERPs were rife with low quality sites and evidenced that Black Hat SEO was still able to manipulate Google’s algorithm even after its numerous updates targeted specifically to negate such activity. Various spammy domains such as dadloans.com and dogpayday.co.uk were being ritualistically pinged only to be replaced by similar domains (likely to be owned by the same webmaster) - which in the space of a couple of weeks ‘acquired’ hundreds of unique root domain and exact match keyword backlinks. Clearly these domains were visible as a result of unnatural link acquisition techniques (or more likely, links from one pinged domain were being repointed to another), and were in breach of Google’s TOS.
Black Hat SEO 1, Google 0
Not long after Google implemented it’s clean-up (and post Penguin 4.0), Black Hat SEO-ers and hackers seized the opportunity to show Cutts just how inadequate the changes really were – this post on SE Roundtable details some particularly interesting cases where hackers created domains such as paydayloansfrommrcutts.blog.co.uk, and enabled them to rank in the top 5 for the ‘payday loans’ search term. Needless to say a year on these domains are no longer present in SERPs but the online coverage of this demonstration of webmasters power doubtless contributed to the velocity of subsequent clean-ups.
Our snapshot of February 2014 shows that the Loans and Payday Loans SERPs look remarkably different compared to a year ago.
Figure 1: YOY Change; Volume of Unique URLS across the Loans & Payday Loans SERPs
The volume of brands who enter and exit the top 20 positions over the sample month period of February 2014 has decreased by almost 60% for Loans and over 53% for Payday Loans. Whilst the percentage decrease is lower for the Payday Loans SERP, the volume of domains that have been relegated to deeper pages is substantially higher.
Figure 2: Payday Loans SERP Percentage Change
Figure 3: Loans SERP Percentage Change
For Loans, this change demonstrates a SERP that is 56% more authoritative than last year, whilst the Payday Loans SERP sees an uplift of 38 % in authority (figure 4).
Figure 4: YOY SERP Quality Change; Loans & Payday Loans
It is clear that Google has successfully cleansed these SERPS, evidenced not only by the comparative difference in valuation based stats, but also in the presence of well-known authoritative information portals and brands, such as Wikipedia, barclays.co.uk and comparethemarket.com .
A notable disparity in 2014 is the loss of hsbc.co.uk from the Loans SERP - in 2013 it was present in the top 20 thirteen times at an average ranking position of 17. Money Supermarket is the only brand to continue to rank in the top 20 positions for ‘payday loans’ searches subsequent to Google’s clean –up and Domain Diversity updates.
What does this mean for brands in this market?
Within monetary SERPs it is imperative that Google presents its users with genuine, authoritative and trustworthy sources. For brands currently in the market this means that online reputation is of utmost importance (arguably more so than in other SERPs). In addition, brands must continue to demonstrate high quality domain anatomy and a robust and natural backlink profile. The weight of conversation and word of mouth in the digital sphere also means that brands are required to be engaged with their consumer base and quickly negate any potential bad press which could usurp them.
For brands who wish to enter the market or those recovering from a Google penalty, acquiring a presence within prime pages of these clean SERPs presents a significant challenge. Gone are the days where ‘throwing’ backlinks at a domain or removing ‘toxic links’ will suffice. Brands are required to develop and implement a holistic marketing strategy that promotes a genuine service offering – often a feat in itself - but in addition and in the wake of Google’s Domain Diversity updates, brands will also have to compete with a larger range of household names compared to a year ago.
In summary, the SERPs currently demonstrate a low level of volatility compared to 2013 and list brands with a considerably higher authority than previously seen in the market. Penetration is possible but representative of a significant challenge where ‘quick wins’ are few and far between, will only serve to damage authority and at best provide momentary exposure.
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