Over the last few months, I’ve seen GoDaddy rise up in the rankings for a lot of hosting related terms. At first I suspected they were finally using their very strong domain in a smart way, but then I noticed they ranked for terms I know you can’t rank for without a lot of external links, no matter how strong your domain. Let me tell you how I figured out that they got those external links by embedding links in their clients websites.
Today I was sick and tired of getting beaten on some rankings I was working hard for, so I decided to dive a bit deeper and see why GoDaddy was ranking as well as they were. When I looked into the link profile for those high ranking pages, I found a lot of homepages linking to these landing pages with highly optimized anchor text. These were anchor texts like “ssl”, “bulk email”, “web hosting”, “web hosting companies” etc. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen by accident, so there had to be a reason for those. I was baffled when I found what they were doing.
Want a Website Tonight, anyone?
You see, GoDaddy offers a service called “Website Tonight”; this service allows you to quite easily create a website by offering you an editor and all sorts of widgets. Not exactly the power of WordPress, but nothing wrong with it from the users perspective. What is wrong is what I found when I created such a website: when you create such a website it has an image in the footer by default saying “Powered by Website Tonight”. It’s possible to turn this image off, but most people don’t bother as in the editor it looks rather harmless, like this:
Now, if it were just that, I don’t think I’d be all that bothered (not the border is because the image is selected). The issue is, that on the live test site I created, it looks like this:
That link wasn’t there in the preview… That’s called deceiving your customer. Note that by default, the image is black, you can switch it to white or you can switch it off, but in the editor it’ll always show. This is probably the reason why some people choose to use the white version, as they think they can’t disable it and want a version that’s less ugly on their design.
Ok it’s time I show you some real live examples of these I guess, these websites all have ugly links like that in their footer:
But those links don’t work, right? Wrong.
Google has been telling us for quite a while now that footer links etc. are not that important. Well guess what, that’s not true if you have enough of them. Using SearchMetrics I ran a report for the top keywords they rank in the top 3 for. Each and every keyword in there that is not their brand name, from website hosting to webhosting to website builder, to domain name registration and more: all of those landing pages have exact match anchor text links pointing to them. All coming from these types of domains, thousands if not tens of thousands of clients who are paying for a service, are unknowingly also helping GoDaddy’s business by helping it rank.
These links are on by default. They are not editorial. It’s not the first time this happened, Hostgator has been caught adding links to their clients websites in the same way, I mention that in my WordPress hosting article. The issue is that Google rewards these kinds of practices with top rankings, which they shouldn’t.
How well this works, well by my estimate they started doing this more aggressively in September / October of this year, see how their visibility according to SearchMetrics almost doubled:
This would correlate well with the Majestic SEO‘s historic back link data:
For hosting related terms like the ones GoDaddy targets, doubling your search engine visibility like that is worth a fortune. To show you even more how blatant these links are, this is a screenshot of the top pages report in Majestic, after doing an advanced historic report, look at the anchor texts and notice that the two with a flag on the right are reported wrongly, the anchor text for the link in fact is email marketing there as well. You can click for a larger version:
Some of these sites however already show these links a the beginning of 2011. See this archive.org example and this one to see that, they even changed the link in the meanwhile… What I think happened in September / October that made me catch them was that they started doing this for more keywords.
The long and short of it
GoDaddy is playing this game a bit too aggressively in my opinion, and Google should really start discounting those links. The right way would be for GoDaddy to ask their customers whether they’re allowed to insert a link and make them choose where it points. No single customer would, by own volition, link to an email marketing page…
I am, though, disappointed in Google’s filtering of these links; there are far too many spammy links pointing at those pages that:
- have a very unnatural anchor text distribution
- they’re all in the footer of these sites
- are distributed over only a select number of IP’s.
Those 3 things combined, I can’t believe they didn’t catch that.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying anything that GoDaddy does here is illegal from a legal point of view. In my opinion it’s against search engines guidelines and they’re not transparent towards their customers, so I’d call it bad karma.