I started to recieve quite a lot of english speaking visitors after I published the post that got a spammy competitor wiped out. The competitor published his story and how he worked in the post “How I successfully trolled myself out of Google and destroyed my affiliate business” so I thought it would be a good idea if I wrote my story too. No beefs added.
Call it my strategy that gave me top rankings if you like but the simple explanation is that I just wanted to check if it was possible to beat spam in the payday loan business going completely white hat using hard work, real content and social media marketing as the main ingredients. Already from the beginning I told people that I thought it should be possible to go pretty far and in this book article you will find out why I thought so and how my payday loan project and SmslånOnline.se over time came to be the project people talked about.
- How it All Started
- Why I Chose Payday Loans
– “I See Dead Pages”
– The Timing
– The Money?
- You Don’t Need to Sell Your Soul to Sell
- People Never Try Enough
- Stand Out – Create Engagement
- The Negative SEO Attacks
- The Spam
- The Countermeasure – Behold the “Loan snake”
– The Snake is Not the Solution
- About SmslånOnline.se
– The Ratings
– The Trust
– The Loans
– “Stupid” customers
– The Typical Discussion
- My View on Anonymity
- The Outing
- The Hate
– Regular Hate
– Criminal Hate
- Personal branding
- People Are Most Often Helpful
- You Probably Don’t Understand My Header Joke
How it all started
Everything started January 28th 2013. I got the idea to test transparency in the payday loan niche and go completely white hat. I enjoy working with sites and content and have never been much of a link guy (which is not the same as not understanding the value of links). Here is my first simple tweet, when SmslånOnline.se was only a volatile idea in my mind:
Funderar på att börja blogga öppet om en av mina “fula” affiliatesajter och använda för skarpa exempel. Bra idé? #svSEO
— Simon Nyström (@simonnystrom) 30 december 2012
Which means: “I am thinking about blogging transparently about one of my affiliate sites in a typically ugly niche. Good idea?”
The responses was everyting from “not worth it” to “Interesting – of course you should do that!” I decided to listen mostly to myself. In my oppinion Google had changed in a way that made it possible to compete with good content and good intentions if you just had the guts to put you and your company’s name on stake and go full throttle in this “ugly niche”.
Why I chosed payday loans
“I see dead web pages”
I chose payday loans because the niche was totally “dead”. Anonymous affiliate sites ruled the business. No one even tried to give correct price information and the toplist were only based on how much commission the affiliate recieved for for saying “this payday loan is the best”. The sites ranking were the typical “Top 10 ten best payday loans” fake kind of sites that most affiliates use. A more correct header would be “Top 10 payday loan commissions for my pockets“.
The typical affiliate competitor was:
- Anonymous. No pilot, no company. “Hellooooo?“
- Not correct.
- Never updated. One of the oldest top rankers still spells “review” like “revview” on three places in the sidebar after almost one and a half year now…
- Based on “Fake” content, mostly put up just for SEO reasons. Nothing else.
- Based on network links and other obviously manipulated links.
- Not giving any real value.
With competition where no one dared to put their names on their work and didn’t seem to care about content plus the fact that no site had a pilot I just felt they were asking to get challenged for real.
I had perfect timing. Google was getting better at penalizing the heaviest link builders and I saw opportunities for people that missed the start to actually get a second chance to compete in tough niches with real content, hard work and with more focus on marketing instead of just counting links.
I now and then recieves letters like “You are like everybody else and only in it for the money” or more strange things like “You earn money from this, you don’t deserve to rank!“. My guess is that comments like these are mostly from spammy competitors or regular blackhatters that never get the full picture. I have never said I don’t make any money. If I am going to run a website of course I need money for doing so. The main reason why money is in the picture too is because I love my work and want to continue working with things I like.
You don’t need to sell your soul to sell
Payday loans are nothing to be proud of in Sweden and I guess the same goes for any other country. Sure, the service in itself is good if you need quick cash but there are/were many companies critizised for not doing careful credit checks and granting loans to people with financial problems. The business has since then become a little bit better but payday loans are still nothing you speak loudly about. Putting your name on a affiliate site in the business would for most people be, and still is, scary. The first thing people in Sweden thinks about when hearing about payday loans are mostly associated with problems, bad economy and shame. Add a bad site on that and your mom will give you a slap just owning such a site. In other words, if you are gonna do this you better have fair intentions.
