Google Penguin 3.0 launched
Halifax Bank Google Penalty
Big brands not immune to Google Penalties anymore
Halifax Bank owned by Lloyds and one of the largest retail banks in the UK has been hit hard with a Penalty and lost 20% of its visibility in Google overnight. While some have suspected Negative-SEO practice again, we can see this was not the case. Once again Google shows it’s superpowers to hurt a business to lose tens of thousands of pounds per day in their never-ending campaign against SEO and unnatural links.
This penalty could probably have been avoided had the bank or their responsible marketing and SEO professionals implemented ongoing link risk management and pro-active disavows as we’ve been recommending for over a year now.
This is the full deep dive case study with 250% more than the preview and contains more details than any other report on the Halifax bank Google penalty. This case study was written by our most recent certified LRT Professional Bartosz Góralewicz.
- Enjoy & Learn!
Christoph C. Cemper
PS: As usual in our deep-dives we want to give site owners, customers, and interested SEOs, clues on what to look for and how to use LRT to identify link profile risks. We assume Halifax and their team will be actively auditing their backlink profile and perform link cleanups as you read this.
Bonus: You can download a PDF version for Easy Offline Reading. Get it FOR A TWEET HERE
Table of Contents
- Facts about Halifax
- SEO Spam Detective’s Investigation work
- Halifax drops in Google
- Closer look at the Halifax’s widget link campaign
- Widget’s impact on Halifax’s visibility drop
- Halifax’s SEO strategy
- More on the “Large” widget
- More on the “Small” widget
- All the black-hat SEO techniques used by Halifax one by one
- 1. SEO widgets
- 2. Link Networks used by Halifax
- Yakezie Link Network
- 3. Advertorials
- 4. Scaled infographics submissions
- 5. Interlinking between partner sites (in Lloyds Banking Group)
- Link sources – summary
- Link Detox (DTOX) for Halifax
Halifax dropped like crazy in the SERPs for SEO tactics that probably date back to 2011 or older. Once again the lack of ongoing link audits and removal of risky links – we call it Link Risk Management – led to a Google Penalty.
Scott McLay working for EQTR deserves credit for spotting the Halifax Bank penalty first, with two unnamed personas Mr. G and Mr. K contacting Christoph shortly after pointing these things out and providing even more insights and data to be used in the analysis. Then of course shortly after the first plans for cranking out a deep-dive like crazy again, Martin McDonald pushed out a first already nice analysis. Kudos to that speed – or as Mr. Bob Rains likes to put it – “like a personal injury lawyer at a car crash”.
Facts about Halifax
Let’s start with some facts about Halifax for those of you who may have never heard about this huge UK brand.
Halifax is the 4th biggest retail bank in UK. Halifax is owned by the Lloyds Banking group which 43% is government owned.
Finance niche in UK
To Demonstrate how large this financial niche is in the UK, let me show you some facts about banks in UK.
- They employ 0.5 million people
- Banks and financial services contribute £70bn to the UK’s national output (6.8% of GDP)
- Banks and financial services provide 25% of total corporation tax (£8bn) to the UK Gov
- The main retail banks provide over 125m accounts, clear 7bn transactions a year and facilitate 2.3bn cash withdrawals per year from its network of over 30,000 free ATMs
- Banks provide banking services to 95% of the UKs population
- The value of foreign exchange business passed through London every day is £560bn ($1 trillion)
Source – http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/347/uk-economy/top-10-british-banks/
Most Expensive Google Penalty?
I am very deeply engaged in the finance niche since I have many customers in it and I can tell you, it is an extremely lucrative niche. I think that Halifax’s drop might be one of the most expensive SEO failures of recent times.
I’ve included the stats above into this case study to show you how much the finance niche is worth in the UK. Just one day without organic SEO visibility might cost one financial institution tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds per day.
Recent changes in the financial niche
The banking and finance niche in the UK has had problems with affiliate sites basically flooding the SERPs for the most competitive keywords like “payday loans”, etc. before last year’s Google “payday loan” update.
Before Google sorted this problem out, there were affiliates actually making DDOS attacks or negative SEO attacks on big brands “filling” the spot for competitive keywords.
As an interesting fact, Google’s got their own affiliate site now in finance niche. What is most shocking; it is not different than many other affiliate sites penalized for “not providing unique and interesting content”.
I am far from some conspiracy theories, but not many people know that Google is actually an affiliate in a finance niche :).
