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Negative SEO: Destroying Businesses One Spammy Backlink at a Time

Let me introduce you to my friend Negative SEO. In a nutshell, Negative SEO is basically the exact opposite of search engine optimization. Meaning the intent is to drive search rankings into the toilet instead of increasing search visibility in Google.

negative-seo
Orange line showing backlinks to wpsitecare.com

You see that massive spike in backlinks toward the beginning of November? As much as I’d like to say that was the day we hit the front page of Hacker News and garnered links from all over the planet, it definitely wasn’t that.

That was the day that someone initiated an intentional malicious attack on our company’s website, wpsitecare.com. There are a number of ways to show that it was malicious, but the easiest way is by looking at the keyword density for our site before and after the attack, and by looking at where the links were coming from. As far as keywords go, it definitely could have been worse. The keywords that we were spammed with weren’t that bad, but they definitely screwed up the goals we had for our site and the things that we wanted to rank for.

The bigger issue is the spike in unnatural links from lots of unsavory sources over the course of a few days. That’s a big red flag for google and took our site out for a number of different rankings for over 30 days. Google thought we were trying to cheat the system and penalized us accordingly. It wasn’t good.

While Google claims that that negative SEO is “extremely rare”, there are 28,000,000 results returned when you search for that phrase. If it smells like a rat…

Looking Deeper into Negative SEO

I’m not a technical SEO expert but there are several in-depth studies that have been done that show that negative SEO can definitely be done, and that it’s really not even that hard. It’s even gotten to the point where “white hat” companies are requesting that negative SEO be done in their behalf to squash the competition.

Some of you may remember that my business partner’s podcast and magazine site wpbacon.com was completely wiped out of google search rankings after a massive spam attack last year. It was so bad that he wasn’t able to recover the domain and eventually had to close everything down for good.

Jacob King outlines everything that happened when wpbacon got fried (see what I did there?) in his post The Truth about Negative SEO, and this graphic should give you some pretty good insight into how ugly negative SEO can get.

wpbacon-anchor-spam

The technical implications are incredibly ugly but a connection that a lot of people miss when they’re talking about backlinks, and domains, and pagerank, and SERPs, and [insert other SEO jargon here], is that all of these things are tied directly into people’s livelihoods.

The reality is that with the right network and a little knowhow, competitors can be completely wiped off the internet and can lose their entire business.

Loss in Traffic Means a Drop in Revenue

google-traffic
Steady decline starting in early November through the end of the year

By dropping out of google’s good graces, our company’s bottom line definitely took a hit. It sucked. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with our Google traffic but right at the beginning of November our traffic started on a steady decline and we started slipping for rankings that we had held for a long time previously. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until I looked into our backlink profile and noticed spammy links that matched up exactly with the start of our traffic slowdown.

We’re starting to recover now, but November and December could have been a lot better for us if someone didn’t go out of their way to be dicks on the internet.

Disappointed in the Source

What was more disappointing than anything was what we discovered as we started to dig in and figure out who would have wanted to attack our small business. We’ve always tried to go out of our way and do things on the up and up, so I couldn’t think of why anyone would want to take a direct shot at us. It was really a bummer.

Using some sophisticated techniques we were able to trace back to the source of the spam attack and unfortunately found out that the attack was started by someone within the WordPress community. They did everything through a third-party, an internet hitman of sorts, to try and cover their tracks, but they weren’t quite careful enough and we were able to uncover where everything started.

I’m not going to name any names, and the reason I haven’t shared any of our own keyword data is because I don’t want people searching and speculating and all that.  The only reason I even mention it is so that hopefully that person reads this and knows that what they’re doing is impacting the livelihood’s of people and their families.

Everyone on my team has worked our asses off to make it to this point, and having our hard work undone because someone is an insecure coward with no confidence in their own skills and techniques is honestly gut-wrenching.

Where to Go From Here

We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to rebound relatively quickly. Lots of small businesses aren’t so lucky. We had a strong domain before the attack and based on other attacks we’ve seen, we could have been hit a lot harder. It’s still a bummer that it happened, especially from someone that we know, but it does serve as a reminder that the internet is still the Wild West for a lot of folks, so be careful out there.

If you want to learn more about negative SEO, here’s a list of resources that you can refer to, and some things to do if you do get attacked at some point.

Did you already know about Negative SEO? Have you ever been hit? Would love to hear your experiences in the comments.

Please share this post with other business owners, or even your bosses if you’re an employee somewhere. Negative SEO is a very real thing with a very real impact, and we need to be prepared for when/if it comes. Help spread the word.