My goal was to turn something morally wrong/bad into better. Why don’t make the best of it? Making ugly things better is positive, not negative – if you just have the courage. This made me think I had a good chance to get results. After all it is a legal business and it is service of demand. Over time you probably get a little more trust by just saying “Well. Payday loans are pretty ugly, I admit to that, but I’ll try to do my best to help you and at least I take the work seriously” than by repeating what everybody else are saying, which are many times just lies as it is a business dominated by spam. You don’t build any reputation and trust by being small-minded and by building spam pages. In other words you don’t have to sell your soul just because you are a salesman.
People never test enough
People say that they “test” things but they never test enough if you ask me. How about testing going to work? To simplify, when the average guy is testing something he writes some “great articles” and then start to complain when he doesn’t rank with his “standard WP-theme copied to absurdum”. Simplified.
A good article isn’t enough. Neither is ten good articles. You have to become your work or product in a tough niche like this if you are going white hat. And that is even more important if you are an affiliate. Phrases like “It’s not worth it” and “only links counts” are the phrases that you repeatedly hear if you say you want to focus more on content and good things and less on links. Listening to what other people say in the SEO business can make anyone give up way too early, or most common: never even give it a try for real. Sure, links counts (much) and spammers will probably beat you now and then but if you for every setback come back and take one step forward you will stand out greatly in comparison to everybody else over time. Lesson one: it isn’t easy. It is tough sh*t.
Reality check, something like this:
You have to market yourself. Hard.
- Stubborn as hell and never give up if I see a possibility and if it is worth the efforts.
- Know quite much about web development and am also open to learn new stuff just to create what I want. This keeps costs to the minimum.
- I actually care about people and don’t want to bulls*it them, even if the niche is payday loans.
- I am not afraid of acting different than everybody else. I guess there is a limit to this statement but mostly: I do what I believe in.
- I like to write. I write to clear my mind and it gives me more energy. In other words, perfect for cheap, effective marketing when you are tired of working with the site.
- I am very passionate about what I do.
I decided to make a “blood, sweat and tears” test. Something that noone else wouldn’t have energy and time enough for and which could not easily be copied. Example: Bigger companies in the affiliate business need to have meetings for every decision and can’t act fast enough. They have processes to produce links, not content, which will give them a hard time trying to adapt. They often get stuck between the planning and the action and after a while “it is not worth it” and the costs rise sky high. They have employees that are hired to build links and the content is put there for being “relevant content” but they are totally missing out on the important red line in the story. Problem is also that a bigger company most often gets stuck in that “money only” way of thinking which for sure is not good for affiliate sites but rather a very big risk. If your priority is money only then you just can’t accept that the best paying payday loan brand ranks 8 instead of 1 for the overall rating and that will end up in a bulls*it affiliate site that no one will miss when it is getting filtered.
All in all my plan was to stand out and work so * much that it just couldn’t be ignored. Call me a bad businessman but at least I have margins enough to be honest and create value.
Stand out – create engagement!
If I could just make people aware of my project, i.e create engagement and show that a company and person is actually behind this project while at the same time building the best comparison site that would make me stand out ridicilously much compared to other sites. I knew it would be damn hard to get “natural links” but if I succeed in that those links would be so much better than the network crap links that the competitors put up which was also from “dead” sites (= snapped domains and worse) that had to be punished some day. I was going to get my links from real people created by the engagement and interest in my project via social shares because they liked what I was trying to accomplish (= the links real meaning).
I wanted to be proud of my work instead of hiding like everybody else. The blogging was the marketing part.
People got interested immediately and it was cool to see that a good intention was actually news enough to give the project a good start. As soon the project was launched SmslånOnline.se recieved a link from a strong and well known blogger because he liked the intention of the project even though he hated payday loans. Good luck to get a link like that if you are a spammer.
The “impossible” immediately turned into “possible and SmslånOnline.se eventually started to market itself like this:
- The first transparent project about payday loans. “This is me, I work with this and this is my company. My blog is here.“
- Correct prices and information.
- Higher trust (only list companies with clear contact info + registered with FSA in Sweden).
- Transparent overall ratings.
- Quality focus and communication.
- Swedish company as owner. This means that taxes and profits are kept within my country. Most other sites are registered with owners or companies based in other countries.
- 3% of the profits goes to the Child Cancer Foundation in Sweden. For some reason this pisses some people off. It just feels good doing so, sorry haters, maybe you get the point some day to when you grow up and get kids.
Why trying to beat the spammers in their best game when their weakness is content, marketing and real presence?
