Yes, negative SEO is a real thing that can affect your website.
What is negative SEO?
There is a whole cottage industry built around taking your online competitors down. These days you don’t have to launch the attack yourself you can just hire a black hat off of fivverr.com to do it for you. Unfortunately, many people drift into these tactics and launch negative SEO attacks on one another. The internet is a competition for visibility and not everyone likes to play by rules.
A negative SEO attack can be very damaging. If a new website is launched and it doesn’t really have any history or other credible backlinks, a negative SEO campaign can completely wipe a new website off the map getting completely de-indexed by Google. Wherein a website that has been around for a while will be able to withstand the attack and whether the storm.
You may notice things like a drop in your ranking on the search engine results page (SERP), a drop in traffic, or possibly an increase in traffic from less than reputable sources… My guess is if you are reading this you already know you know your website has been hit and you are ready to do something about it. So what can you do?
This is my quick, step by step guide that I use to diagnose spam attacks and counter them. Again this is a quick easy to use guide of how to detect spam and get rid of it fast and fix your website. For this, I just focus on Google (sorry Bing) and I mostly focus on SEO and not how to technically find the hack within the website. This is an action plan from an SEO perspective showing you how to keep your business safe online.
Here are the tools I will be using in these examples and what you should consider getting access to in order to counter a negative SEO attack…
- Google Search Console (Webmaster Tools)
- Google Analytics
First, you need to determine how your website has been hit before you can launch a full SEO recovery plan. So answer this question… what tipped you off? There are many different kinds of negative SEO techniques.
- Have they sent a bunch of spammy forum comments to your web page?
- Have they infiltrated your site and built out pages or subdomains off of you main domain?
- Perhaps they hijacked your comments section and sent links to weird?
1. Check Manual Actions
Log into Google search console and check to see if they have hit you with any manual actions. This will help confirm exactly what the attack was. In this case, the action was ‘Unnatural links to your website’. If you see a penalty it will make it easier to diagnose the issue.
- Unnatural links to your website penalty
- Unnatural links from your website penalty
- User generated spam penalty
- Hacked website penalty
- Pure spam penalty
- Spammy structured markup penalty
- Hidden text of keyword stuffing penalty
- Thin content with low or no added value penalty
- Cloaking or sneaky redirects penalty
- Spammy free host penalty
If don’t see a manual action that doesn’t mean you haven’t been hacked (it just means Google hasn’t officially caught it yet with a manual penalty)
2. Monitor Google Analytics
This is where you may be tipped off that something is wrong. Keep a look-out for any abnormal spikes in traffic. As you can see here, we were hit around September and this drove our traffic up in Google Analytics.
3. Check Security Issues
Move down in the search console and check the security issues. If you see something here, again that is a good sign because it means Google has caught something and is notifying you. From here it is easy to follow-up on what actions to take because Google will help lead you into the process.
If you don’t see any notification in the security issues tab, again that doesn’t mean you haven’t been hacked or that your site isn’t compromised… it just means Google hasn’t caught it yet. So let’s move onto the next steps and do a little detective work and find the spam.
4. Check Backlinks
The question… who is linking to my website? What is SPAM and what isn’t?
Use Ahrefs to view your backlink profile. It is a great tool for seeing what domains are linking to your website, as well as seeing what pages on your website are getting the most links sent to them. This is a great tool for identifying spam and backlink cleanup. Keep this in mind as you view the next couple screenshots.
You should be able to use the free trial. Setup an account and log in, once you are in – enter in your website domain and see what the main timeline looks like.
Pro tip #1 – Use Ahrefs Alerts & Disavow Feature
You can use Ahref backlinks alerts to get notified about any unwanted backlinks. Always track your new backlinks. The referring domains graph in Ahref tool is very helpful in detecting any sudden changes in your backlinks. So that you can always fix it on time before it can affect your site ranking. Ahref recently launched a new feature to its wide features “Disavow links”. It’s bit costly but worth trying if you can fit it in your budget.
–Alok Rana, Founder – Loud Techie
If your backlink profile looks like this you may have a problem…
Pro tip #2 – Use a backlink monitoring tool
Setting up a backlink monitoring tool is a must if you are trying to prevent negative SEO or spam from affecting your site. After all, you can’t stop what you can’t see. Currently, there is no tool in the market that can prevent bad links from being built to your site. But by effectively monitoring the links that are being built to your online properties, you can stop and actively deal with attacks as they happen, which can help to significantly reduce the damage caused by those types of negative links.
