Wonga: when SEO goes bad

31/01/2012

This month saw payday lender Wonga pull a section of its website which suggested payday loans could be viewed as an alternative to making use of a student loan, following mass outrage. The firm said the main purpose of the content was search engine optimisation (SEO). Julia Kukiewicz, editor of consumer site Choose.net, looks at why there is no such thing as 'SEO content' in the eyes of consumers.

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Wonga’s business has always been data-driven: whatever you think of their ethics, their performance in the digital marketing arena is formidable.

No other payday lender, and certainly no mainstream lender, has worked as hard to fine tune organic search, PPC and, finally, the on site sign-up process to get people casually searching for a fast loan actually signing up: they use real insight and very real money to make it pay off.

So it was a bit of a surprise, earlier this month, to see Wonga make a fairly dramatic online marketing mis-step.

Several sources, including the BBC and The Guardian picked up on the fact that Wonga were targeting the term ‘student loans’.

Within days, the offending page, which suggested that students could supplement their income by borrowing using one of Wonga’s short term, high-interest loans, was deleted, as was the link using the same keyword on Wonga’s homepage and, after a little more prodding, AdWords targets for similar keywords.

The company even published an explanation.

“We would like to clarify that Wonga does not target students,” it said, immediately undermining its own point a few paragraphs later. “The previous article on this page was several years old… the main purpose of the content was search engine optimisation, or ‘SEO,’ which is a common practice for any internet business that wants to appear in searches for relevant subjects.”

So, more accurately: Wonga does target students, SEO being a form of targeting, but, you know, they did it a while ago and didn’t really mean it. Or something.

SEO gone bad

For anyone with an online business the affair was a salient reminder that there is no such thing as ‘SEO content’ in the eyes of site users, just content: the former is not admissible.

Though Wonga’s status as a lightning rod for all criticism of the payday loans sector sparked a national debate, the same thing could happen to any site using SEO poorly. Targeting profitable but irrelevant keywords come back and bites, doubly so if you happen to be controversial loan provider.

Having said that, it would be foolish for any one to think that deleting a page of spammy, outdated link bait really represents a change of heart over at Wonga HQ.

If we accept the premise that marketing loans to students is irresponsible we shouldn’t forget that much more insidious forms of online advertising mean that it will continue, just in a less recognizable form.

For example, Wonga may leave off the student loans keywords for a while but if they target student Facebook profiles in the penny-pinching period before SLC loans are delivered, they won’t have to use them to get their point across.

In a May 2011 interview with StrategyEye Wonga founder Robin Klein said, “[social web data] is our ‘secret sauce’... We are adding more and more data and testing hypotheses using sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques to verify which bits of data actually are indicative and which aren't.”

If consumer groups are serious about making the payday sector more responsible, and there are certainly more irresponsible players in the market than Wonga, they need to go beyond criticism of marketing messages. The lenders certainly are.

Julia edits consumer site Choose.net which helps people to compare personal loans, though not payday loans.

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