The negative SEO attacks
Eventually I started to rank very good (that means number one) and that lead to the first attack of negative SEO. I caught the first guy and could proved he was behind it. That gave me all time high traffic and made even more people aware of my project. The people following my project where on my side when I got attacked as they knew I was working hard. Some people told about me and my project, what happened – and linked to to it. That’s the power of transparency I guess. Even if I was not a big brand I was still the one people talked about.
Then there was the second attack, even bigger. I was pretty sure who the person behind the second attack was and I put a reward of SEK 20 000 for anyone that could come up with a name and prove it. This was mostly to scare him down and make him stop as I was pretty sure noone would out him. At least it resulted in more shares and made even more people aware of my project.
Turn the negative into positive.
As of today I have 4000 domains in my disavow file. I rank very good in Google but have totally disapperaed in Bing. Bing’s disavow tool is a joke, where you have to add domains manually.
I continued to improve SmslånOnline.se with added functionality and made the site stand out even more compared to the spam networks which eventually became even more agressive. Google translated pages started to rank, single pages with loans that wasn’t even payday loans, cloaked pages in combination with all problems listed earlier. They always made it to the top and stayed there “too long”. This was picked up by another competitor who automated everything to a completely new level and the ridiculousness of the Google results was a fact when all domains contained an animal name.
It was obvious the spam method was working very good and that the competitor had a “great” system fast enough to always swiftly put another site in the top when the previous one was penalized. It was very hard for Google to act in time and the sites stayed for weeks, sometimes a month or a little bit longer. Manual spam reports were not the solution. Eventually he started to keep the top three pages with a pig, rabbit and a fox domain and I guess that was were I lost my patience and decided it was over the line.
The countermeasure – behold the loan snake!
I decided to “join the fun”, registering Lånesnoken.se which means “Loan Snake”.
The text “Du kan spamma lån men snoken kan snoka” means “You can spam loans but the snake can snake“. I am playing a little bit with word here. Snoka in swedish could be seen as either snok = en.snake or snoka = eg. snoop.)
I spent three weeks creating this “spam killing tool“. I needed to get rid of all crap. My guess was that Google couldn’t ignore this if I could just found a way of summarizing payday loan spam in a clear way. I think this could be a good bullet point to add to the webmaster guidelines: “Don’t make Google look stupid“.
The “Loan snake” takes ~1000 results from 5 different typically spam dominated queries and sort them by IP and C-classes. I also import whois info to get owners, creation dates, expiry dates, dns, registrars and I also create screenshots of all sites ~ about 2000 sites or so so far.
And “oops”, suddenly you got an complete overview of:
- Which people that owned the most sites.
- The most common creation dates.
- The most common IPs.
- Recently registered domains
- How they look like.
- …and so on.
So. You got this info and could also tag sites to different spam reports (if you want). All data are clickable and will show all other sites that share the same information when clicked. This way I could spam reports which made it very clear what was going on.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) 8 april 2014
The snake is not a final solution
Certainly not. The tool just makes it a little bit harder to hide. The spam will adapt and is already doing so. There are also different types of spam that will not leave patterns in this tool. Agressive link based spam for example. As you see in this top 100 ranking for 5 different queries “whoisguard protected” domains ranks very well already. They have the same or similar problems as before, some of them are cloaking and many of them ranks solely due to russian spam links.
SmslånOnline.se is the main site. I work hard with it, always. It is important for me that it is up to date, correct and true. I want to make people aware of both negative and positive things. It’s functionality is programmed from scratch and the listings are based on actual prices, nothing else.
The ratings – a quick overview
The overall rating is based on ten parameters, explained very openly where 1/10 of the rating is based on the commission from which I give 3% to good causes (sorry for having to repeat this you people who get annoyed by this but it kind of motivate a slightly better ranking for companies paying well.). All parameters/single ratings are easily updated in the admin and if something changes all comparison lists that are affected immediately updates sitewide. I have spent much time with the admin so the companies sometimes are impressed how fast I can change things.
Lately, I have been researching a trade association called SKEF, which is working to separate companies that care about things such as consumer security and privacy. To become a member of SKEF the company also need to be registered with the Financial Services Authority and follow etchical guidelines in the business. Some companies base their whole business on the fact that people will not be able to pay back their loan and that can create more probems. SKEF will set more strict rules for this type of behaviour.
I reward these companies as the business need it.. Companies registered with SKEF get a 10% boost to the overall rating.
