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Negative SEO: How to Identify and Combat

February 5, 2016

Negative SEO: How to Identify and Combat

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is when someone tries to lower your site’s search engine rankings. The most common method of attack is via manipulative link-building, but there is also a plethora of sophisticated techniques that can be used.

What is the Impact of Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is essentially the opposite of SEO. Therefore just as SEO increases page rankings and visibility with search engines, negative SEO decreases these. Negative SEO is often viewed by search engines as unnatural link-building and, therefore, a breach of guidelines. This results in penalisation which decreases rankings, and in serious cases can even result in removal from certain rankings. Although sites can resolve the issues, which we will cover later on, it can take time to notice the attack and take the appropriate action. During this period, the drop in traffic impacts revenue, and can take a while to regain traction once the attack has been dealt with.

Examples of Negative SEO

There are several red flags that reliably indicate a negative SEO link-based attack:

  • An influx of links from TLDs (Top-Level Domains) such as .ru, .pl, .cz, .cn, .biz and .info. This list is not exhaustive, and some of these links could be natural, but a surge in links from any foreign or unusual TLDs should be investigated.
  • Links from foreign forums and nonsense articles.
  • An influx of links from sites that offer payday loans, porn or gambling.
  • Keyword-anchored links from multiple sites (note that the odd site-wide link from a dubious website may not be a cause for concern).

An example of another type of negative SEO is “review bombing”. This is when popular review sites receive an influx of positive reviews about your site, or worse still, “reverse review bombing”, which is false negative reviews. While the former can be construed as harmless, to search engines it can seem unnatural. Unless the reviews are abusive, it may not be possible to have them removed, so if your site is a victim, liaise with the search engines about your concerns. Additionally, track mentions of your site, company or product and when appropriate, add comments or join conversations to set the record straight.

Cases of Mistaken Identity

There are a number of situations that are commonly mistaken for negative SEO. Links that seem a bit strange are not always an indication of negative SEO. For example, links from sites that provide domain information and sites that scrape dmoz.org and alexa.com are likely to be natural. Some websites link to nearly all sites out there, such as mrwhatis.net, askives.com and m.biz directories. Numerous links from these sites will not be considered unnatural by the search engines and are unlikely to be associated with a negative SEO attack.

Who is at a Higher Risk of Attack?

Businesses in competitive niches like insurance, payday loans, pharmaceuticals and online casinos are at a higher risk of negative SEO attacks by unscrupulous competitors. To implement negative SEO attacks, hundreds of hours are required to seek out loopholes in search engine algorithms – and to adjust tactics when the algorithms are revised. Competitors in the above markets have the capital to invest huge amounts of time and money into negative SEO attacks, and as a result are often knowledgeable about the more sophisticated methods of attack.

Other businesses that are at a higher risk include those that bought link-building packages or engaged an SEO company in the past. These may have created unnatural links which, prior to Google Penguin in 2012, were effective in boosting page rankings and did not incur any penalty from search engines. Unnatural links such as these, even if they were made years ago and have since been removed, may continue to replicate and make it more likely for the site to be affected by negative SEO. This is because search engine algorithms may not be able to tell which links are self-made and which are part of an attack, thus bad links might not be discounted.

How to Combat Negative SEO

If you’re concerned that your site may be under attack from negative SEO, there are a number of steps you can take to combat it:

Audit your backlinks

The first step is to use tools like ahrefs.com, majesticseo.com, opensiteexplorer.org and Google Webmaster Tools to track your site’s backlinks. It is important to use a variety of tools as unnatural links may be indexed in one but not another. In each tool, look for a section on “backlink types” and see how many “redirects” are pointing at your site. There are likely to be a few natural redirects, including any affiliates you may have that redirect to your site. Check this figure on a weekly basis and if the number rises sharply, this could indicate a negative SEO attack.

This process is termed a “backlink audit”, and even when there is no suspected negative SEO attack, it is wise to perform such a review once a month. As well as identifying potential negative SEO, backlink audits help you identify positive natural link-building. This can be great for gaining insight into where organic links are coming from, subsequently inspiring ideas on how to generate more.

Backlink removal

Search engine algorithms, such as Google Penguin, are designed to catch negative SEO and discount it so that it does not erroneously damage site rankings. However, no algorithm is 100% reliable, so it is important to act upon the findings of your backlink audits. Create an Excel spreadsheet to document your backlinks, and extract one link from each domain. Break these down to the subdomain level, for example, example.com instead of http://www.example.com/page1.html. Then analyse each and sort them into a “natural” or “unnatural” column, which you could name “keep” and “disavow” respectively. You can use the “VLOOKUP” function in future audits to avoid analysing domains you have previously audited.

Once the domains are sorted, you should first attempt to – or ask your webmaster to – manually remove the unnatural links. This is the recommended procedure by Google. When as much work as possible has been done to remove these links, and no further progress can be made, it is time to use Google’s “Disavow” tool to ask Google to discount the remaining unnatural links. Ensure that you have updated your Excel spreadsheet to transfer any domains that have been removed manually to a separate column.

The disavow process is automated, so it is important that Google receives the domains in the correct format. Copy your “disavow”, or “unnatural”, domain column into another worksheet. Then add “domain:” in front of each of the site names, for example, domain:example.com. If your list of domains starts in A1, you can use the formula =”domain:”&A1 in B1 to automatically add the “domain:”. Then “paste special” the formula as “values” into the remaining fields in the B column. Copy the B column into Notepad to save the data as a .txt file, or use another application of your choice to convert to .txt.

Now you are ready to request the disavow with Google, so head to the Disavow tool and select your site from the dropdown menu. Select “disavow links” and then upload the .txt file. If an error message appears, you may have to revise the .txt file. Common errors include the “http://www.” still being present, ports at the end of a domain like “.com:8080”, or unusual characters. Domains with unusual characters like “¼” or accents will not be resolved so simply remove them from the list.

Once the upload is successful, click on submit and Google will disavow the requested domains, taking effect the next time it recrawls the links. This generally happens within a month, but can take as long as three months. Google states the longest it can take is one year.

Professional help

If all this seems rather complicated, you are worried about doing something wrong, or you just need to ask a few questions, you’ll benefit from our professional help. As a specialist agency, using our Rank+1 approach, we’ve worked with clients who have been victims of negative SEO, and we understand how stressful and damaging it can be. With our proven data driven approach, we will help you combat negative SEO, from auditing and removing your unnatural backlinks to rebuilding your rankings.


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