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Understanding Link-Based Negative SEO

bonnie-stefanick
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Danger Hazardous LinksAlthough there are varying ways to destabilize the organic visibility of a website on Google, this article will focus on the most common attack: when a competitor buys and points low-quality links to website to diminish the rankings of the said website by causing it to be filtered or receive a manual action (penalty) from Google.

Let's look at some common features and distinctions of link-based negative SEO attacks, illustrative examples, and preventative steps and ideas for what to do if your site is affected.

Several Key Distinctions

Although negative SEO is a well explored and controversial topic, there is some vagueness about low-quality link buying as a negative SEO tactic. The fact is, low-quality link buying to a competitor actually takes a number of different forms and there are several important distinctions to be aware of. Here are a few:

Buying Low-Quality Links to the Homepage vs. a Subpage

Some aggressive agents will only seek to take down a certain page. In this case they will build the low-quality links to a subpage. Generally speaking, subpages have historically had a greater tolerance for anchor text rich links, so generally more links are built into subpages to try to take them down.

Single Spam Attack vs. Multiple Attacks Over Time:

Often times, spam attacks tend to be in the form of single attacks. A single attack occurs when a large number of low-quality backlinks with a single phrase as an anchor are pointed to a website on one day. However, multiple attacks also occur. These are cases where for about 3 - 6 months, a homepage or subpage gets thousands for backlinks for a single phrase as an anchor.

New Website vs. Established Website

Is your website new and does it have just a few natural backlinks? Or is your website well-established and does it have a healthy backlink profile with thousands of natural links? More established website tend to have more established backlink profiles and are much harder to successfully target with a negative SEO attack than a new website.

Motive for Attack

Taking down a competitor website isn't the only motive for building low-quality links to a website. Occasionally, spammers will build low-quality links to help boost the equity of links pointing to their site from your site.

Negative SEO link attacks that are focused on diminishing the organic search visibility of a website tend to be targeted to the homepage, low-quality backlinks tend to point to the homepage. Conversely, negative SEO link attacks that are targeted for boosting existing links on a page tend to appear deeper on a website, low-quality backlinks tend to point to deeper of a website, often areas where there is user-generated content.

Google's Position on Negative SEO

In the interest of being comprehensive on our discussion of this topic, we would be amiss not discuss Google's position on link-based negative SEO. Google's position on negative SEO is that it is possible, but difficult, according to Matt Cutts, head of the Google webspam team:

Last year, Google revised its official wording about negative SEO, saying "There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index" to "Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index."

Cutts has essentially stated that all the claims of successful negative SEO attacks Google has looked into don't hold up.

So, at minimum, Google grants that it is possible to successfully execute a negative SEO attack. Furthermore, some marketing experts posit that because the Google webspam team has become more aggressive in controlling activities they believe are spam, that it is now easier to execute some types of negative SEO attacks. This is especially true regarding activities that fall under link schemes in the Google Webmaster Guidelines.

Some Negative SEO Examples

Now let's look at two contrasting examples of negative SEO attacks that were verified by the author, one of which was unsuccessful, and one of which succeeded.

Unsuccessful Attack

This particular attack was on a website that was registered in 1998 and it isn't in a massively competitive niche. This website has a forum on it. A spammer used this forum to do a type of link attack using the site which I am referencing as a site in a link chain.

The spammer added spam forum links with anchor text into new comments on old threads, where moderators are less likely to see them, if anyone was managing the forum to begin with. These comments with anchor text rich links were added to about 20 threads.

After the comments were published, the spammer then built thousands of links to the various spam forum comment pages with pharmaceutical phrases. The particular site that was attacked wasn't about pharmaceuticals.

When I pulled up the anchor text of this particular site, I found that all of the top phrases in the anchor text distribution were for different pharmaceutical phrases. To illustrate, I had to scroll through to the very bottom to see their real links. However, when you look at the traffic of this site, it is very stable.

Why This Attack Didn't Work

  • The anchor text sent to the site didn't match the topic of the site at all (this has to do with the intent of the spammer, which was not to spam the site but send backlinks to another pharmaceutical site).
  • Before the attack, the website had no anchor text rich links.
  • The attack was a one time attack.
  • When the webmaster found this attack, they immediately removed the comments and made their forum private, so that all of the links form the comments were no longer indexed.

Successful Attack

This particular site was registered at the very end of 2011 and is in a really competitive niche. The website domain name was also a partial keyword match, which is to say that their domain name include a target keyword but the domain name was not just a keyword.

For link building, this particular site had some directory links with branded anchor text and some article submission also with branded links pointing back to their website. There were also some forum links that pointed back to their site with just URL.

As such, because some of the directories were not the best, they were not in the best link neighborhood. There were also a couple of links that had rich anchor text, however, this number amounted to under 10 linking root domains.

Over the first 7 months of the life of this website, the site was cruising along and building rankings for several long-tail and a few mid-tail phrases. Overall, the site was doing pretty good in terms of number of visitors.

In the summer or early fall of last year, the website traffic from Google organic dropped almost entirely. What was found was that for three straight months prior to getting hit, a competitor was building low-quality anchor text rich links to the homepage of this site. If you look at Majestic SEO link history, you see very few links being built each month followed by a hockey stick jump in number of new links.

Sidebar: Given the reasoning above, I think that some readers may suggest that there is a greater burden of proof on me to prove that the site above was hit beyond a reasonable doubt. I thought about diving into this in greater detail but I chose not to since it is outside of the scope of the intent of my article overall. However, I will say that myself and under peer review were able to identify a direct correlation between the drop and the competitor link building.

Why This Attack Worked

  • This site is in a very competitive niche, which Google probably monitors a little bit more closely than the site above.
  • This site was very new, it was under a year old at the time that it got hit.
  • This site didn't have a strong backlink profile. Although, this site was being very cautious in terms of obvious spam indicators such as anchor text – comparative to the rest of the site in this particular niche – their backlink profile still wasn't in the greatest neighborhood.
  • At the time that they were hit, they just built some low-hanging fruit links just to get found. Because they didn't have an established backlink profile, they were very vulnerable to even unsophisticated attacks.

Takeaways From Examples Above

New Websites

If you have a new website, you're vulnerable, especially if you're in a competitive niche.

  • Focus heavily on online PR [public relations, not PageRank]and branded link building for at least the first couple months after site launch.
  • Make sure to monitor your inbound links at least once a month for the first year of the life of your site. Catching competitor based link attacks early will save you a lot of pain later.
  • Avoid low-quality link neighborhoods or any kind of submission based link building, if possible, since sites that will freely link to you will also freely link to any other site, which may not be relevant or may itself use low quality link tactics.

Established Websites

In general, established websites are much safer from negative SEO link attacks.

If you manage an established website or a website that relies heavily on user-generated content, remain aware of how you manage outbound links, even if you automatically wrap out bound links in user generated content in nofollow.

What to do if You've Been Impacted

Although the exact next step for what to do if you have been impacted by a negative SEO link attack varies depending on your unique situations, here are some general recommendations:

Evaluate the Scope of the Hit

  • Was the homepage impacted? Were subpages impacted? Or a combination of both?
  • Check your traffic in analytics and webmaster tools. Is there any volatility or downturn in traffic?
  • Check webmaster tools for an unnatural link warning.

Disavow the Spam Links

Submit disavows for both Google and Bing. Disavow the links from the spam attack.

If You Lost Traffic and Received an Unnatural Link Warning...

You will need to submit a reconsideration request in addition to submitting a disavow.

Additional Resources


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