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42 Comments

  1. Marcos

    Ryan,
    Excellent Article! I’m sorry that this article came out of something negative but I am glad to hear you guys were able to recover. Negative SEO is definitely something that has to be inside of every business owners marketing plan.
    Because whether Google likes to acknowledge it or not, Negative SEO is real and I believe it is much easier to accomplish than it’s counterpart.
    I have several website’s and am always looking out for it.
    Thank again for the great article!

    1. Ryan Sullivan

      Hey Marcos, thanks for stopping by! Definitely a bummer that we had to learn this lesson “the hard way”, but we learned it, and that’s what matters 🙂

  2. may

    Hi
    Ive been trying to build white hat backlinks for my company and I realised that our backlinks are being disavowed (mainly posting on relevant forums, directories, etc – I swear it is all manual). After some research, one of the person that owned a blog site that I posted on, come back and said my links were “Spamming” her site. She won’t say what that entitles, but all my hard work back-linking has been removed (and other sites are dropping it too). I don’t know what I need to do to fix this.
    Any ideas?
    How do I make sure I am not considered spam by other sites….?
    Thanks in advance!

  3. Gaurav Kumar

    Nice Article.. I am not so sure this was a deliberate attack against my site, though. It could have just been part of a mass spam campaign and they chose my site as the lucky host of the day. But either way, the negative SEO effect was the same.

  4. Danish

    My website is experiencing negative SEO on my website
    My site had been linked with thousands of bad links
    and site data is also copied

    because of that my keywords are outrank
    what would be the solutions and precautions I can go with
    thinking to go for google disavowed tool. Could I have to go for that or another solution

    1. SEO Jedi Knight

      Im a small business owner that outranks most competitors in google, I agree my niche is small but 900 unique visitors with 3% bounce rate to a roof cleaning business 4-8 new calls per day. Anyway Spammers got hired by local competitor who were copying my content, spinning it and spamming it all over the net. I started offering free services and wrote reviews on his services. You should of read the Spam articles that got spun out by those spinners. In the end the competitor was getting requests for free everything, the spinners even put his entire business offering it for free to customers. I also actively went around and requested the websites with my spun content be removed. 90% removed the spam. They also attack your NAP details if you rely on local listings. Im in Australia. I been marketing my little roofing business since 2011 so was there when the major anti spam updates occurred. I didnt get hit with any penalties then but branded my business rather exact domain name match, NAP is the best way to take out a local business. I done it myself. Reporting incorrect NAP. Blackhats will add keywords into the Google business title that is not actually their business name. If someone copying your hard written content, start offering free something, FREE FREE the spinners cannot tell whats being offered for free.

  5. MatijaZ

    So, basically what you are saying that someone can deliberately ruin the online presence of someone else. Simply by making bad links to a site…… Even with automated methods.
    If that’s true (and it looks like it is), someone can push down your site simply by ordering massive backlinks for 5 or so dollars.
    Wouldn’t Google consider this in his algo?
    Regards

    1. Ryan Sullivan

      Yep, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Google denies that it’s possible, but it definitely still is. I’m sure they’ll continue to refine and make adjustments but for now, there are ways to gain competitive advantage with negative SEO.

  6. IMHR

    I think it is important to note, that if anyone suspects a drop in rankings, to try not to panic as there are more common causes to consider first; Perhaps a bunch of backlinks that your SEO guys built were not as high quality as you might want and the search engines updated algorithms have reflected this. Perhaps you had a ‘recent comments’ link that turned into 100’s of links from a specific Website, but it is no longer that recent and therefore not showing anymore as replaced by more recent comments. Either way, oftentimes i’ve found this is nothing that a few more high quality backlinks can’t fix, unless of course you are experiencing something more malicious. Oh and check your Webmaster tools for manual penalty notifications at least.

  7. Design and Promote

    yea negative seo can be a detrimental thing. i wonder how google knows what links are spammy and how to count them or not. seems like a lot of extra work for the person who has been hit.

  8. Don Hesh

    I had a same issue.
    One of my competitors build 1000’s of spam links for my site.

    Guess, what?
    Google thought those are very relevant because if citation (Anchor text). and I’m in number 2 for “SEO Consultant” for Australia.

    1. Danny

      Did they actually use “SEO Consultant” for the anchor text when spamming?

  9. Eusevio

    I wish there was a way to know which method google dislike. My website has recently drop and i don’t know what i did to cause this. I like several tools that show whats wrong with your website, but there was an seo analyzer that would be great.

