Negative SEO: What It Is and How You Can Protect Yourself

July 28, 2014

Here’s the scenario: you’re sipping your coffee and firing up your favorite RSS reader, checking the latest SEO news feeds while you caffeinate. You see a blog post reporting that the latest edition of Google’s Penguin algorithm has gone live.

What do you do? Should you even care? There are algorithm updates happening all the time, what’s the best way to protect your site against the next Google tidal wave without driving yourself crazy?

In the spring of 2012 the world of search changed when the first Penguin Update was rolled out. Penguin updates aren’t new news, anymore. For years, webmasters, marketers and SEOs had been trying to outsmart Google’s algorithm (and not unsuccessfully) in order to obtain first page rankings as easily and as quickly as possible, and in 2012 Google released their very first Penguin Update, an algorithm change designed to penalize the mass-produced, artificial or toxic links that had been so common to SEO for so long. Overnight, everyone from small sites to big brands with powerful online presences saw their rankings plummet and since then webmasters have been working to create link profiles the search engines will reward and that they can be proud of.

Digital marketers know that to get great rankings now isn’t about outsmarting the search engines, it’s about following their guidelines and striving to reach the same goal they’re after too–create a site, a link profile, and an online presence that’s worth ranking.

You sip your coffee and skim through the article about the latest Penguin roll out. You’ve been running a white-hat content marketing campaign for a while now, there’s no way Google has lumped you in with those spammers, cheaters and low-lives. You weren’t hit by any of Google’s other updates and you know you’ve been following Google’s guidelines–but just in case, you check your rankings to see if your website’s been hit.

But the worst has happened; all of your first page rankings have been slapped down to page 4 and 5. You don’t exist as far as searchers are concerned. How could this happen? You might be a victim of a negative SEO attack, and here’s how to combat it.

How Negative SEO Works

Normally, this shouldn’t be possible. Google has safeguards in place to prevent this this kind of thing, but it’s not always possible for Google to determine the persons responsible for what the search engine sees as manipulation, or the intent behind it. If Google can’t detect why a domain is receiving unnatural links or who is creating them, they don’t have much else to go on about who made them and why. Their algorithms analyze the longevity of the link building, the keywords targeted, and the volume of each type of link.

The typical negative SEO attack is done by mimicking the spam link building campaigns of five to eight years ago, and then letting the Penguin algorithm penalize the target domain. The attacker must first determine the keywords their target is competing for, and then build large volumes of followed links with exact-match keyword anchor text for an extended period of time. The domains they would use are the usual suspects: illegitimate link directories, forum signatures, article directories, social bookmarks, blog comments and CMS’s vulnerable to link spam. Since these kinds of links were par for the course with low quality SEO services only a few years ago, you could have paid an agency for negative SEO without realizing it.

The lynchpin to this strategy is how the Penguin algorithm works.

About twice a year, Google will take a snapshot of everyone’s link profile then determine how manipulative the profile is versus how much trust and authority the domains have, then place penalties on the cheating domains for the keywords they were attempting to rank higher for.

The result is that domains with lots of brand mentions, brand and URL anchor text, and neutral anchor text have nothing to worry about, and the domains with toxic link profiles aren’t allowed to rank for the terms they were supposedly targeting.

1. Confirm the Attack

If the first step in real-life recovery is admitting there is a problem, the first step in recovering from a negative SEO attack is confirming that there’s a problem.

There are a lot of tools on the market that will list backlinks, but there are only a few that will quickly produce a report of anchor text distribution. Majestic SEO is a great tool because their reports are generated swiftly and are detailed and communicative.

Majestic SEO is normally a paid service, but if you verify your website on their free webmaster tool, they’ll be able to give you free reports for just your verified domain. After verification, bring up your domain in Site Explorer and navigate to the Anchor Text tab. Each anchor text string is ordered by number of referring domains, and if the top 10 to 15 are mostly keywords and not your brand or URL, then you have an unnatural link problem.

2. Toxic Link Recovery

Remedying a negative SEO problem is a lengthy process. It’s technical and it’s time consuming.

And Google doesn’t make the task easier when they take upwards of 6 months between Penguin algorithm updates. Eventually the search engine will strive to make Penguin a part of their normal algorithm and update it regularly, much like they did with Panda, but until then it’s important to always be prepared for about 1-2 Penguin updates per year.

One backlink reporting service is enough to determine if there is a problem, but it won’t be enough to find all of the offending links.

Experienced SEOs use a combination of Google Webmaster Tools, Ahrefs, Majestic SEO, and Link Research Tools to find as many backlinks as they can. Even after finding all of the unnatural links possible, no tool is going to tell you which ones to keep and which ones to remove and disavow. A few companies have come out with tools to assist in classifying harmful links, but manually reviewing each link in a negative SEO project is the only way to ensure real recovery.

After identifying the malicious links the next steps are to submit a disavow file and link removal outreach.

Disavowing the list of offending URLs and domains to the Disavow Links Tool is the first step. Then send removal requests to webmasters. The logic here this is that Google doesn’t disavow all of the links right after I submit the list; they have to crawl and rediscover each of the links and check it against the list I submitted. It’s more efficient to let Google recrawl everything while I try to get webmasters to remove the spam.

What Does it Mean For You?

It took Google nearly a decade to take significant action against link manipulation.

Now it seems the pendulum has a tendency to swing too far the other way. By becoming overzealous in fighting link spam, Google has unintentionally opened up a new exploit for dishonest marketers to game the system.

Businesses caught in the crossfire are unable to shake off their affliction, and are contracting and having to lay off employees as a result. Until Google does something for businesses to recover from negative SEO faster, the only protection we have is to make sure our websites are secure before the next semiannual Penguin update.

This phenomenon also illustrates the shifting attitudes in the industry: Don’t focus on link building, but instead focus on link earning. If you are committing significant effort to building links where you can control the anchor text, then you are probably setting yourself up for disaster. The most valuable and sustainable links are given to you editorially through your efforts that bring value to the Web.

You can learn more about how to succeed by contributing value to the Web in our ebook on Content-Centric Search.


Evan Hall is a product manager for National Positions, a digital marketing agency based in Agoura Hills, CA. National Positions works with hundreds of companies large and small and has been named to Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest growing privately held companies from 2009-2012.


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