As I mentioned above, before “payday loans” algorithm update, there were many DDOS or negative SEO attacks in finance niche. That’s why after www.halifax.co.uk dropped in Google, many people were suspecting a negative SEO attack.
Was it a negative SEO attack? Let’s take a closer look at Halifax’s link profile.
SEO Spam Detective’s Investigation work
This is the step by step explanation of how I’ve found all the bad links. If you want, you can skip to All the black-hat SEO techniques used by Halifax.
Halifax drops in Google
2014 seems to be the year of big brands and big drops. Google is less tolerant to some of the tricks used by even largest brands. Halifax is a second big drop this year after Expedia.
On 6th February SearchMetrics.com recorded a huge visibility drop for Halifax.co.uk.
As you can see, the visibility drop is really a big one here. Let’s take a look at the loser keywords now.
As we can see, Google hit the site where it really hurts – the short tail money keywords like “loans”. These dropped keywords are actually very expensive and high value. The daily loss for Halifax.co.uk is going to be huge.
What happened before the drop?
Let’s run a Competitive Link Velocity and check if there was any aggressive link building done during the past months.
First, we need Halifax’s competitors to compare the velocity. This way we can be sure, that a spike on the chart is a link building activity, instead of, for example, a seasonal popularity growth that happens in a niche.
Now, let’s start the Link Velocity Tool (CLV) in Link Research Tools for those domains.
I chose the last 24 months. This way I can clearly see any spikes.
We can clearly see that there was huge velocity growth in December 2013.
As you can see above, there is a spike in December 2013. Almost half a million linking pages but from only 189 domains?
This shows MASSIVE sitewide linking going on.
Different crawlers seem to confirm the spike we saw in CLV.
Similar to CLV – referring domains vs. backlinks ratio shows clearly massive sitewide linking.
Now, we can assume, that Halifax’s ranking drop was somehow connected to the massive sitewide linking we noticed on the charts above.
Who was linking to Halifax.co.uk?
Let’s run a quick backlink analysis with QBL and see if we spot anything interesting there.
Important thing to remember while running QBL now is to uncheck “Skip sitewide links” option.
Those are actually the links we WANT to see. Also, in cases such as this one, I prefer to uncheck “Remove Dropped Links”. I do that for a simple reason; if Halifax.co.uk was penalized, they are losing thousands of pounds each hour. If so, they are deleting the links causing the manual penalty by the thousands per hour probably, to alleviate the situation as fast as possible.
After quick look at the results, there are few things that should grab your attention. Let’s take a look at the screenshot below.
There is an enormous percentage of the “remortgaging your home” keyword in Halifax’s backlink profile.
Let’s create a slice and look closer into that.
After filtering we can clearly see that ALL of those links are coming from www.bankofscotland.co.uk
OK, our analysis is done here. Now all we need to do is open the site and see where the link is placed and if it is natural (I doubt it after seeing the data).
This is what we get after clicking www.bankofscotland.co.uk/HelpCentre/
Now let’s take a look at the code:
This above could clearly explain the Search Quality Team being “upset” with Halifax.co.uk.
But it doesn’t fit with the “looser” keywords we saw in SearchMetrics. Let’s dig a little deeper then.
Sources of “bad links”
“Remortgaging your home” wasn’t the only keyword that caught my attention.
6.9% of keywords with one Anchor Text – “View all our saving accounts”? That is also a little bit suspicious. Again, let’s look into that.
All of the links are do-follow, but there is one more thing that should raise a flag and tell us we are moving in the right direction.
After clicking some random sites from the list, I couldn’t find the “live” link anywhere. That tells me that Halifax must be actively deleting the links from those sites.
Of course in cases like this, Google Cache or Wayback Machine is a very useful tool.
As we see in Google Cache, it was a widget filled with links to www.halifax.co.uk
Wow, and that’s a cream filled cookie. Three money keyword links embedded in relevant content.
However, most of the sites I visited live have deleted it already.
Closer look at the Halifax’s widget link campaign
Halifax used not only one, but different widgets targeting different groups of keywords. Actually by looking at their backlink profile, I would say it was Halifax’s main linking strategy.
There were two different kinds of widgets. One which was a smaller version, and a second having more text. From what I see, the “larger” one is now mostly deleted/wiped. The smaller one is still possible to find.
By googling the widget’s footprint, we can see the scale of widget backlinks www.halifax.co.uk
Keep in mind, that most of the links are probably de-indexed by Google by now.