–Ramon Khan, Online Marketing Director – National Air Warehouse
Pro tip #3 – Linkody can be a good option to Monitor Backlinks
There are several tools that can help to prevent a harmful attack and send you timely updates once the suspicious activity has been spotted. One of them is Linkody. This tools helps you to monitor all your backlinks, their metrics and send you daily or weekly updates of your link profile.
Once you start monitoring your backlinks, pay attention to these backlink metrics:
- Backlinks from websites with high Spam Score – 17/17 is the highest, 0/17 is the lowest and safest score. Everything above 7 should be Disavowed.
- Check for a lot of links with unrelated Anchor Texts, low Domain Authority scores, links from unrelated industries and/or in foreign languages.
- Check for hidden links – those are links that use anchor text as a “white” text or ” ” a lot of spaces.
These are the basics of making sure you have a healthy link profile.
Once you have spotted the harmful links, Linkody has a “one-click” Disavowal option that you should definitely use if you spot “red flags” in your link profile.
–Helvis Smoteks, Marketing Specialist at Linkody
5. Be aware of any large spikes in traffic.
In September of 2016, we were hit with a negative SEO campaign. You can see from the screenshots above that in September – December there was an abrupt jump in traffic. No matter what tool you use, you need to monitor your website for any unusual spikes in traffic. There are many tools you can choose from which are recommended by our experts.
Pro tip #4 – Sign up for Google Webmaster Alerts
Spammers and negative backlinks can hamper your SEO efforts. Keep on top of both negative and positive backlinks by signing up for email alerts in Google Webmaster Tools. You can track your backlinks profile and get email alerts automatically. Be mindful to track your top backlinks to make sure that you aren’t accidentally creating negative SEO by linking from low-quality sites. If you feel you have been hit with an attack, contact the negative sites’ webmaster, or the hosting provider to remove the link to your site.
–Mark Tadman, Top Template Engineer at NinjaCat
Thank you, Mark. Next, we’ll drill down into these graphs to see what this odd traffic is all about.
6. Check the Anchor Text of your backlinks
Ahrefs is a great tool and will reveal who is linking to you, and what anchor text they are using. This is useful in finding a potential motive for the attack. In this case, there seems to be pills and pharmaceutical spam. When you get to this page and have a list. In this case, they are sending traffic to a bunch of fake directory links.
Pro tip #5 – Filter your backlinks
Using backlink services such as Majestic or Ahrefs, filter the backlinks based on Anchor text (if a known anchor text is associated with the negative SEO), or filter the backlinks based on link quality (both Majestic and Ahrefs use different quality score so you would need to come up with a threshold for each) then use Google Search Console Disavow tool to tell Google that these are spammy backlinks to your site.
-Tony Hsieh, SEO Specialist at Digital Ready Marketing
Go to the bottom left of the page and export these links. (This will come in handy later)
7. Check 404 crawl error page backlinks
While you are already in detective mode, open up your crawl errors window to see if there are any irregularities.
You want to look and see if any of these pages are taking on any strange external links. I don’t believe there is a negative impact on the Google results page from spam links to your already 404’d pages but what you want to do is add any weird external links that you find as you go through your pages to the spreadsheet that you have already created from the Ahrefs exported CSV. Make a list of any pages that have weird links built to them.
8. Disavow bad backlinks
Now it’s time for action. So how do I remove bad backlinks?
First, take that spreadsheet of weird links that you have compiled from Ahrefs and your 404 crawl errors and format it to a txt file. Remember to strip out all the extra sub-domains and directories from the URL and just list out the main domain. You can put a comment at the top of the file as well.
Example Disavow File:
# I tried to get these spammers off my page but they insist on sending me bad backlinks
That’s it! Just open the disavow tool and upload your file. Now it is out of your hands and you have done all you can do at this point for removing bad backlinks pointing to your website.
Pro tip #6 – Automation: Streamlining the Disavow process
If someone is using a spam creation tool like GSA Ser to just assault you with thousands of bad links. Of course, doing Disavow manually can be pretty painful. A better use of your time is going to be to create a Standard Operating Procedure for link removal. Once you get this systematized and super simple to follow, hire out a VA for a couple hundred dollars to go and do it for you while you focus to continue to grow your business and serve your customers.
