While the search engine world has been aflutter over Panda and Penguin, a much more insidious problem is happening right now. Negative SEO, also known as Google Bowling, is the practice of spamming competitive websites with backlinks to devalue them in the search engines. While the search engines brush off this practice, we’re here to show the realities of negative SEO and how it can cripple businesses in a matter of days.
So What’s The Truth?
Today is different. Today we’re going to uncover the truth about neg SEO by showing a live case. The case shows that negative search spam works incredibly well and it’s fast; scary fast. The very foundation Google is convincing the masses to build on may not be so stable after all.
In fact, it seems so unstable that some neckbeard with a copy of Scrapebox can take it right out from under you. I’ve kept quiet for way too long about this, but this problem isn’t going to fix itself and I’ll be damned if I stand by watching hard working people have their sites destroyed because they don’t understand the realities of this system.
Case #1 – My Personal Blog Jacobking.com
About 6 months ago some wonderful person decided to start blasting spam at my blog using a tool I’m very familiar with. As someone who has blasted millions of links for ranking my own sites, to say I’m familiar with this type of software is an understatement. Being in the game I instantly recognized the default anchor text and link types they were building. Let’s take a look at their handy work, shall we?
The tell tale sign for me was “visit poster’s website”, since that’s a default generic anchor in the software I’m speaking of. In fact, a buddy of mine likes to call it “Neg SEO in a box” since it’s easier to do damage than good with the tool.
As of today, some of the links have fortunately fallen out of the index. Well, at least the index that ahrefs, our link checking software, maintains. I know what ranking the attacker wanted to boot my site from and the weird part is that it’s something not very profitable. My guess is that they’re a terrible affiliate and probably working at Mc Donald’s again, but that just proves my point about negative SEO. Almost anyone can do it.
“Ultimate demon discount” was the query they wanted to knock my site down for. Ultimate demon is just another link spamming tool that I have a discount for and rank pretty well on. It’s really nothing major at all and it’s not like I’m making a killing from it or anything. In any event, there was very little effect from this negative SEO attempt. In fact, there might have been a positive one if any at all. The screenshot from analytics of my Google traffic shows no obvious effect.
Since I’ve been playing the affiliate game for a long time, this is nowhere near the first time I’ve had a site hit with negative SEO. The thing is, this was the first time I’ve ever had a site that I genuinely cared about attacked like this. When it happened, I had enough faith in Google’s promises about negative SEO that I just shrugged it off. I figured my high quality links and other natural signals would protect me, and today the site remains unaffected. Score one for Google I guess.
Real tangible example number 1, Negative SEO did not work, it just pissed me off quite a bit and made sorting through my backlinks a real pain in the ass, but in our next example, we’ll see that might not be the case.
Case #2 – And Down Goes WP Bacon
Now this story doesn’t have such a happy ending. It’s actually about my partner and co-founder of Audit WP, Robert Neu. In his spare time, Bert runs a website called wpbacon.com. It’s the most badass WordPress podcast ever conceived. This site is the last I’d ever expect to get attacked by Negative SEO. Bert is pretty well known for just being a stand up guy in the WP community and really has nothing to do with SEO spam or any of the shenanigans that I’m known for.
Since Robert doesn’t really get into the darker side of SEO or really participate in the SEO community at all, I was pretty shocked to find someone blasting thousands of links at the site with the anchor text “porn movie”. I first made the discovery around February 25th. I noticed the first links starting to pour in through ahrefs and I was a little concerned, but figured it’d probably taper off. So far, there’s been 1000’s of links blasted and there’s no end in sight. Here is what the link profile looks like as of March 5th:
It was a bit sad to see something your buddy has worked so hard on just get totally trashed by someone for no reason. Still, after my last experience with negative SEO and the confidence Google had instilled in me, I shrugged it off and Robert kept working on more important projects.
Well, today it appears Neg SEO is definitely possible. In fact, not only is it possible, but it also works insanely fast. WP Bacon has taken a massive hit from Google, falling 50+ spots for the majority of the keywords it was ranking on, and it only took the culprit about 10 days to do it.