That is 37,000 links. It was definitely more than that before they got deleted and some of them de-indexed.
This one is a high score of 57,100 results/links.
Of course, there were a lot more widgets, each targeting specific groups of keywords. More about different widget will be covered later in this case study.
Widget’s impact on Halifax’s visibility drop
Let’s compare SearchMetrics’ Looser Keywords with the ones Halifax used in its widget.
“ISA” and “ISA allowance” drops
And widget you can see below with “ISA” and “isa allowance” keywords.
“Saving accounts” drops
“Savings accounts” visibility drops can be clearly connected with another widget.
“Personal loans”, “Loan Calculator” and “Loans”
“Loans” is actually a keyword with huge traffic, huge conversions and huge earnings.
This is probably why there are 2 separate widgets for “loans” related keywords.
But first, let’s see the drop.
“Loans” and “Loan Calculator” dropped around ~40 positions in Google.
That is a clear sign of Manual Penalty for those keywords.
Now, let’s take a quick look at the widgets stuffed with “loans” keywords.
Perhaps the most important traffic drop is connected with the small widget. It is an exact match to the “looser” keywords.
What you do not see in the screenshot is that the sections “Loans” and “Loan Calculator” contain even more text with DO-Follow money keyword links for say “loans”.
You should watch this small video to get an idea of their sneaky tactics.
Halifax’s SEO strategy
After finishing the “preview” deep dive, I couldn’t stop thinking about Halifax’s SEO strategy. I know this niche, usually my customers (banks or financial institutions) make plans not for next few months, but for a few years ahead.
Halifax’s actions must be connected with their marketing strategy or with Lloyds Banking Group strategy.
It might be hard to figure it out now, as they are deleting all the links, widgets etc., but let’s give it a try. We have some clues after all.
More on the “Large” widget
We found some sites with widget still alive. The graphics and Java Script is deleted, but we can track the widget’s hosting.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the HTML code “around” the widget.
I can only guess that LBG stands for Lloyds Bank Group. Now let’s go back to Link Research Tools and run QBL for http://lbgwidgets.com.
It is important to uncheck “Remove Dropped Links”. Most of the links might be deleted by now, so it is crucial.
As you can clearly see above, there are 6 links from 4 domains only.
All of those links are infographic submissions.
The image is deleted from hosting (it was probably wiped clean after the penalty), but after some Googling, I’ve found this missing infographic on Pinterest.
I am inserting a cropped image, as it is too large to be fully included in the case study.
Now, most of you would probably think – infographics filled with keywords – that might also be the reason for the Manual Penalty from Google. Personally – I don’t think so. Of course it is clearly not white hat SEO, but Google usually starts penalizing for “grey hat” techniques after a video “warning” from Matt Cutts.
Halifax posted those infographics roughly a year before the Matt’s video, so it may or may not be the reason for the penalty.
You can read more about infographics (and widgets) here – Matt Cutts Advises When to nofollow Widgets and Infographics.
But let’s go back to that widget domain we found.
We can easily connect it to infographic submissions, but I would still search a little bit deeper. I already checked that http://lbgwidgets.com/robots.txtis blocking Google and other bots from indexing, but we all know that Google bots don’t always obey robots.txt. There is only one good way to make sure, by using Google and inserting the “Site:” command for it.
Lloyds involved in widget link campaign too
Now a quick look at the search results.
Remember my “suspicion” that LBGwidgets.com stands for Lloyd Bank Group? I think I might be right about this one.
Screenshot above shows clearly that Lloyds bank is also using the widgets for increasing their SEO visibility.
I checked and Lloyds has few domains connected to this corporation. We need to figure out which one had widget backlinks.
Unfortunately after a QBL and going through many of the backlinks, I didn’t manage to find the “live” or cached widget. I also didn’t find too many ISA related keywords to Lloyds bank. Maybe the Lloyds widget was never fully implemented?
Finally after few hours of googling, I did manage to find a screenshot of lbgwidgets.com, showing all the widgets from Halifax and Lloyds! BINGO!
This domain was blocked from indexing, so it is a great luck that archive.is somehow indexed and cached lbgwidgets.com.
Holy cow – a whole menu of widgets?
Now how about this menu of widgets?
This is a very interesting screenshot – dated May 2013. I suppose that site and data have been wiped after Halifax received a manual penalty from Google.