-Greg Elfrink, Content Manager – Empire Flippers
Pro tip #7 – Have faith in Google’s Penguin 4.0 Algorithm update
In my opinion, most attempts at negative SEO via link building will fail. It took Google a really long time to come out with their new version of the Penguin algorithm in late 2016. I think that one of the reasons why it took so long for them to do this is because they were working hard to produce an algorithm that would not reward spammy link building but rather, would just ignore those links so that innocent sites would not get hurt. I think that prior to the release of Penguin 4.0, the ability for someone to effectively get a site demoted by building spammy links was small. After Penguin 4.0, it’s even harder to accomplish this.
In most cases, if a site owner contacts me because they suddenly notice an influx of spammy links to their site, I advise them to keep an eye on traffic and do nothing. This is even true if you are seeing ultra spammy porn and pharmacy links. I really do feel that Google is good at ignoring these.
However, this is not a popular opinion. Usually, when I say that I feel that negative SEO via links is close to impossible, I’ll have blackhats argue with me and tell me how they were able to take a site down by pointing bad links at it. However, I’ve yet to see a case where I felt that negative SEO had worked.
I think that there is no harm in using Google’s disavow tool in order to ask them not to count these links. However, I also think that time could be better spent working on other things.
-Marie Haynes, Owner – Marie Haynes Consulting Inc.
9. Report Web Spam in Google
Now it is time to double down on your efforts. The defense doesn’t end with just simply disavowing bad backlinks. Now it’s time to report those domains to Google for spamming. This may take some time up front, but this should help Google take action quickly if you also take this step to report the offending websites
Try to be as specific as possible when submitting a SPAM Report. You will have several options to choose from.
We have neutralized the external websites that are pointing to our site. Now, what about our website itself? It is time to take the fight to internal pages that have been compromised.
10. How to identify compromised internal SPAM pages
Now Let’s look in the mirror (at our website) and begin the process of cleaning house of any junk spam that could be living there. So let’s take a look at our website and see if any of our internal pages are compromised.
Pro tip #8 – Response to Getting Spammed With Fake Parameters
Protecting yourself from fake parameters
This type of negative SEO technique is done when attackers use fake parameters that point to URLs on your site. For example, they can create irrelevant keywords as parameters such as “marijuana.” These instances would prompt Google Panda to penalize your site and hurt your site’s credibility, relevance, and search rankings.
How to protect yourself?
The best way to protect yourself is to prevent this instance from happening. You can do this by using a canonical URL to specify a preferred version of your web page. A canonical URL points search engines to the preferred URL, and therefore will be ranked that way by Google. This makes sure that no other versions of the URL will be indexed and ranked. Another way to prevent this attack is to configure your server to “no index” unknown parameters.
–Blake Hooser, CEO – Ilfusion Creative
Pro tip #9 – WordPress Hacking Defense Checklist 101
The most common way of hacking websites, especially WordPress websites, is SQL injection or FTP brute-forcing. Since most of the developers use standard folder & file structures, database layouts & names and FTP ports, as well as easy-to-hack passwords, one of the easiest solutions for preventing spam generating websites hacks is to:
1) Use long secure passwords;
2) Rename/change standard admin folders or paths;
3) Rename/change standards database table names and layouts;
4) Change FTP access port;
5) Limit access to FTP to known hosts/computers.
–Dmitrii Kustov, Founder – Regexseo
Pro tip #10 – Watch out for Email SPAM & Plagiarism
Unfortunately, it can be fairly difficult to identify if your website has fallen victim of a malicious negative SEO attack if you don’t know what to look for. There are, however, a few actions you can take in order to increase your chances of avoiding a negative SEO attack.
When looking to avoid negative SEO the first thing you should do is analyze your search traffic (via Google Analytics and Google Search Console). By constantly being up to date with your traffic data, you will have the ability to pin point the time if something goes wrong (i.e. a sudden drop in your traffic).
Another action you can take is to check all the content on your website for plagiarism. If you have really amazing and engaging content, the chances are someone else wants it for their own website. Sometimes other websites will simply just copy and paste entire pieces of content. If you find another website has copied your content, make sure you report them to Google.
Also, it is important to check from time to time if someone uses an email spam campaign with your email address (or something very similar). This doesn’t happen very often, but it is still important to check as this can see you receive a penalty from Google as well as doing untold damage to your business’s reputation.