Here is the traffic drop:
It appears the spam was targeting an inner page on the site. Now keep in mind this keyword has absolutely zero search volume and is basically worthless so the whole thing is a bit strange, but prior to the attack the site was ranking #2 for “optinmonster coupon”.
See the rank report here.
Feel free to analyze these examples a bit deeper, wpbacon.com has some pretty solid links, and the anchor text looked perfect prior to the blast, primarily with Robert’s full name and the brand anchor text “WP Bacon”.
Some Quick Stats on WPBacon.com:
PageRank – 5
Moz Domain Authority – 30
Majestic SEO Trust Flow -27
Ahrefs Domain Rank – 53
Age – 1 year 9 months
Can it be stopped? No, not likely. If they’re using public proxies (which I’ve already identified) your chances of stopping the attack are slim to none.
Can it be fixed? Maybe, but does Robert really have the time to deal with this? Probably not so the spammer wins.
About 5 minutes to cause this havoc and countless hours and heartache to “potentially” fix it, given they actually stop the blast. If the blast does not stop, any cleanup efforts are basically futile.
What does this all mean for SEOs?
We’re still trying to figure out how to move forward after this, the foundation we thought we were standing on is far from what it seems.
Is white hat the best way? Is grey hat the best way? Or is it black hat?
The answer is none, stop worrying about hats and build something so kick ass that Google doesn’t matter. But wait, we tried that and took a bitch slap anyway.
There is no right answer for this, but whatever you decide to do, keep your eyes open because awareness is critical to our evolution as SEOs. If you haven’t already watched this, here is Matt Cutts the head of Google web spam talking about negative SEO.
But wait there’s more…
After drafting this post, we did start taking some steps to help remedy this situation and have had some positive results. Robert, the owner of WP Bacon, did the work so I’ll let him take over the post and explain the disavow along with showing the updated traffic stats and ranks.
The initial post was written 3/5/2014 and continued by Robert on 3/17/2014 here. Without further ado, Robert is cutting in.
Well… Jacob has taken some kind of secret oath to never disavow a link as long as he lives. Since he’s sworn off disavowing, I had to work through this one on my own, but that’s alright. I know my way around a link or two. There’s a lot of information out there on how to recover from this type of attack. A couple of the posts that were helpful for planning a course of action were:
Luckily, our situation was pretty straightforward. Since the person who attacked us decided to direct almost all of their spam links at a single post and use only two anchor text phrases, it’s not hard for Google to see that we obviously had no intention of building these links. I mean really, it’s not rocket science. We wouldn’t send 1000’s of links at our site with the anchor text “porn movie”, would we? Probably not.
Since we were dealing with an obvious spam attack, I decided to just do it as quickly as possible by submitting a disavow file with the domains included in the attack. We used a combination of Webmaster Tools and ahrefs to determine the links that needed to be disavowed and submitted it to Google. Unfortunately, the spam has continued so we’ll probably need to keep doing this for a while, which really sucks. Still, the results so far have been fairly positive. We’ve recovered for a lot of the search terms we were ranking for previously and much of the traffic has returned.
Here is the updated ranking report for the keyword we showed above:
I expect that our traffic and rankings will be pretty volatile over the next month or so as we continue to sort out this mess. I know we need to work harder on publishing more high-quality content and we need to make more of an effort to get as much exposure as possible for everything we publish. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that after going through this experience, I’ve lost a lot of faith I had in Google. I’ve always given Jacob a hard time for his approach to SEO and I’ve even tried to convince him to take a more white hat approach a few times.
Maybe I’m just Naive…
I’ve always leaned more towards the kind of approach that Rand Fishkin advocates. I also like to think that while the world is flawed, most people are generally pretty cool. After this, I’ve been left questioning what’s best. As of today, I still believe in white hat SEO. I think it’s the most sustainable and reasonable approach to organic search marketing for anyone running a real business on the the web. I also think that if this had happened to WP Bacon a year from now, it would have had much less of an impact. Still, if someone like me who understands how to deal with the fallout from an attack can be shaken so easily, what chance does a small business owner stand?
