Negative SEO: How to Identify, Fix and Prevent an Attack
The search engine optimization industry has undergone a large-scale transition since Google first introduced the Penguin update in April 2012. This update targeted sites involved in building spam backlink profiles and made it much more difficult for SEOs to take advantage of perhaps less-than-white hat link building techniques. Unfortunately, in attempting to stamp out one black hat SEO technique, Google opened the door to another: negative SEO.
Negative SEO: What is it?
Negative SEO, also known as Google Bowling, is using search engine algorithms against websites by mimicking spam behavior, making it look like they’re using black hat link building techniques to boost their rankings. When people talk about a "negative SEO attack," they usually mean creating a whole bunch (as in thousands) of low quality links pointed at a site. As a result, search engines hit the target with a link penalty, which can have some pretty drastic impacts on ranking and traffic. Basically, negative SEO is a frame job.
Negative SEO practices could take the form of a number of different tactics:
Copying your content and scattering it around the web
Creating public and private link networks pointing back to your page
Building a profile of a large number of spammy or otherwise low quality links
Generating fake social network profiles to attack your reputation online
Linking to your site using anchor text like "Viagra," “poker online” or other suspicious keywords
Trying to remove your most valuable backlinks
Google has waved their hands at the topic of negative SEO in past, but there’s no doubt it’s real. A quick search online will find you countless horror stories of plunging search rankings. Black hat SEO forums are littered with threads by users who took down competitors with spam comments and penalized link networks. And a quick look at Google Trends will show you that "Google bowling" (red) and “negative SEO” (blue) continue to generate searches.
What’s more, if you search job boards like Fiverr, freelancer.com or upwork.com, you can find dozens of jobs looking for SEO help to fight a negative SEO attack.
Preventing Negative SEO
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so we’ll start off by talking about how to prevent negative SEO. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can really do to stop someone from trying to attack your SEO. You can really only take steps to limit its damage. Your number one defense against negative SEO is to be good at regular SEO. If you’ve got a well-established site with lots of links, trust and authority, negative SEO attempts aren’t really going to have much of an affect on your site.
If you’ve got a younger niche site that hasn’t had the chance to build up a lot of those ranking factors, you could be vulnerable. Thankfully, there’s a way to keep negative SEO from being very successful: alerts and monitoring.
You can use Google Search Console to set up email alerts concerning your site’s health. Enable email notifications in Search Console Preferences. It’s best to get alerts on all topics to catch any negative SEO attempts.
Get notifications of new links. Ahrefs, which is a paid tool, has this feature. Change the status of email notifications to daily to make sure you catch malicious links as soon as they appear.
WooRank’s Weekly Email Digest keeps you up to date on any changes in organic, referral and direct traffic. View daily traffic for the week to see if any large drops in traffic are merely fluctuations or signs of trouble. Track keyword ranking history in SERP Checker to see if you’re being targeted with negative SEO for a particular keyword.
Set up Google Alerts for your company, brands and/or products. We have previously suggested you do this to find new link building opportunities, but it’s also a great way to stay on top of fake negative reviews and fake profiles attacking you in forums and on social media.
Once you’ve been alerted to a new link or mention, scrutinize it closely. What domain is it coming from? Is it relevant? Does the linking site use keywords as anchor text?
How to Identify Negative SEO
Have You Been Penalized?
The first step is to see if you’ve actually been hit by a Google penalty. A lot of people see a drop in traffic and immediately assume they’ve been penalized, when in reality the culprit is much more benign:
Check your robots.txt file: You might be blocking crawlers from accessing certain pages, or even your whole site. This is particularly common if you’ve recently redesigned your site or launched a new one.
Look for robots meta tag: Some people add the noindex robots meta tag to keep search engines from crawling and indexing a page and a supplement to, or replacement for, a robots.txt. file.
Page canonicalization: Check your rel="canonical” tags to make sure they are pointing to the right pages. A common canonical issue is pointing to every pages’ canonical tag to a single page (such as the homepage). This causes search engines to concentrate all your link juice and authority in a single place.
Crawl Errors: Check for crawl errors on Google Search Console to find any other issues that might be blocking bots from indexing your pages.
Once you’ve verified that you don’t have any on page or technical problems, you can now look into the possibility that you’ve incurred a Google penalty. Check in Manual Actions in Search Traffic for messages.
If you don’t see any messages, dig into your analytics data. If there’s a sudden drop in traffic or visibility on a particular day, search for recently released Google updates. If the dates line up there’s a good chance you’ve incurred their wrath.
Is it Negative SEO or Just Bad SEO?
More often than not, link penalties are the result of a low quality link building campaign by previous marketers. If your site has been around long enough there’s a good chance previous SEO campaigns at one point in time used a technique that’s now considered black hat.
