29 Jul 2014

Negative SEO: How to Know if You’ve Been a Victim

Negative SEO happens and it’s something that can be used against you anytime, no matter what industry you are in. This post will help you quickly identify if you’ve been a victim of negative SEO and provides tips on how to overcome it.

Good SEO vs. Negative SEO

Negative SEO is volatileThere’s good SEO and then there’s bad SEO. Just as good chemistry can be used for dark purposes (cue Walter White), negative SEO can be used nefariously and refers to the worst kind of SEO possible: The intentional act of over-optimizing or spamming a site in order to lower its rankings in search results. It’s bad stuff, not the kind of thing you or your agency should ever engage in.

Good SEO is considered a highly ethical practice, when it’s employed to help quality sites with great content to establish well-deserved rankings through following developer best practices and Google’s quality guidelines. It’s also ethical when used to help well-intentioned sites overcome technical barriers such as unintentional duplicate content, crawlability, page speed and other issues.

Good vs Bad SEO

How Does Negative SEO Happen?

Negative SEO is done primarily through link building. For example, someone may pay an off-shore firm to build 10,000+ links to your site using a key phrase your site is targeting. Please note: if your current agency is doing this with the belief this is going to improve rankings, cancel immediately or you may experience traffic declines similar to this:

Negative SEO traffic drop

How to Know if You’ve Been Targeted

Spotting negative SEO is fairly straightforward if you’ve never intentionally built links. However, if you’ve built links manually through the years using various target keywords, then it can be more difficult. Regardless of how the links have appeared in your profile, here are a handful of things you can do:

  • Conduct a backlink analysis, focusing on anchor text
  • Look for unnatural or suspicious IPs
  • Identify any out-of-industry, unrelated anchor text (Pills, Payday, etc.)
  • Check Google Webmaster Tools for Manual Penalties

Natural anchor text from Sports AuthorityDo you know what anchor text is being used to link to your site? A thorough backlink analysis should be conducted to help identify which terms link to you the most. There are a number of great tools including Ahrefs, Link Detox, Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer to help you do this but pay special attention to keyword-rich anchor text. Any links that aren’t simply linking with your brand or domain name should receive highest priority.

If your site and target markets are located entirely in the U.S. then you shouldn’t have foreign IPs or non-US TLDs pointing to your site. Tools such as Ahrefs are handy in quickly spotting TLD distributions:

Foreign ccTLDs

Do you have any nonsense, unrelated anchor terms? Bad SEOs often take advantage of all the algorithms associated with certain industries such as PayDay Loans. If a site happens to link to yours using anchor text which includes these terms, your rankings will suffer. We recently saw a travel/tourism client with inexplicable payday-related anchor text in their profile: Toxic Anchor Text Example

Do you have any Manual Actions/Penalties in Google Webmaster Tools? Here’s what you’ll see if you do:

Webmaster Tools Manual Penalty

How to Recover

This post doesn’t delve into the complete recovery process but we’ve written a thorough guide on how to recover from Google Penalties and the principles are the same:

  • Do your best to contact webmasters and remove known bad links (yes this makes us upset too – especially if you’re not the one that built bad links – but Google still wants you to do you best to remove them)
  • Use the Disavow Links tool
  • Submit a reconsideration request (for manual penalties only)
  • Contact Google through the Webmaster Tools Troubleshooter (for algorithmic penalties)

To summarize, know what links are pointing to your site and know what anchor text is being used the most. Be suspect of any anchor text that is highly optimized (focuses on your primary keywords) or especially be on the lookout for completely non-related industry terms (such as payday loans, etc.). Attempt to remove all known bad links and add all [bad domains] to your disavow file in Google Webmaster Tools. Be up front about the issue and be respectful in your communication to Google through the reconsideration request form or troubleshooter and don’t give up, even after several contact attempts.