This really feels like a serious problem to me. There are so many ways for people to exploit Google’s system with negative SEO that it’s almost mind-boggling. Spammers can (and do) hold people hostage with neg SEO tactics. Anyone with a Fiverr account can potentially annihilate their competition for less money than it would cost to do things “the right way”. Plus, once it happens, consultants can charge top dollar for advice on recovering from a mess like this, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
After dealing with this, I really feel like Google has left us holding the bag and I hope there are some solid plans in place for closing this loophole. I’m also even more committed to the idea that SEO should only be one piece of your Internet marketing puzzle. Google is an amazing traffic source and something you should always be optimizing for, but you need to diversify.
What are your thoughts?
Do you think negative SEO is a real problem or are we just paranoid? Have you ever experienced such an effective spam attack? Comment below and let us know!
Beam Us Up says
You had me at “neckbeard.” haha
Anyways you do raise a legitimate concern about negative SEO. It really does come down to awareness so you can do something if it does happen, and diversity of traffic to minimize the pain.
Tom Blackshire says
First of all, great post. People still in denial about Negative SEO cling to a lack of evidence in case studies. Fortunately, this is something they can’t do here. So if any of you reading still don’t think Negative SEO is real, wake the fuck up.
We need to remember that the real victims here aren’t SEO’s. It’s small business owners with no knowledge about SEO. One day they might stop getting enquiries through their website. They might think their site is broken. How are they meant to tell the signs of a Negative SEO attack?
Now, I’ve read responses in the past on this. Some people maintain that these people have a responsibility to know. Don’t give me that shit.
My accountant has a website that his son built him. But before I hired him, he had no idea what SEO was. Do you know why? Because he is an accountant, he isn’t supposed to know.
Robert Neu says
Thanks Tom! I agree 100%. This is something that really shouldn’t even be possible. Google has created a system with a gaping hole and I hope they do something about it.
I don’t envy them at all for having to try to sort out things like this, and I totally understand why they have things set up the way that they did. Still, I can’t really imagine how this could fly anywhere else. Imagine if you could get away with firebombing your competitor’s building and spray painting over their sign with XXX Nude Girls in real life. :
This should be a bigger problem than fighting any blackhat service or spam for Google. Someone who does everything white hat can get penalized? Get rid of disavow and penalties outside of manual reviews. Links should only be devalued, not lead to an algorithmic penalty. Cutts needs to forget about outing PBNs and take care of the SEOs playing by the rules first, this is like police setting up speed traps when there is a murderer on the loose.
Jim Thornton says
i’m confident this specifically will get fixed as it gets more pervasive which prob wont hit that tipping point for a while. or if it happens on a high profile level resulting in negative press for google which prob wont happen bc there def seems to be a DA and longitudinal trust type insulation or certain level of brand strength.
what im worried about is the growing number of neg seo factors over time, (what’s next, fake guest posting!?) the shortsightedness in how its being handled… (if disavow isn’t just a way for google to let you snitch on yourself) where old school spammers don’t need to learn new tricks, they just need to reverse who they’re doing seo for and stay behind the times
Just saw an ad for a Neg SEO who offers hundreds of fake guest posts in spammy broken English which he mass back links too.
Jacob King says
Lol nice, neg SEO sucks, but I decided a while ago if you can’t beat em join em, I’m not gonna let some piece of shit in a hut somewhere blast on me without having cruise missiles ready to fire back.
Nicholas Chimonas says
“since the person who attacked us decided to direct almost all of their spam links at a single post and use only two anchor text phrases…”
Only one page was targeted, and it wasn’t your homepage? In that case, couldn’t you just 404 the page, and recreate it with a new URL but with the original content? Might save some time by avoiding the disavow path, and if they are still spamming the same page, they’ll be pointlessly spamming a 404. If the keywords it was ranking for was low – zero competition, the new page should reclaim all of those original rankings again. Just a thought.
Obviously negative SEO is real, possible, and anyone that denies that has their head in the sand.
