Negative SEO seems to be a common practice these days. Basically it is a process that uses automated link building tools to create tons of unnatural links to your site (usually with bad anchors) in order to hurt your rankings. In my experience these unethical strategies do not work most of the time, but when it comes to smaller websites, that have a fragile backlink profile, they can do a lot of damage. Although in some cases I have seen how these thousands of bad links actually helped the site get betters SERPs, this case study is going to focus on the problem where such link blasts decreased the ranking of the sites.
Negative SEO Strategies
- Automated link creation – This is the process of creating thousands of automated links to your site in order to get a penalty by Google. Depending on the backlink portfolio of the site, different number of links are required to cause any real effect. Analyze your backlinks from time to time to see if there are some links that need removing. If you notice any problems like the ones described above, use the Disavow tool to neutralize the attack.
- Stealing content before it gets indexed – This one can really hurt, the attacker copies your content, publishes it and tries to get it indexed before you, making it look like they are the original creators and you are just duplicating them. Check Google for duplicates by searching for exact matches on full sentences. If you find such sites duplicating your content send them a DMCA complaint.
- DMCA removal requests – DMCA requests can be the most damaging and hard to notice. Targeting your most valuable backlinks, your competitors contact the webmasters of the sites threatening them with DMCA complaints for the pages linking to you. The only defense here is to look for a drop in referral traffic and track your backlinks. Also a occasional thank you email to a webmaster who linked your site is a nice gesture that can prevent such an attack. If the webmasters have some kind of relationship with you, they will at least ask you why are you sending them DMCA notices and you can clear things up before any damage is done.
The Negative SEO Attack
On October 17th, Google unrolled Penguin 3.0 which supposedly affected around 1% of English search queries. If you are new to SEO, you should know that Penguin algorithm updates are focused on artificially created unnatural links that Google believes to be an attempt to manipulate the ranking results and as such the sites caught doing it are punished.
Unfortunately, the Google Penguin 3.0 update crushed two of my sites that were ranking very well for a medium competition keywords. They dropped from the first half of page one to nowhere for almost any keyword I was tracking. The first thing I did was to check Google for another algorithm update. Some called it “The Ebola Update” some called it “Penguin 3.0”, but no matter the name the damage was done.
A little background about the sites. Both of them were at least four years old and were doing really well due to the fact that when I first launched them, the competition was very low, something like 20.000 SERPs in total. The content was the kind users love and they started spreading the word in forums, blogs, social media, etc. very quickly. So without any link building efforts from my side, both sites were building impressive natural backlink portfolios. Both sites are the first and last fairytale cases I know of in the last few years, maybe I was lucky, I do not know. Why try to build any backlinks for my sites when the users were doing it for free?
Knowing this, the first logical question was “why on earth will Google punish my sites?”. It turned out there was a reason. After doing a quick backlink analysis with Ahrefs, I found out that in the last 30 days I got more than 14.000 new links to the first site and they were the kind you did not want.
The attacker managed to create 14.000 new links with super diverse anchor texts including all the “bad” words I was aware of along with their translations in Chinese, Korean, Russian, Greek and many other languages. Combinations with some of my keywords + bad language and generic anchor texts like “read more”, “visit poster’s website” and “Home” were also included in the mix. This looked quite similar to the footprint a badly setup campaign from a known automated backlink software was leaving behind. The situation with the second site was almost identical. It was clear that this was a negative SEO attack.
The Google Disavow Links Tool
Back in October 2012, Google released the Disavow links tool that enabled webmasters to remove low-quality spammy links that they did not control. Since the release of the tool, not much has changed. You upload the list of URLs linking to your site that you wish to disavow and you wait. And I mean you really wait, sometime up to a point where you start to think that nothing has changed.
I have never been a fan of the Disavow Tool, but this time I decided to give it a shot. First thing I had to do is filter out the bad links from the rest of the bunch. I had all my links in a Excel file with the referring URL and the anchor text used. Luckily the attacker made my job easier by using the same anchors on multiple links. I had to use Google Translate to find out the meaning of the translated ones, but in less than two hours I was done with building my disavow URL lists. I had to be careful, I did not want to remove any links that were created natural and were good for my site so I had to do some manual checking too for the links that were using the site URL and generic keywords as a anchor texts.
On October 20th I submitted my disavow links to Google for both sites.
Does the Disavow Links Tool Work?
This part of the article will focus on the different updates in a period of 60 days after submitting the disavow links list. During this period no changes will be made to the site, nor any other ranking factors.
- 31.10.2014 – I am starting to see some movement. The first site (S1) which ranked for keywords S1KW1 and S1KW2 on the 7th and 6th position and dropped to nowhere on both keywords, started to show a bit of movement on S1KW1 which is now ranked on position 46th.
The second site (S2) which ranked for S2KW1 on the 3rd position before the update and was dropped to nowhere, it started rising and now it is on position 88th.
- 05.12.2014 – Today I checked SerpBook again, and I see that S1 has moved again for S1KW1 is on position 16 and S1KW2 on 64, S2 has dropped even lower going below the 100 mark.
- 13.12.2014 – Since S2 is not performing like expected, I decided to sacrifice this site for the sake of the experiment and remove the disavowed URLs from Google Webmaster Tools. I will wait for a while to see what will happen.
- 14.02.2015 – Almost two months since I last checked the status of these sites. Things have changed, I am back on page 2 for almost any keyword I ranked for both sites. It seems that Google took its time and finally did something about the link spam. Although P2 is not perfect and does not compare to being in the top 3 on P1, it is better than being buried in the SERPs.