1. I Am the first to care.
2. I am the first to implement it.
While SKEF is good for extra security I still list companies that are not members of SKEF in the price lists. A good price is a good price, but: I don’t list companies not registered with the Financial Services Authority and I don’t list payday loan companies that doesn’t have the guts to put their company name on their website, because then there is something wrong. I am doing my best to inform visitors and am working on improving that part even more.
If the visitors are well informed and still chose to make a bad decision, well, at least it wasn’t my fault and I can still sleep good at nights. It is a legal business.
I don’t list payday loans that are not payday loans. And I don’t list prices that doesn’t exist. Many affiliates are mixing up ther “toplists” with prices for loans that are misleading in two ways, like this:
1. They are not payday loans, but bigger loans ranging between 100 000 SEK to 400 000 SEK. In Sweden a payday loan is a smaller loan around ~ 10 000 SEK or so.
2. The price for these bigger loans can’t be calculated before you have sent your application and the company have made a credit check. Then you get the price. The prices shown on many websites are based on fantasy rates and are not useful.
A person in need of a payday loan probably doesn’t need a bad advice on top of that. I’ve sometimes been told, and have recently read, that the visitors are “stupid people that will sign up anyway” regardless of what you put on the site. My answer: well, then you should probably help them anyway and if stupidity is the case protect them from their own stupidity. That makes a good site. You have to draw the line somewhere but most payday loan affiliates don’t even bother to buy a pencil.
You won’t get immediate money from this, but you build trust which is important long term.
The typical discussion
I communicate with companies. They give me their view. I give my view. Most times I don’t agree with them but sometimes it will lead to positive changes and new ideas for my websites. Of course everybody want to be in the top.
A typical discussion between me (M) and a payday loan company (C) goes like this :
C: You need to put me in the top 3 positions. I’ll give you XXX for this.
M: Nice. I’ll see what you can do. As you probably have seen I got these page where I actually tell you how the overall ratings are calculated. I see that you miss some loans for the 30-day periods which give you a lower overall rating.
C: Well, just put in the prices for 90 day loans and split them with 3 to get the prices for 30 days.
M: That is not how it works. If I put you in the column for 30 days that means I compare prices based on 90 days with 30 prices based on 30 days for the other companies and that is actually not fair as loans based on a longer period always seem better.
C: Yes, but it should be your intention to give the best prices.
M: Yes, of course, and I do that, but I have you listed for the loans 90 days loans already, where it belongs.
M: Well, I got an idea. I know what you mean when you say that your loans are cheaper if you divide them by three and make the repayment first month. However, I need you to specifically write that on your site. The agreement needs to be clear on your end. I want you to base your price on 30 days and write that the cost is actually XXX for this loan otherwise I can not list your offer, sorry. It is important.
C: But it is cheaper if you take a 90 day loan and pay it in one month.
M: Sure, but still: you need to be clear with your customers. If this is true, please just update your prices. If I divide your loan by 3 and put the price in the 30 day comparison tab that means I make an unfair and erroneous comparison. Of course this will give you the customer but the risk is high that the customer gets to comfortable with the long repayment period (or “forget”) and then he pays double the price already after 2 months than he would do for the real #1 alternative in the 30 days tab. It is much better if everything is based on correct days. However, I can put some comments in the review explaing this if you like, but I can’t give you a higher rating.
C: Sorry I can not update the price list.
M: If you can’t put the price for a 30 day repayment period then I’m sorry I can not list you in the 30 day period tab either. That’s obvious, but if you can write these prices on your site I will update it in 5 sec.
That’s how it goes. But still: this discussion made me think: “Can I improve the site and explain the different views on this? Perhaps the best would be to create a page where I compare loans for 90 days that you pay back the first months (i.e price divided by 3) to get a better price than the price they get when they sign up for 30 days? It WILL get more expensive if they don’t pay back their first months so I have to be very clear with the rules. Hm. Let’s do it!”
And in the end this discussion lead to something better even if I from the beginning mostly saw it as a sneaky way of getting better listings.
My view on anonymity
Being transperent with who you are and what you do forces you to do your best as you’ll have to take responsibility for your mistakes. Of course that gives higher credibility as that makes you more interested in fixing problems. If you are anonymous you don’t care, because “you don’t have to”. Your reputation is not at stake so why be honest? That’s just my view on anonymity and why it gives a very poor signal of trust. Seriously, a payday loan site with no names or company ranking in the top? That’s almost an insult.