Robert Neu says
We actually did go ahead and 404 the page as well and we’ve yet to re-create the content. Since it was such low-comp stuff that we literally just set up for our users to have an extra deal we’re not that worried about bringing it back. Maybe a little later down the road we’ll create a new one and jump back onto the SERPs. :)
We’ve been seeing more and more negative SEO happening to people who purchase audits from us and it’s a really sad state of affairs. Hopefully Google sorts this mess out soon… it’s totally ridiculous.
Just seen this Jacob. Same thing over the exact same period of time. As you know my site sank under the Neg SEO ( I made another – but ranking that took 6 months) Still have the partial penalty, just for those keywords you mention on my main blog now.
Whoever it was targeted 4 or 5 sites ranking for the same product, often linking to several in the same spam link.
So my guess it was someone ranking 7 or 8 for that product – but that’s just a guess.
Thing is it worked. The attack went on for months (not days – or even weeks) spam after spam after spam and eventually I got a slap – a partial one – specifically for the phrase you mention above – but a slap all the same.
A trip to GWM forums might as well have been an exercise in sticking wet fingers into an AC socket for all the help the sarcastic bunch there were.
Now I see adverts all over the darker parts of the internet. Neg SEO ( or “Spam for Cash” – a lovely Google invention) Really sneaky tricks. aiming to mimic an increasingly frustrated legit web master. Adding paid link network links from networks that have at least been partially discovered by Google therefore have no real positive value left but are toxic. Long term, mixed profile, tiered and varied link blasts.
A great invention. It’s almost as if Google wanted those in the industry to go out of their way to find ways not to use them.
You sure you want that Google? Because If we go… We take our traffic with us.
Jacob King says
Hey Scritty, yeah it was my blog, your site, and Matthew woodward’s blog
that got targeted. Shit was pretty lame and I watched your site get
knocked from it. Weren’t you using some UD action to that site though?
Or was it 100% natural aside from that scumbag who Neg SEO’d us?
The crazy thing to me is that a guy like Robert who has nothing to do with
the spammier art of SEO (aside from being my partner and getting to hear
about my daily discoveries/rambles) can have such an awesome site
literally bowled over like that with basically no recourse or real
chance of recovery.
I mean come on, almost 100% “porn movie” anchor text to a site about WordPress and it tanks it within a couple weeks?
That shit is just crazy, I’m the first to admit I’m as spammy as they come,
with my system/strategy though it doesn’t make sense to be Neg SEOing
people because I’ve got my hands full building sites.
But with that said I’ve done battle on some SERPs where we were firing spam at
each other like it was wold war 3, SERPs where it’s a given that if you
hit top 3 you’re getting bombed on. And I have yet to see an attack as
effective as this, it was crazyyyy fast, and the site is still all fucked up, rankings and traffic
are far from being restored.
And how about the icing on the cake? Panda 4.0 gave the site another kick in the ass. Watched all kinds of ranks fall the day of the roll out. Pretty insane, the site ranks
like 40-70 region for “wordpress podcast”, this badass custom site
featured in the studiopress showcase with a rapidly growing following is
getting bounced around the ranks like a spam site because of some douche blast. It really goes against the approach I would think to take with Neg SEO, complete random dirty anchor that has absolutely no relevance to the site.
Just take victim site and start nailing it for “dirty spam word” until it gets a penalty. It’s a bit counter intuitive as you’d think Google would be able to detect this blatant attempt at malicious linking but it worked like a charm. Not sure if the culprit just got lucky or actually has him/herself a nice recipe for destruction.
And shit man I was really hoping for a better turnout on this post, people really hit the snooze button on this one. Too busy reading about supposed penguin updates when it was really panda and supposed panda penalties when it was really manual action ;-)
For what it’s worth, I think this is the biggest SEO post of the year. If this doesn’t convert every SEO to black hat I don’t know what would. Totally infuriating what G is letting slide. Fuck em.
Yes, I had done some stuff before – that – to be fair worked a charm. When This attack came and I finally put in my first reconsideration request, the examples they gave back (when they rejected it) were both from the attack – not links I’d made. Still doesn’t mean that I was as clean as a nuns lower back, I know that, but it was the NS attack that brought me down.
What the deal was with your friend? I tried to “follow the money” with mine and see who benefitted. Some French Frisbee club seemed medium and long term the only site to rise. No idea, not going to be them. But did your friend “follow the money”. Who gains from his loss. Personal enemies?