–Lucas Bikowski, CEO – SEO Shark
Remember the step in Ahrefs where we compiled a list of anchor text and bad spammy domains? Now we will do internal searches to see if any of these terms can be seen within the site itself. We will do this by using a series of Google operators.
First, let’s use the search operator “site:” on our example website to see if there is any spam that is indexing.
search operator example: site:example.com (put “site:example.com” in google search engine to see if any spam indexed. Go through all of the indexed pages by Google to see if there is any spam.
See what we find in our example:
This is bad. Why would a physical therapy office in Auburndale be indexing Chinese language pages in Google? The answer? This website has been hacked and these pages need to be removed. We’ll cover that in the last step.
Want to be double or even triple sure you got everything? Do a Google site search in Google using the spam terms that you were able to pick out in your earlier Ahrefs spreadsheet you put together. For instance…
Try using a Google operator along with a spam term, like so:
And let’s see what we find…
Let’s click through to the specific page to see where the hack took place.
In this case, the hackers were able to take over the comments section and posted a lot of spammy links to escort services in India! Yikes – not what we are about at all. These are pure spam backlinks. So the next question is… How do we remove this kind of junk from the Google index?
11. Google URL Removal Tool
To remove content permanently, you must remove or update the source page. That means you need to log into your CMS or FTP and remove these pages manually so that they return a 404 error or a 410.
Once this is the case you can have a better chance that these pages will be removed using the temporary removal tool. After you have deleted the page, put the link into the removal tool.
This is a manual process, so it may take a while but it is the only way to get these bad pages removed from the search engine. Once complete, this process will remove negative search engine results.
Pro tip #11 – Be Aware of Your Brand with Google Alerts
Competition is common in every industry and blogging/SEO is not an exception, but not everyone follows the same ethics.
Negative SEO is a shame and I wish people should stop doing it. Frankly, taking the time to fix it can be a handful once you’re a victim. The good news is Google is getting smarter everyday and it is able to ignore the negative SEO. From your side, you should keep track of any newly created backlinks and brand mentions. If you find any suspicious in your backlink profile, immediately make the list of spammy backlinks and Disavow them using Google webmaster tools.
I recommend webmaster tools to keep track of backlinks and if you can afford some money, consider Ahrefs too. Further, Google alerts is a service that generates a SERP based on criteria you provide – which sends this data right your email. This service is used for many reasons, such as monitoring the web brand mentions of your company, your keywords, and your competition. It will show you the list of newly generated links to your site along with anchor texts. so you are able to discern whether they are normal links or just SPAM. Also, you can create an alert in Google Alerts to find which website is talking about your site.
–Amar Ilindra, CEO – Geek Dashboard
12. Reconsideration Request
Once your website has been fully cleaned. All spam is disavowed and removed. Now it is time to go back to Google and get back into their good graces. If a manual action or security alert had been set off during this procedure. After you have made the proper adjustments in this action plan, send Google a ‘reconsideration request’. This means you are notifying Google that you have taken action against the offending action and the problem no longer exists. Once you submit this request, Google will crawl your website and send you a notification that your site is clear. You should see your rankings improve in turn over the next few weeks.
From there, use an anchor text percentage monitoring tool like Linkio to get a jump on anyone trying to spam your website again.
Final Thoughts on Spamming and Black Hat SEO
Spammers and Hackers aren’t going anywhere. As we move into the future we can expect this sort of activity to continue and adapt to anti-spam techniques. Google is online real estate and businesses will do what it takes to gain visibility from potential customers. The better real estate you have, and the more properties you own on the serps the more traffic and ultimately business you can build. As long as there is a competition for placement at the top, competitors will do whatever it takes to get an edge.
If you are a large corporation or have a lot of capital, negative SEO may not affect you so much. On the other hand, if you are a new business trying to be competitive, an expertly crafted negative SEO campaign can completely torpedo your business to the point your website gets flagged and removed from google to the point you need to completely start over with a new domain. If this process is too involved, sometimes it is best to have an SEO company do this for you to make life easier.
Don’t let that happen you! A negative SEO attack can destroy your business!
The best solution to thwart hackers and spammers is to remain vigilant, monitor your backlinks and traffic and be aware of your website. Always be on the lookout to defend against negative SEO! If you see anything weird happening to your website, dive right in, follow this quick guide and protect your website.
Tyler Stavola, Digital Visibility Director