We can clearly see full “selection” of widgets. For Lloyds and for Halifax. That is a great find! We can easily connect the penalized keywords with a widget “responsible” for the drop.
Now let’s look closer at a “small” widget.
More on the “Small” widget
Now, similar as with the “large widget” I need to check the code and find the hosting of the widget.
The widget is hosted at the subdomain – http://test.mecseo.com
We can clearly see the code and graphics for the widget. Unfortunately, test.mecseo.com has no backlinks and WHOIS is blocked.
Similar with reverse IP – no results.
Fortunately, Jonathan Jones commented on our preview Case Study with something I found quite interesting.
Before we go through the quoted above case study, there is one clear connection.
http://www.mecglobal.co.uk and test.mecseo.com
That shows that most probably MECGlobal agency has created this SEO widget.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the link we got from Jonathan http://vlexo.net/.
MEC Global Case Study on SEO Widget success
It is a case study by MEC Global, describing in-detail their SEO campaign for www.halifax.co.uk.
As you can see, the whole thing “started” with Lloyds Banking Group willing to make www.halifax.co.uk most visible site online.
You can even see the selection of keywords like “ISAS” and “cash ISAS”. Exactly the ones showing up on the widgets and recent drops.
As you can see above, it was all a planned action targeted towards reaching top positions in Google before Tax Year End.
How were they planning to achieve such a result in a short period of time?
So, as we see, there is another side to the “story”. Halifax, owned by Lloyds Banking Group, was “pushed” to Google’s top 10 using “Saving Calculator Widget” as the part of their “content marketing” approach.
Results were really outstanding.
- 244% higher visitor volume (from organic search).
- Sales percentage increase was in alignment (so around 250%) with visitor increase.
- Halifax is most visible for ISA related searches.
Those numbers above are impressive in every niche, but what has to be said here, 250% sales increase in finance industry –those are hundreds of thousands of Pounds every month. They sure got some “savings” for the penalty period.
Stock prices and SEO rankings co-relate
Now, let’s take a quick look at Lloyds Banking Group earnings during that time.
If my calculations are right, 6 months before the Tax Year End (5th April 2013), then it could mean that campaign started in October 2012. Let’s compare this hypothesis with Lloyds Banking Group’s stock prices.
There are many factors influencing Lloyds Banking Group’s stock price, and I am far from claiming that the widgets are the “causation”, but there sure is an interesting correlation between those two.
All the black-hat SEO techniques used by Halifax one by one
1. SEO widgets
Halifax’s biggest sin. It probably got them in the situation they are experiencing right now.
What you do not see in the screenshot is that the sections “Loans” and “Loan Calculator” contain even more text with DO-Follow money keyword links for say “loans”.
2. Link Networks used by Halifax
Yakezie Link Network
Guest blogging in Yakezie network
While only doing a brief backlink check, I’ve found many links from blogs in the Yakezie network (penalized by Google a while back for selling links).
Those links may also be connected to the recent drop.
Widgets/link boxes in Yakezie network
Paid guest blogging, usually on low quality blogs, with in-context keywords.
Posts with money keywords on a low quality, multi-subject sites. Exactly the kind of guest blogging that Matt Cutts is recently fighting.
4. Scaled infographics submissions
Infographic submissions in large scale: Most of the infographics have money-keywords “stuffed” into text above or below infographic.
5. Interlinking between partner sites (in Lloyds Banking Group)
Massive scale, keyword – rich site wide links from other banks in Lloyds Banking Group.
Link sources – summary
Each of linking “strategy” listed above can get Halifax a manual penalty from Google Search Quality Team. From what I saw in SearchMetrics, ww.halifax.co.uk probably got penalized only for using the SEO widgets.
One thing for sure, the Halifax’s SEO team have their hands full. From what I saw in this Case Study, Google probably won’t let go easily. As one ex-Googler said to me once – they have got one “golden rule” in the Search Quality Team – “You crapped all around the web –now you have to clean it up”. I think this quote shows exactly the actual “status” of Halifax’s SEO team…. their hands full, cleaning up … well you know what.
Link Detox (DTOX) for Halifax
Now, let’s take a look at www.halifax.co.uk backlink DTOX.
In a preview version of this Case study we had a Link Detox Risk of 1208! The score was based “only” on a 160,000 backlinks.
With this DTOX, we had a little bit more time and we processed more than 3 million links, classifying 100% of their keywords, and re-processing we got our Link Detox Risk of 1399!