I’ve had PR attacks since then, all sorts. I’m guessing it goes with the territory. I play in forums that are considered the dark side of SEO, and that’s the crowd I mix with.
Some quite clever Trojan horse stuff going on as well. People aren’t always as they seem.
Moving into products are resources now. That seems to be where the money is anyway. Still love effective SEO, get great results, but while Google control the market and have unfathomable or pure profit based motives? Need to diversify and not rely on them so much, if at all.
Take care Jacob. See you on the flip side.
Google is still having trouble stopping sitewides (even completely non-contextual sites with KW rich anchors) from working right now.
That says a whole lot on it’s own.
“But with that said I’ve done battle on some SERPs where we were firing spam at
each other like it was wold war 3”
That did make me laugh though, I won’t lie.
I’m suprised how many people use godaddy- especially those with online empires. I stopped using them after they shut down one of my sites when a competitor called up and told them my who.is data was bad. It wasn’t but I was away and my disabled brother got them on the phone and said no I wasn’t there and he didn’t know where I was. So, instant account disabled- and Godaddy couldn’t care less about helping me I lost a nice little earner of about £400/mo. After that and the fact that they supported SOPA in 2012 put them on my blacklist. I’d move registrars if I were you. I know you as well and am on your side I’m a paid member of Agents’ BHU forum.
I have also been hit with a TON of negative SEO. Daily my site is getting slammed with spam links. Just like in this article, our ahref is showing anchor text for “Visit Posters Website” and one the culprit must find amusing “Dexter”(Name of Serial Killer on TV). I’ve lost approx $500K in revenue and 80+% of traffic over the past year since May 22nd, 2013 when it all started. Not being an SEO myself, as I’m in e-Commerce so my focus is more on merchandise and creating good, useful content, I had no idea of negative SEO until Jan of 2014. I’ve tried so much since then, like disavowing links (33% were deemed toxic) and still no recovery. Only more bleeding and more spam. Feels like I’m on a sinking ship and can’t plug the holes fast enough. It’s really a shame Google has let such a flaw in their algorithm slide. They’re fight against spam has backfired and created the opposite they first set-out for. I really hope and pray for a fix, and soon.
Robert Neu says
Wow… that is horrible. We’ve continued to have problems on the WP Bacon site to this day. Although the initial recovery looked promising, the site tanked again almost immediately. Spam sites get scraped, re-scraped, and things just keep going in a never-ending cycle of total bullshit.
Not only that, it seems that once a site has had a disavow file submitted Google doesn’t treat it the same way it once did. We’re not sure exactly what happens, but based on the patterns we’ve seen with our own site as well as others we’ve audited, after a disavow you’re placed in a new subcategory of websites that Google is less likely to trust.
Unfortunately, in some cases it seems like the most reasonable choice is to simply start over from square one. Ridiculous. Totally ridiculous.
Tyler B says
I have another Negative SEO story to tell (I actually posted the beginning of a case study for it on your forum back wheni t happened.. But the person who did it saw the post and threatened to hit more sites of mine so I asked you to delete. Yeah, nuts. But I’ll post again because there was a strange development.
I had a 4 month old, partial match domain name (it was mykeywordblog.com) It was #3 for that very keyword right around Christmas time and things were looking damn good. Then I woke up one morning and saw this in Ahrefs: http://www.screencast.com/t/f9z3ltlMl.
You can see my referring domains count jump so high that it doesn’t even look like I had any to begin with. My anchor text profile after the storm? 70% exact match. The tool used was Link Emperor and it was actually mostly just really terrible blog network links, and some forum profiles. Really though, any software could have taken down my site because of it’s freshness and PMD.
I fell to the bottom of the first page the very next day and just continued to fall into oblivion. My inner page rankings fell too but not too far and I still had some traffic. And the weirdes tthing was that I didn’t get the manual spam action until 3 months later. Why do you think that is?