When taking everything into consideration, anonymous spam sites based on nothing of real value is nothing to respect and that is why I don’t care about outing extremely bad sites. Especially when they are anonymous and the owners are “Whoisguard protected” . Whoisguard Protected = SPAM in the Swedish payday loan business.
That doesn’t mean I hate people doing link building, I am more against lack of quality. It is annoying to see a spam site rank in the top that doesn’t take the opportunity to make something good out of it. As the most agressive (and successful) spam sites rank solely due to high risk links they are actually unable to make anything good of their rankings as the site eventually will drop anyway. Attempts to create value will only lead to higher costs and that is why I say “only money counts” for spammers and why I joke about them in my blog. Because their work is completely trash with zero value for everybody than themselves. Maybe people just don’t care about value, but I think it is worse than that: I think the problem is that they don’t care and don’t have the slightest idea of what quality really is.
“Blackhatters” get all their advantages by spamming. My only advantage, except from trying to build good stuff and market that is to use the tool that sometimes work: The Google Spam Report and of course: The Snake.
That I succeeded exceptionally well with my “Dear Mr Cutts Post” is nothing I laugh about. It was kind of cool (in fact super cool) that it worked of course as I had spent a lot of time programming it.
Of course the outing brought me some hate, not much though, and not from the person that had a reason to be pissed off, I want to point that out, there is no beef between us. The best would of course be not to publish hate comments but, well, I have decided to publish some of it and “flame it in a funny way”, like in the final comment on the Dear Mr Cutts post from “MW”:
Wait, let me get this straight: You laughed hard on something you wrote yourself? You need to Google “Psykiater Umeå”. Let’s cut the crap, we’ll meet in SERPs and you better be prepared to accept defeat. I look forward to see your next whining post on how you got outranked.”
The correct answer to this is of course:
I try to use everything to my advantage (and I have fun when working too!).
What was not cool was that I recieved merchandise I have not ordered after the Dear Mr Cutts post. I investigated it and, surprise, it came from Sliema, Malta, where most payday loan spam are produced and where the person I outed lives. This person is NOT involved and I am 100% sure about that. The guilty person ordered merchandise in my name and made people he knew I would immediately suspect look guilty to this too. I have to admit it gave me tunnel vision for a while but I wan’t to be completely clear: the one who did this is not mentioned in any post I have written. The guilty person has a motive and lives in the same area though. I think one person has a reason to be a little bit pissed off at a “fellow SEO colleague” for doing stupid things like this though…
I have IP and data for this order here if you need source. I won’t out the person as I only know the company, not the exact person that did it. Guesses are not enough. I pushed out a question in #svSEO on Twitter asking people to check their blogs for this IP and tought them how to check it. It gave results in some hours.
Everything can happen. I can be beaten by spam (or a decent site) or maybe Google changes it’s algorithm in the future. But still, I have built a personal brand (I really have!) and I can always argue for the site’s reason to be and that it is a good project. People know about me and even if I drop I still can probably get a job easily because people know I am serious and work hard. That is a pretty big long term value if you ask me.
Spam can generate loads of money short term, that has been proven many times already. But spam means zero value in reputation. If you piss someone off it is actually possible that you are building a negative personal brand. Do you substract that from your earnings? After all that may be all you have left when Google pulverizes your spam sites.
It takes time and hard work to accomplish this so you better get started if it is in your plan to build some kind of reputation.
People are most often helpful
If you market yourself and take action against bulls*it then you will also get help more easily when you need it. For example, it took a few hours for me to get help from my followers and the IP adress to the one who was ordering stuff in my name. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for this project because the guy who helped me wouldn’t be in my list of followers then. In fact, every time something negative have happened to me I have recieved a lot of help and those posts have also been shared much more. It can’t happen if you “don’t exist”.
You probably missed my header joke
Of course I will look like a pretentious moron if you don’t know anything about my project, way of working and see that I use a picture on a knight with shiny armor kneeling for Google. So I will explain it. SEO has always been around links. Link manipulation, so I used this header before:
Click here for the full picture.
I didn’t think it was a very good idea using a header with a picture with “link monsters from hell” chewing Googles arms off. It kind of gives the wrong impression… I had it mostly because I found this great illustrator (in Swedish) and thought he was amazing. I still do.
In short: I wanted a change, had an awesome illustrator and wanted to overdo it, pretending being pretentious . The people reading my blog (probably) understood the joke, other people thinks “what a prententious bastard!?” Well, that’s also some sort of more complex humor I can laugh about.