That’s even worse and a nasty result and very certainly reason to act – for both, Google as well as the Halifax marketing teams!
As you see above, www.halifax.co.uk has almost a quarter of their links (22.4%) with a Deadly Risk.
This is a crazy amount of high risk links!
High Risk Money Anchor Text links
As we can see in the keyword cloud colored by risk (the more red, the more dangerous the link) especially the money keyword links coming from high risk link pages, while some branded keyword phrases came from moderate risk sources.
As the first step I want to see how Halifax’s link profile looks comparing to their competitors.
Let’s run Competitive Landscape Analysis (CLA) from Link Research Tools.
I choose “Detail analysis” to pick the data I would like to analyze.
After doing a complete analysis of the backlinks first, now I can pick the metrics, I think are going to be most interesting.
Now we run the report and classify the keywords. With sites that large, it might take a few hours.
It is best to get at least 80% keywords classified to get the good results.
After keyword classification, let’s take a look at the competition.
I marked “strong” places on the chart with red arrows. These are the spikes of pretty powerful links, comparing to competition. Also there are few week links (2% for Halifax, comparing to 23% for Total Average for competitors) – I marked this with a rectangle.
While looking at only CEMPER Power*Trust™ metric, www.halifax.co.uk has a lot of powerful links and by looking at the chart above, should be outranking competition pretty well in Google with such link profile.
Now let’s take a look at CEMPER Trust™.
Again, pretty large spike – 47% of CEMPER Trust™ links, comparing to 27% for competition Total Average.
Much less Money keywords than competition. Halifax’s has got a lot of “compound” links. This also might be caused, due to the extreme sitewide linking (from widgets for example). I didn’t want to include all the sitewide links for Halifax into report, as It would just mess up the results. There was a sitewide filter set up for max 5 links per domain.
Follow vs Nofollow ratio is identical as Top 3 average.
Halifax’s link profile is close to average in the niche. Only factors “sticking out” are:
- Money vs Brand vs Compound vs Others ratio
- CEMPER Power*Trust™
- CEMPER Trust™
By looking at ONLY the metrics above, Halifax.co.uk has a powerful linking profile. It was probably their competitor’s worst nightmare.
It is clear that Halifax’s SEO strategy was “made to win”. They had a lot of success with it. I would say it was a huge challenge, it was close to impossible to over rank it with white hat SEO.
When we look at the deleted MEC case study we have clear confirmation that the widgets were all strategy. And to be honest at the time that was planned and implemented it was state-of-the art or at least not as dangerous as today. This is yet another example why ongoing link audits and link risk management should be on top of every executive’s agenda. If you’re responsible for your companies marketing and you don’t know the Link Detox Risk scores of your backlink profiles, you’re definitely risking your job or business.
What is interesting is that the Google Search Quality Team left many of the black hat techniques un-penalized for big brands for a long time and now seems to crack down on it.
There is one “quote” that perfectly sum’s up this case study.
No matter what Google says – “Cash flow is the king!”
PS: the high Link Detox Risk of 1300ish would make Halifax a great candidate for a Penguin victim. Was this maybe a new “secret” Penguin update? We have seen A LOT of crazy drops on Jan 16 and Jan 31 so the question remains – manual or algorithmic?
Has the Google Penguin algorithm finally switched to an ever-penguin that hands out algorithmic penalties on an ongoing basis or was this a manual penalty?
This case study was written by Bartosz Góralewicz, SEO Consultant, Online Marketing Specialist, and proud user of Link Research Tools and Link Detox.
A word from Christoph C. Cemper
Bartosz showed proficiency in doing a SEO link audit on Halifax’s penalized SEO strategies. I am thrilled by the detail and structure he continues to display in his case studies. Already a Certfied LRT Professional, Bartosz Góralewicz publishes his 2nd case-study and takes the next step toward becoming a Certified LRT Xpert.
Our goal is to provide our user community and clients with quality service and knowledge. Our Certified LRT Professionals and Xperts are key to achieving this goal.
I look forward to his future work, and personally recommend Bartosz Góralewicz to work with you, whenever you get the opportunity!
This analysis was created using our Superhero Plan and the new Competitive Link Detox tool extensively. The Superhero plan allows you to perform professional SEO and backlink analysis for your own or your competitor’s sites. If you only need Competitive Link Detox (CDTOX), that’s also included in all new Link Detox Pro plans and up.
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