Shake it off: The Taylor Swift guide to surviving a negative SEO attack

So, negative SEO….one would assume that this was something that happens to big corporations or companies who work in highly competitive industries, but no, it seems as though it can happen to small local businesses like yours and mine.

What do I mean by negative SEO?……it can come in many forms but what I’m talking about is when links have been built to your site with the intention harming your rankings in the search engines. And here at Superb Digital, we’ve recently found ourselves the victim of this.

Let me tell you a little bit about Superb Digital. We’re a small UK SEO agency in Bristol and we’ve been going for 12 months now and through sheer hard work and graft we’ve picked up some good clients and, importantly in this industry, achieved page 1 rankings for a number of key phrases that are driving quality traffic to our website.

Rankings for any SEO agency are important as not only will they bring in enquiries but they are also a demonstration of abilities.

Our rankings have been achieved with good on-site optimisation, quality citations and a lot of blogging both on-site and off-site through guest posts and syndicated content. All good stuff really, nothing fancy, nothing “spammy” or so-called “black-hat”.

Like most SEOs (or marketers or business owners) who rely on their rankings for their success, we check our backlink profile regularly…if nothing else other than to make sure the articles that we write containing backlinks are being indexed by Google and effective. So imagine our surprise when on Saturday 29th August 2015 we checked our backlinks only to see our 196 (we know the number well as they increase slowly) had suddenly become 1,500 then by 31st August were 3,400 and then by the time of writing the article 12,914.

We have purchased a plan with Majestic now (it’s been on the cards for a while, but we’ve managed to get pretty far without using it) so we can see the full realities of what’s happened.

Majestic is telling us that we have 129,294 backlinks pointing to our site! Most to the homepage and with the two primary key phrases of “Superb Digital” and “SEO Company in Bristol”. Wow, that’s going some by anyone’s standard. Nearly 130,000 backlinks across 1,400 referring domains, in a week!

As you can see from the screengrab below taken from Ahrefs, since September 2014 (launch) we’ve been gathering backlinks at a fairly modest rate then BAM! Toward the tail end of August 2015, our link velocity goes through the roof.

Ahrefs

 

Either we’ve gone viral, or someone has used automated software to build spam links to our site. Thanks a bunch! When I say spam backlinks, mostly they are “no-follow” blog comments on unrelated websites, who obviously have auto approve comments switched on. Quite a few on foreign sites and .ru domains. One funny thing we’ve noticed is that a lot of the links have discovery dates before the website was launched, before I even bought the domain, even before Superb Digital was a twinkle in my eye.

What effect has this negative SEO attack had on our rankings?

I’m slightly relieved to report, that to date, actually very little. There was an initial surge of 1-2 places before dropping back a few positions. We’ve been checking regularly and it would seem that nothing has really changed. Initially, we had expected to drop like a stone…then we started thinking we may actually benefit!

We have seen a small increase in rankings over the last couple of days back to pre-attack positions and the links have finally started appearing in Google Search Console. it will be interesting to observe what happens when all of the links are found.

So what are we going to do about all the spammy links?

Good question. To decide the best course of action we’ve researched and spoken to colleagues in the industry.

There are a few good articles out there, one on Moz was pretty helpful. It reassuring to read that it’s actually very difficult to carry out a successful negative SEO attack and that Google’s algorithm is able to detect them. This is probably by the fact that the link velocity and quality are out of character with that previous to the attack.

The article also stated that what most site owners believe to be negative SEO attacks are in fact something else. Such as (paraphrased from Moz’s article):

  • “Weird” links are not necessarily bad links
  • Sitewide links are not all bad links
  • Your old habits are coming back to haunt you
  • A well-meaning employee or friend is building you links
  • A previous SEO made these links
  • You’ve been hacked

How do we know for sure that we’ve suffered a negative SEO attack? We don’t. But we know that we have not built these links or done something in the past to build these links. Sure, very few profiles are without some low quality links but I’m talking ones and twos nothing even approaching anywhere near this scale.

So we concluded the main options available are:

  1. Do nothing. OK, I guess this is a valid option, but we’re perfectionists and having a spammy backlink profile doesn’t sit well. We don’t want other SEOs or potential clients looking at our backlinks and determining that’s how we like to build them.
  2. Contact all the site owners and ask them to remove links. Sounds great but in reality contacting nearly 1,200 website owners to get the links removed doesn’t sound like much fun and it’s going to be a rather labour intensive exercise. Something we don’t really have the capacity to do. Using a virtual assistant could be an option, but obviously, comes at a cost.
  3. Use Google’s Disavow tool. Much easier as all you have to do is find the offending links or domains and upload to Google. However, there is a nice warning on the disavow tool that it should only be used after “every effort has been made to clean them up”, and besides, the low-quality links aren’t harming my rankings (yet). Hmm back to square one then.

Screen-Shot-2015-09-07-at-20.47.56-copy-1024x788

As much as we’d like to take option 1, I just don’t think it’s going to be a genuine option. Sure Google is ignoring those links right now, but that may change. I think I’ll just have to dig into my pocket and contact them all requesting removal.

How can this happen?

It’s actually easier than you would think and unfortunately it doesn’t require any skill to carry out this kind of attack. Just the will. A quick search on Google has plenty of people lurking on Fiverr and Black Hat World offering to sell 1000s and even 100,000s of links. A few thousand I can understand, it’s only $5. Throw away money (in the West). But a hundred thousand links? They’re selling them for close to $200! I find it hard to believe anyone would spend that kind of money on a local SEO attack.

Why?

Given that our anchor text ratio for the phrase “SEO company in Bristol” now stands at 46% it would seem that the intention was to link spam and over optimise our site in the hope we would receive either an algorithmic or manual penalty. I am happy to report we have neither…yet!

Majestic backlink checker

 

So where does this leave Superb Digital and our site? Well, a bit like Bristol city centre after a Saturday night in summer, with a bit of a cleaning up job to do!

If it is a person doing this I can only think that they have forgotten that these are real businesses with real people behind them, they just see a search result position that they must obtain. A bit like a driver who must overtake you at all cost and dangerously cuts you up in the process.

How do we feel about it?

Well, do you know what? Given the refugee crisis engulfing Europe at this time, it’s hard to take it all too seriously or personally. There are many ways in which our lives could be much worse, walking for hundreds of miles to escape misery and death or trying to cross a small sea in an inflatable boat to escape same, spring to mind.

So I leave you with the unforgettable words from Ms Taylor’s mega hit which seem to sum it all up really…

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate

Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake

I shake it off, I shake it off

 

Avatar for Paul Morris

Author: Paul Morris

Paul has worked in the web industry for over 16 years. During that time he has worked in many roles, including design, development, SEO, and business development. This puts him in a unique position to help businesses. Not only does he know how to put a website together and get traffic to it but he also has a great understanding of the sales and marketing process and how they need to work together to achieve your desired results. Time to wake up to SEO Bristol!