  10. RE Johnson

    There should be stiff penalties for those slouches caught doing this black hat BS, all is far in making money my a##!

    There has to be something that can be done? I received an email today from a service offering negative SEO and instantly became worried. What if companies start using these services for offensive rather than defensive means? Not rarely as Google states but as normal business practice?

  11. siddartha

    Thanks Ryan for your precious articles regarding Negative SEO. Actually i was totally unfamiliar about this news and I’m sorry you went through that someone did this to your company.

  12. Darren

    It looks like we’ve suffered a negative SEO attack recently, it might even be ongoing – hence my searching around the term late at night. We’d obviously like to tie our problem to someone, firstly to stop them doing it and secondly start legal action for loss of business.

    You say you employed sophisticated techniques, but it would be really useful to know exactly what tools and processes you used to track the culprit down…

  13. Ahsan Parwez

    That’s sad Ryan, I have been in the SEO industry for long enough, and have predicted to my friends that negative SEO will become a business since white hat is too difficult for unskilled people to perform.

    And in 2014 negative SEO became a business and like you said, companies did hire them to take out the competition completely. Search Engines specially Google need to be more careful when such spammy links are being built and I think it isn’t tough to program their search algorithm to do that on its own.

    I do hope you recover from it and I suggest submit a Link Disavow request to Google (though they are slow to act, but do it just in case)

  14. Marshall

    Yes I agree it is entirely Google’s fault. A mess they created maybe in good faith trying to clean of their index but us the people in the field pay the price of their meddling.

  15. Doug Smith

    I’ve had a site affected by negative SEO. I had a few spammy WordPress comments and bbPress posts slip through the filters. The spammers included their info and links in those posts then linked to them from thousands of shady sites. I cleaned up the posts within a few hours but they kept linking over a couple weeks.

    I’m not so sure this was a deliberate attack against my site, though. It could have just been part of a mass spam campaign and they chose my site as the lucky host of the day. But either way, the negative SEO effect was the same.

    Fortunately, I was able to get search results back to normal after a few weeks and a bunch of work with Google Google disavow tool. Unfortunately, it took a lot of time that I’ll never get back.

  16. Brian Jackson

    Great article Ryan! I have published two articles on this subject now on my blog. People aren’t realizing how important and how big of a problem this really is. I just spent all day cleaning up over 60,000+ links from a recent Negative SEO attack. I published my post here: http://okaymarketing.com/easily-cleanup-negative-seo-web-ceo-rmoov/ I gave you a mention in the article 🙂 I appreciate others finally starting to write about this. Keep up the great work.

  17. Rob

    Sorry to see that someone isn’t confident in their own marketing and skillset to have to attack your company Ryan. The good news: you’re doing something right 🙂

    The real task at hand: ensure you don’t have this happen again by diversifying your marketing channels through other domains perhaps. Sucks having to, but something I realized a long time ago. Never the less, brand-impact around a name is brutal.

    Good luck on the upswing.

  18. Dan

    It’s seems to be human condition that there will always be people making money at the detriment of others. Why can’t we spend this time that we spend attacking others coming up with something new. Something creative!

    The Google Disavow tool can help assuming you catch it early enough, but we have seen these attacks before on our own sites and client sites, and they suck.

    1. Graham

      The disavow tool isn’t even a great solution. I have a client with a 15 year old domain and 30 year business. They used SEO services provided by their hosting company who they trusted. These SEO services were massive GSA backlinks to their domain and caused them to drop like a rock in the rankings. They cancelled the SEO but whatever automated system they use is continually spamming links.

      They had a manual action penalty in Webmaster Tools that I got removed after submitting a disavow file but the disavow is so slow compared to the rate at which spam links are being built.

      So it’s a negative SEO paradise right now.

  19. Leslie Stallard

    Sad that people would do that to you and, for what? It’s taking food off your table, don’t people stop and think about that? I’d read about SEO hacking but that’s it. Unfortunately the only thing to do is react quickly and aggressively if it happens. Years ago I had a business that was hacked in a different way and within a month was dead in the water. No income. Don’t know why or who.

    It would be nice if the SEO profile were required to be submitted to Google or Bing etc. and any changes confirmed by some authentication of the site owner. Probably not doable. Glad you found a way back.

  20. Ahmad Awais

    That’s sad! I think, you must share who you think did this, so that we as a community could do something. I’ve been a victim of an attack just like that, it was the day when I decided to stop sharing my products with people.

