Like Me? Follow Me.
If you've been around the search industry long enough, you'll remember the mid-noughties where shopping comparison engines such as Kelkoo.com, Shopping.com, Nextag.com, etc., all but dominated the SERPS for pretty much any retail shopping term you could use. Sites had to pay for inclusion in these engines, which basically functioned as an extra step between searchers and their destination. While they did provide price comparison, generally the shops they 'recommended' had paid to be there - so the shops themselves were not necessarily reputable, but the end-user did not know that.
Eventually, Google got sick of the first page or two of results being a list of comparison engines pointing to the same results and all but wiped them out (I'm sure Google Shopping provided no motive for this...), in favour of providing links to the actual shops.
Personally, I think this improved the SERPS a lot. If I want a shopping comparison engine, I'll search for it.
What I've been noticing more and more recently, particularly as relates to legal services, is a similar problem in regards to exact match domains. Here's how it works:
- Claims management company purchases a bunch of exact-match domain (or many exact-match domains for very specialised keywords) - these are domains that match popular search terms such as 'building-site-claims.com' or 'cancer-misdiagnosis-claims.co.uk' (n.b. neither of these domains were actually in use at the time this was written) - many of these have a long history of ownership and legacy links.
- Claims management company puts up new websites, using history of the domain + the value of fresh content to get the site ranking quickly. If they have bought a lot of domains at once, they may crosslink the network, giving themselves an additional boost - at the moment, this is working better than ever. For competitive terms we're seeing 2 and 3 sites from certain networks ranking in the top 10 for competitive keywords at the expense of showing 10 unique results on the first page.
- Claims management company then sells on their leads to the solicitors they are outranking or sells expensive advertising space to everyone they've pushed down in the SERPs, charging them for traffic they were previously getting but circumventing the new rules about referral fees.
- Claims management company may even ask for a link back in return - thereby cementing their top ranking while hurting the ranking ability of the solicitors they charge for ads.
While I'm seeing this in particular in regards to legal services, it's also being used elsewhere. Personally, I don't see how this is any better than the old shopping comparison engines domination of the SERPs - it's putting a site in between the searcher and their actual destination, and searchers may take the listings they're offered for solicitors as recommendations when in reality they aren't recommendations - those positions go to the highest bidders. It is somewhat deceptive in regards to a service that has massive implications for the person in need of that service.
A year ago Google said that it was turning down the ability of exact-match domains to rank because this is not a good ranking signal.
We're still waiting to actually see this happen. The recent Penguin update seems to have turned up the dial on a lot of this - the networks are easy to spot yet the participants have been promoted despite having overoptimised sites and very un-natural link profiles.
We're hoping that Google is monitoring the fallout from Penguin, seeing what garbage floated to the top in order to tweak the new algorithm and roll out a fix within the next few weeks (something they've done with nearly every update I've experienced) and bring more variety back into the SERPs, and actually do what they keep claiming they're pushing for - promoting genuine companies and delivering choice and variety within their results. One thing is clear - the loophole which promotes exact match domains needs to be closed, because brands don't name themselves based on their top keywords.