Well anyway, some even weirder things have happened over the last 2 months . My traffic is now higher than it was when I was rising to the top before the link storm hti me. But it’s weird because I have not touched the site. Not a single piece of content added, not even a log in to the admin area. Here is a photo of my SEMrush keywords count over the last year: http://www.screencast.com/t/aFrEDTxM4L7e
I am ranking for so many long tails and one very particular page is ranking.
The last thing I did before abandoning my site was to add a pop up to funnel every visitor from every long tail search to a “Top 5 Products of 2014” post that I created. It’s media rich but probably not even 500 words. Yet it’s almost on the first page for the keyword I wanted so badly a few months ago.
Do you think a site-wide image link could have boost this page’s ranking that much?
A lot of questions but I guess it’s a good problem to have. I’m thinking this is all just a combination of the Link Emperor links falling away, the manual penalty expiring, or maybe just maybe some manual reviewer at Google read the 5 separate pleading disavow request files I sent in from Link Detox? Though I found out after the fact that you save the emotional begging for manual reviews, disavow requests are strictly business.
Not sure what to do next with this site. Don’t want o mess with the voojoo … it’s earning pretty well. I tink I’m just going to keep adding content attacking long tails and keep everything else the same.
That’s my neg SEO story, thanks for reading :P Love your work Jacob
I admit running a continuous negative seo campaign on a competitor who’s been smearing my site’s reputation online even to the point of posting a fake ripoffreport. Little do they know they’ve messed with the wrong blackhatter. ;)
in all fairness, I wouldn’t run the same campaign on other competitors but this one in particular had it coming.
Interview Questions & Answers says
I believe Google in the latest algorithm is not penalizing Sites being attacked by negative seo, have you seen any impact of your campaign?
Does Negative seo will have that much impact? what if after the bad links get deleted? What are the current rankings?
Jacob King says
It depends, established authority sites and you’re going to have a hell of a time dropping it. Site still fresh and budding, it’s definitely possible. Easy? No, but possible. I’ve played around with my fair share of Neg SEO and overall I don’t have time for it based on its effectiveness.
Vitaliy Kolos says
Great post! I’d like to add one little thing to the context of the post. Thing is, you may want to do negative SEO for good reason. Here’s the deal. If you get a bad listing ( a review or what not) somewhere on the web, you want to do your best to remove it.
Sure thing, you want to firstly contact the site owner (admin) and see if there are options to just have that bad rep listing removed from the site. If that’s no option, you will have to do something else, right?
So what you can do (or what you’ll be sort of forces to do) is negative SEO in order to move that bad review about your personally or about your company somewhere in the middle of nowhere when it comes to Google’s search results.
What do you think about negative SEO in that context?
Jacob King says
Tbh it’s really hard to get these kind of results with neg SEO. The domain has to be really new with very few link imo. I think blasting something with neg, espeically like a authority site’s review page, is absolute last resort after you are unable to push it down with favorable results.
Drupal Developer in Toronto says
Thanks Jacob, this was an amazing write up.
How would you go about figuring out who is doing it, in a case where there are multiple competition sites.
Jacob King says
Well you might be able to come up with a good idea of who the dick head is, very tough to say for sure.
Lockedown Design says
Sorry to hear about your experiences Jacob, Rob, and Ozzy. Negative SEO seems like a nuclear option for people to take out their competitors. It sucks that no one can find the *answer* to who incited the attacks against your site and WP Bacon.
Andreah Teguh says
Hi Jacob, I still fight with negative SEO to my site.
Every single day have a new 50+ Reffering Domain and 500 Links. and this link is not stick. all spammy link is from TLD .pl, i think this is Poland Link Network. And the bad thing is The Anchor text is My keyword.
Have you experienced about this negative SEO?
Jacob King says
Not specifically, but what an asshole right?
Jaco van Wyk says
Hey Jacob, negative SEO is a real problem. Happened to us at SnapBill and will happen more frequently in future. We now use a service called SEO Defend (https://seodefend.com) to proactively monitor against negative SEO and have gotten some good results sorting out our SEO in general.
Haluk Demir says
Hello Jacob, It will really nice to get some updates for 2017 Negative SEO
Thanks for sharing.
Jacob King says
You’re so welcome, how are those nofollow blog comments working for ya?