  21. Digital Challenger

    Never knew that negative SEO can effect a small business this big…..it would be great to know what steps are taken by wpsitecares & the strategy of recovery.

  22. John Locke

    Hi Ryan:

    Sorry to hear that someone did this to your company, and doubly sad that someone inside the community is behind it. You are a bigger person than I would be in this situation, by not naming names. Bad things happen when perpetrators are revealed on the internet.

    The attackers are cowards. That isn’t the way to do business. One can only think that karma will come back to bite them in the ass. You and your team have done a lot of hard work, and third-party links shouldn’t be able to devastate rankings like that. Hopefully Google will wake up.

    1. Ryan

      Agreed on all points John. I don’t know if I’m necessarily the bigger person though. Just playing things close to the vest for now 😉

  23. Simon

    It really is tough to have to go through this. I am sorry to hear this happened. For a few years now folks that would cheat in one way are now gaming Google in another way – NSEO. These said cheaters (for lack of a better term) are simply creating crap spam sites and linking competition to kill their traffic. It’s seems obvious right?

    You know what google is doing about it? Nothing. Their stance is that this “rarely happens” and crying wolf. Yeah, ok. If by rarely they mean it is agency versus agency or consultant versus consultant, then yeah rare compared to the overall SERPs. That is a very small part of the SERPs. It’s no less damaging though.

    We were building unique content every day. We were posting every day. We gave back like Google said to do, but more importantly because it is the right way to do content. Then one day we slowly were being beat in key words we dominated ironically by spammy sites despite the content footprint growing.

    We got a second opinion, third opinion, and fourth opinion – NSEO. We went to Google forums asking how this could be possible. We were literally called “spammy” not because of our content, but because there was a link somewhere somehow on a spammy website we never built. We NEVER pay for links, but still got hammered. You can pay $5 for a ton of toxic links I came to find.

    Word to the wise, if you are putting all your SEO efforts into Google it is best to diversify that with other SEs. Why, because if your blog has less than 1mil per month then you unfortunately don’t matter to them and you are wide open for attack. That is why large corps don’t get slapped with anything.

    My 2 cents.

    1. Ryan

      Yep. Diversity search engines and also diversify all of your strategies. Putting too much effort in search in general is like putting all of your eggs in one basket. It can be taken away literally overnight. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  24. Sarah Pressler

    Oh man, Ryan. What a horrible thing to have happen – and from w/in our own community. Makes me want to duck and cover. I’m sorry this happened. 🙁

  25. Ben Fox

    Wow. I’m sorry you went through that and I’m disappointed it was someone in the community. You want I should grab Dre and Kiko and we teach him a lesson MMA style? No? Ok…just asking.

    Anyways. Ryan, can you elaborate a little on the tools you used to find the bad SEO JuJu and what you did to start the recovery process?

    Do you have any recommendations on how to protect one’s self and business from this kind of attack?

    1. Ben Fox

      I’ll add, I know you dropped some links in the article, but anything you personally learned or found useful?

    2. Robert Neu

      Yo Ben,

      The unfortunate reality is that there really isn’t much you can do to protect yourself from this kind of attack. Really, in this situation, your only defense is your offense.

      The larger and more well-established your website is, the less impact these kind of attacks will have. The people who really get screwed when something like this happens are people without much authority in Google’s eyes when it happens. If you want to protect yourself against a spam attack, in today’s search landscape, the only real option is to do everything in your power to build brand and domain authority.

      You need to acquire as many natural links as you possibly can and pray that you don’t find yourself in the sights of a spammer before that happens. Until Google changes the way their algorithm works, anyone without a strong, authoritative domain is at serious risk for being totally blasted out of the search results.

      If it does happen to you, there are steps that can be taken, such as take-down requests, the disavow tool, and hiring an agency that specializes in link cleanup, but if it’s bad enough to go down that road in many cases you might just be better off closing up shop or rebooting entirely. It’s a sad state of affairs and IMO it’s entirely Google’s fault.

  26. Tony

    Sorry to hear this happened to you. It’s unbelievable that people run their businesses, and worse, live their lives based on negativity. I guess that’s why there are so many haters in the world!

    Happy to hear you were able to catch it and recover quickly. Valuable lesson to keep track of your metrics! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Ryan

      Thanks Tony. It definitely isn’t cool but I’m glad our story isn’t as ugly a some others that I’ve seen. And definitely lame that people think the only path to success is by pushing down everyone around them.

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