Article marketing: Writing articles full of links pointing back to your site and then distributing it around the web via article websites set up to harvest backlinks. This was pretty common in the pre-Panda days. If you still have your login details for these websites, your best course of action is to delete the articles. Barring that, contact the website to take the articles down. Make sure you keep a record of this communication to use in a reconsideration request if you get a manual penalty from Google.
Link exchanges: Also known as a reciprocal link, link exchanges are basically agreements to swap links for SEO gains. There were even tools dedicated to managing your link exchanges so you could make sure you didn’t lose any. Google added link exchanges to its blacklist in its guidelines, so if you have any get rid of them as soon as possible.
Directories and bookmarking sites: In the old days, before search engines, you had directories to find websites organized by categories. When Google started taking links into account as a ranking signal, these directories spread like wildfire. Unfortunately, most of them existed solely for link building purposes and quickly became filled with spammy sites. Even if you’ve got a legitimate site, being listed next to nothing but junk will make you look bad. So if your site is listed in any of these low quality directories, get out of there as soon as possible
Note: Directories can still be really important for SEO, particularly local SEO, so don’t get rid of every directory link. Stick to ones that are relevant to your industry/niche or location. It’s ok to pay a fee to be listed, but evaluate it closely. It should be commensurate with the effort it takes to evaluate a URL for quality. Any mention of PageRank or SEO benefits is a sign to avoid.
Check Your Link Profile
Perform a link audit to gather a list of all the links pointing back to your site and their sources. You can get a list of backlinks from Google Search Console by looking at Links to Your Site in Search Traffic. You can see every domain that links to your page as well as how many times and how many of your pages they’ve linked to. You can follow linking domains to evaluate them for quality.
Use this data to look for the telltale signs of black hat linking. Lots of recent low quality links following a pattern are evidence of a negative SEO attack (assuming you or the SEOs you hired aren’t undergoing a link building campaign).
Exact match anchor text in irrelevant on nonsensical content
Irrelevant anchor text (particularly Viagra or text related to casinos, poker and gambling)
Exact match links from profiles on low quality forums
Automated generic comments with links posted to blog comment sections and forums.
Negative SEO services normally use a basic format: the same anchor text linking to the same internal page. They can be a lazy bunch and they have tens of thousands of links to get through. So finding a common thread shouldn’t be too difficult. If you find a sudden spike in these types of links, meaning in a matter of days or weeks, you’re undergoing a negative SEO attack. Once you’ve determined the pattern, do a Google search with the copied text in double quotation marks to find all the sites with negative links.
How to Respond to Negative SEO
How you respond to a negative SEO attempt depends on the form it takes. If spammers are setting up fake social media accounts and/or writing fake reviews on a site such as Yelp, your best bet is to report them as soon as you find them before they can gain any traction.
Disavowing Links Tools
Webmasters and marketers started reporting negative SEO attempts almost as soon as Penguin was introduced in April 2012. As a response, Google introduced its disavow links tool in October of that year. Bing came out with its own disavow links tool that June.
To disavow spam links on Google, start with that list of links you found with GSC, Majestic or Kerboo. Put all the links you want to disavow into a text file. Make a note of attempts to have the links taken down. Here’s an example from Google of what your disavow file should look like:
# example.com removed most links, but missed these
# Contacted owner of shadyseo.com on 7/1/2012 to ask for link removal but got no response
Notice that you can disavow all links from a certain domain. This is very useful if you’ve suffered a negative SEO attack and end up with thousands of bad links from site. But be extremely careful when disavowing a domain: you could have good and negative links from the same domain.
Once you’ve put together your disavow list, upload it using Google Search Console. Go to the Disavow Links Tool, select your website, click Disavow links and then choose your disavow text file.
Bing’s Disavow Links tool works on the same basic principle of Google’s: enter a URL, domain or page, with a link you don’t want pointing at your site and hit ‘Disavow.’ The difference is that you have to do this manually for each URL you want to disavow; you can’t upload a list to Bing.
Unfortunately, the next step in dealing with the fallout of a negative SEO attack is to wait. In the cases of both Google and Bing, you shouldn’t expect to see your traffic and rankings bounce back immediately. The disavow information is taken into account when search engine bots next crawl the web, which could take up to a couple of weeks.
Negative SEO is a pretty shady business practice and, unfortunately, the world is full of shady people willing to try it. The good news is that negative SEO attempts are generally quite rare and, if you catch them early, can be pretty ineffective. If you keep your eye on new backlinks, monitor your traffic and mentions, and keep your Google and Bing disavow lists up to date, you can keep your site safe from those trying to take your rankings by manipulating search algorithms.
Have you ever experienced negative SEO? How did it impact on your site? How did you identify it and ameliorate its effects?