Author Note: It’s been almost four years since we originally published this post, and a lot has changed in the SEO world over that time. A lot has changed within our company, too. Negative SEO is harder to execute because of updates to Google’s algorithm, but they still rely heavily on reporting from website owners to combat it completely. Let’s dig into Negative SEO in 2019!
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Let me introduce you to my “friend,” Negative SEO. In a nutshell, Negative SEO is 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.
Story Time: Getting Hit by Negative SEO
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 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 website 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 search engine positions we’d spent a lot of time and money working toward.
The Source of the Negative SEO Backlink Attack Killed Us
Even a bigger issue than the number of sudden links, was the spike in unnatural links from so many unsavory sources over the course of a few days. To be clear, these links weren’t coming from Buzzfeed or CNN.com. They were coming from the darkest corners of the internet.
A huge uptick in links, especially when they’re from shady sources is a massive red flag for Google and our site dropped out for a number of very important search rankings for over 30 days. Google thought we were trying to cheat the system and penalized us accordingly. It wasn’t good.
And while Google claims that that negative SEO is “extremely rare”, there are 58,700,000 results returned when you search for that phrase. And in 2019, while improvements have been made, Google still relies heavily on the disavow backlinks tool to identify unnatural links.
How Does Negative SEO Happen?
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 on their behalf to squash the competition.
In 2013, a very good friend’s podcast website was completely wiped out of Google search rankings after a massive spam attack. 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 cooked (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:
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 = Drop in Revenue
By dropping out of Google’s good graces, our company’s bottom line definitely suffered. 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. It was tough to decipher 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’ve since recovered and everything is back on track from an organic search perspective, but not everyone is going to to have the resources or knowhow to get reestablished in the search engines. It’s such a shady practice and I’d really love to see Google make it a higher priority.
Long term, it’s unclear if we’ve been put on some kind of Google watchlist for future suspicious activity. I hate to think that someone else’s actions have given Google a reason not to trust us, but it certainly isn’t out of the question.
What to Do if You’re Hit With a Negative SEO Attack
Using some sophisticated techniques, we were able to trace back to the source of the spam attack. 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.
And as much as I like the idea of calling them out, it doesn’t actually improve our situation in any way. The only reason I even mention it is so that hopefully that person reads this and knows what they’re doing is impacting the livelihood’s of people and their families.
But the reality is, knowing where the attack originated gets us no closer to recovering from negative SEO. There’s no undo button even if the attacker had a miraculous change of heart. We still had to do the work to get back in Google’s good graces.
3 Steps for Recovering from a Negative SEO Attack
There are a number of great resources that do a deep dive on this exact topic which I’ll link to below, but at a high level, here are the steps to follow:
- Identify you’ve actually been hit with negative SEO. This may sound obvious, but website traffic can decline for all sorts of reasons. Negative SEO is only one potential cause. Things like algorithm updates, competitor savviness, and on-page SEO can all impact your search engine rankings. You can use a tool like ahrefs.com or semrush.com to identify an unnatural upswing in backlinks. And then using their keyword tools, you’ll be able to see if the links you’re receiving are relative to your content or not. If your recipe website suddenly has a thousand new backlinks referencing Bahamian hedge funds, you may have been hit with negative SEO.
- Disavow backlinks from untrusted sources. Google’s disavow backlinks tool allows website owners to identify websites that are linking to them and disavow the link, essentially telling Google not to factor that link into their rankings. This is an incredibly powerful tool and I don’t recommend using it without the guidance or assistance of SEO professionals. Once a domain is disavowed, it’s permanent. Meaning if you accidentally disavow a valid domain, no existing or future links from that website will give you credit in search. And there’s no way to reverse it. Identifying truly malicious websites can also require sifting through thousands of domains, which is another reason I recommend hiring a professional team to assist.
- Build incredible content as fast as you can. When it comes to negative SEO, the best offense is a good offense. Building competitive, high-quality, and industry-adjacent content as quickly and as well as possible is the best opportunity you have to return to Google’s good graces. Give Google a reason to trust you again by showing your phenomenal contributions to the internet.
More Resources for Negative SEO
If you’re more inclined to do heavy research and potentially go the DIY route with a negative SEO recovery (or simply want to understand the nuts and bolts of the whole process better), here are some fantastic resources to help you:
- How to Recover from a Negative SEO Attack. This five-part series on negative SEO from Search Engine Land is one of the most comprehensive on the internet. It starts with definitions and goes all the way through deep strategy for recovering Google rankings after a negative search torpedo.
- Negative SEO: Should You Be Worried? If Attacked, What Should You Do? This is more of a beginner’s guide to negative SEO, but it still has a lot of great insights and basic building blocks for understanding and preparing for negative SEO.
- How To Detect (And Deflect) Negative SEO. I really like this guide from Ahrefs because it shows you exactly how to identify and build defenses against negative SEO using their suite of tools.
Four Years Later: Reflections on Surviving a Negative SEO Attack
We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to rebound from our negative SEO episode relatively quickly. Many 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.
I still occasionally see trends or little hints that there may still be a long-term impact from that original attack, but nothing conclusive. I might be overly sensitive, but I suppose that’s one of the long term effects of dealing with the fallout from a negative SEO attack — wondering if someday you’ll be hit again, or if you are on some kind of watch list that’s impeding potential growth.
The best path forward is to be prepared. If you suspect you’ve been a victim of negative SEO, or live in a highly competitive organic search world that may make you more susceptible, you may want to talk to some SEO professionals about strengthening your negative SEO shields. (Need a recommendation for an SEO consultant? Our parent company, Southern Web, offers comprehensive digital marketing services, including SEO!)
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.