4 Shady Ways Your Competitors Might be Getting an Unfair Edge in SEO

Rohit Palit
Rohit is an inbound marketing consultant who blogs frequently on TechTage. He’s a hardcore SEO enthusiast and loves playing with WordPress. He also loves building and growing new sites. The best way to contact him would be via his personal website.

    It’s well known that in the time of Penguin 3.0 and Panda 4.1, you have to put in hard work to achieve SEO success for your site. But for a business that relies quite heavily on online sales, or leads, or whatever, every day of not ranking good enough counts! What if you found out that the poor rankings aren’t really because your own site lacking the content quality or the links, but it’s just because your competitors are using some shady tactics to outrank your site? Let’s find out how your competitors can frustrate you by doing that, and what you can do about it.

    Once you find out that they are indeed using SEO techniques (or rather, manipulation techniques) that are against the Google Webmaster Guidelines, you have two options:

    • You start using them yourself on your own site to try to participate in the rat-race.
    • You can report the competitors that you found out to be using manipulative ranking techniques to Google.

    The second way is actually the only way out for any webmaster who cares about his or her site. We’ll discuss how we can tackle a few types of manipulative techniques that your competitors might be using.

    So, below are a few ways they can gain a competetive edge in the SERPs:

    #1: Link Rental Network Links

    You may suddenly see a fairly new competitor jump up to the top 3 for a hugely competitive keyword in your niche, with fairly mediocre content and social stats. That’s the typical sign of them using a link rental network to hire links on a monthly basis, mainly from hacked sites or individual hacked pages. I won’t elaborate the process much here or give out the names of some of the services, but there are a lot of networks like these in a host of countries and a particularly notoriously big one from Russia, that Matt Cutts tried to specifically target in the past, and from the looks of it, failed so far. They have also recently tried to target another Polish link network.

    Now, let’s try to make some sense. If these link networks don’t work, why would Google invest manual energy to try to take them down? Hint: they do work!

    These links are risky anyway and the competitor of yours might get penalized after two months, but why waste two months of time seeing a crappy competitor using paid links to outrank your much better quality site?

    If you’re eager to take some actions yourself, you first have to identify that they’re indeed using such links. You can head over to Ahrefs and look up their link profile, then sort the dofollow referring domains in descending order of Ahrefs Domain Rank. That’ll return the domains with the most link equity first. If you spot domains with high Ahrefs Domain Rank which are absolutely irrelevant to the topic of the site, go ahead and check out the linking pages, and then do a ctrl+f and paste the anchor-text as shown by Ahrefs. If you spot the links in the footers and sidebars of pages, usually surrounded by similarly spammy links to other sites, you can be sure that it has come from a link rental network.

    Now that you’ve identified these massively powerful, but totally unethical links, you can simply report the links to Google using this form. You may try including a phrase like, “Hugely Spammy Link Network Uncovered” to get the attention of manual webspam team.

    #2: Using a Clickbot

    Over the years, due to the increasing abuse of link building among other reasons, Google have increased the reliance on SERP click-through-rate (CTR). In fact the reliance is so much that, as seen on a recent case study, using a clickbot in a positive or negative way can stick or wipe a site’s Google ranking. The shocking part is, I had experienced something similar with my client BookCab, and I got signals about its two major competitors using clickbots or something of its kind. But back in the day I didn’t have enough data to confirm that it actually affects the search results as much as the case study shows.

    You can’t track competitor sites to obtain analytics data. I was thinking, is there really no way for anyone to detect if a site is using a clickbot or something similar? You can at least keep an eye on the competitors’ Alexa, and get alert when you see an extraordinarily high user-engagement signal like time-on-page.

    Using this Google form, you can report about the site and just mention in the description that while you can’t be 100% sure, you suspect they’re using a clickbot or something similar to manipulative user engagement.

    #3: Low-quality Guest Post Links

    While there are legitimate guest posts that are not spammy like the one you’re reading, or posts like this and this that talk about a relevant topic, there are also irrelevant, spammy guest posts on low-quality blogs that accept them.

    You can track all of a competitor’s low-quality publications elsewhere including article directories and low-quality sites that allow anchor-rich, irrelevant links in their guest posts, using a backlink monitoring tool like Ahrefs.

    While guest posts handing sites penalties is a much talked-about topic, in truth what I’ve observed from working on a fair amount of client sites is that Google makes more noise trying to make webmasters afraid than their actions actually should’ve produced. So, a lot of sites get away with such low-quality publications and continue ranking, which can be frustrating for owners of high-quality sites that don’t involve in such low-level link building.

    You can typically use the same form as the last one to report such low-quality publications as well.

    #4: Extremely Anchor-rich Internal Linking

    Hat tip to Gareth Bull for this one. If one of your competitors has an aggressive internal linking strategy, in fact so aggressive that he replaced the “Home” link on the menu of the site and give it the “Keyword” anchor (to tell Google that the domain is closely related to that keyword), you can use the aforementioned spam report form to report that.

    Even if it’s not as aggressive as using keywords in the navigation bar, it can still be considered against the guidelines of Google. If you’re using non-branded, anchor-rich links to refer to your own site from within blog posts or other pages on itself, that can be considered as pretty spammy. An example would be if I refer and link to TechTage as “SEO Blog” all the time across posts on my blog.

    In case you’re wondering what kind of internal linking strategy you should adopt instead, this post can give you some good ideas (scroll over to point #20).


    If you think you can’t afford to let a competitor utilising unethical practices to rank above your site for valuable keywords, you can use some of the strategies laid out in this post to identify which competitors are doing so and how you can do your own part to prevent them from keeping on ranking.

    So, what other ways have you seen your competitors gaining an extra edge in the SERPs?

    Rohit Palit
    Rohit is an inbound marketing consultant who blogs frequently on TechTage. He’s a hardcore SEO enthusiast and loves playing with WordPress. He also loves building and growing new sites. The best way to contact him would be via his personal website.

    Get notified of new articles

    46,934 marketers are already subscribed to Ahrefs blog. Leave your email to get our weekly newsletter.

    • jondale2

      Make that five. Recently, I searched Google anonymously from a location in Sweden to check on how well a site back home in the UK was doing against local competition and was very surprised to find that Google’s choice for the top spot (in results after a search for a named type of service in a named geographical area) was a site with spammy text added at the very bottom of a foot-long home page which added a bunch of keywords and names of towns/cities where the business wasn’t located but hoped to draw customers away from.

    • Some solid points in this article. Link building is certainly evolving for the better IMO