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It is easy for competitors to hurt established sites (negative SEO)

 4:27 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

I'm an 'part-time' webmaster helping some non-profit sites exist on the Internet. I'm not a good programmer, but I've been interested in Internet marketing and SEO for over a decade now.

About a week ago I was shocked to find out how easy it is for an established website to get a 'manual penalty' and be basically removed by competitors from Google search index. Here is some background:

1. The site that was removed from Google has been online since 2004. It (still) has over 5,000 pages indexed in Google. Never penalized until a week ago.

2. Now it shows up in Google results only if you search for the site's domain (including domain extension). For example, example.com (but it won't show up when searching for: example).

3. Before the penalty, the domain hadn't been set up with Google Webmaster Tools and didn't have Adsense or any advertising (besides some nofollow links to external websites); it is purely informational website. After I signed up with Webmaster Tools (I noticed less visitors in Cpanel stats), I noticed a message about 'unnatural linking pointing to the affected website.' There were around 10 domains (mostly with .ru extensions) that appeared to be linking to the affected site. For example, a few sites linked to the same page from hundreds of pages. It surely didn't seem natural; most likely the links were put in the footer, site-wide. However, it's even hard to find the links - on most of them the page source doesn't even show the outgoing links! Maybe they put it randomly (OR maybe they only show it to Google bots to fake the results, who knows). And some of the dishonest websites had Google Adsense on them.


That's all there is. It took several low-quality foreign domains and some questionable links for a 9-year old website to be severely penalized by Google. I never believed it would be possible, but it apparently still is.

I hope Google spam team will look into it and our website will fully recover (I used the Disavow tool to disable the linking domains and submitted request to review the site). In my view, Google should either not count these links or penalize the sites that link to it. It's not fair to penalize the victim.. Google should find better ways to address such situations because it is very stressful, confusing, and time-consuming for the affected parties. What am I supposed to tell the owners - that some spammy sites linked to their website and that was enough to kill their Google rankings? I doubt they're going to believe me :(

[edited by: aakk9999 at 3:42 pm (utc) on Dec 11, 2013]
[edit reason] Replaced exampledomain . com with example.com as exampledomain . com is a real domain [/edit]


brotherhood of LAN

 4:49 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Welcome to the forums selen, and sorry to hear about issues with ranking I am sure you'd rather do without.

The best advice I can offer is that you should seek to find reputable, on-topic backlinks and citations in order to better define your site in relation to the web, it seems weaker backlink profiles are a like a house of cards that ultimately Google cannot place trust on. It's clear that Google does apply negative scoring on some backlinks but your own stronger backlink profile can make it more bullet proof.

It sounds like the non-profit you're working with would continue to exist with or without a Google and you can co-ordinate your promotion as such. It sounds like you're quite clued in to Google's guidelines and how they expect you to respond to these unnatural link warnings, and I'd suggest sticking around and looking at some recent threads on here with people having similar experiences.

Good luck in sorting it out.


 4:52 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Best advice I can think of to give: disavow the links and hope Google follows the lead of Yandex not counting links for SERPs in the future -- If Google doesn't you'll likely have to keep disavowing, because imo as long as Google counts links positively or negatively Google will be gamed by link schemes.


 5:03 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

The site never tried to buy links and it was run 100% 'white-hat.' There are many (I'd say about 100-150) of natural and on-topic links (the site is pretty much focused on one defined theme) and until recently it was enough for the site to rank well in Google. For example, I read threads about Penguin, Panda, and other penalties but it was only theory to me because the site was never affected.

The non-profit will be fine even though it lost a substantial amount of traffic and I lost confidence in what I know and don't know. It also made me paranoid about things I should not be paranoid (for example, when I check statistics I see some strange domains listed as a source of traffic; I guess I'll have to copy-paste them and disavow over and over again). I would have hoped the technology is sophisticated enough to take care of such things automatically.

Anyway, I'm hopeful Google will resolve it. Still, I'm afraid Google will 'mark' the site as 'suspicious' and it would take a lot of time for rankings to go back. That would not be good news to anyone but the people involved in black-hat / negative SEO.


 5:07 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

"Yandex not counting links for SERPs" --

I didn't know about that but being a victim I think it's a better solution overall. I have to read more about that, thanks.


 7:33 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

I can't help but rubbish the idea that Google genuinely assumes its penalty applies only to the guilty. They must be taking such instances as collateral damage for the greater good of its SERPs and more so to drive fear into the minds of webmasters in how they get links, a systemic behavioral change.
Google must be saying, We know you are not guilty, but there you are. We are looking at the larger picture and you are only a small blemish on it.


 9:33 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Commiserations Selen,
this is not a unique event, unfortunately.
I have also 2 sites with strong natural backlink profiles that have also been penalised by Google for un solicited spammy links that google think, that I am somehow responsible for.
I object to having to try and remove and then disavow so many obvious spam links and hoped that after several reinclusion emails explaining the situation that sanity would prevail.
It never happened and I have given up and have taken a perverse satisfaction that Google is somehow missing the best sites on 2 popular subjects and the people who find their way to those sites must think that Google is crazy.


 12:08 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Selen from what you said about copy and paste I am assuming you mean you get lots of link from one domain? make sure you use the "domain:" attribute when disavowing. This will disavow the whole domain. Will save you time.

As an aside does anyone out there know if you disavow domain that includes subdomains? Or do you have to subdomains separately?

At the moment I do subdomains to be sure but would be easier if I didn't have to.


 2:11 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Most sites are easily victimized by negative seo because they have few existing links pointing to their sites and are often not high quality links either. Don't expect Google to sort this out because there have been many documented cases of alleged negative seo where the victims are getting turned down on reconsideration requests.


 3:04 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Selen, Google will only show you a deliberately random selection of the sites that link to you in Webmaster Tools. Check out the second post in this thread and register your client's site there: [webmasterworld.com...]

You are unlikely to ever get your hands on EVERY link Google is counting (against you) but the more data sources you use the better information you'll have.


 3:27 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

There was a swarm of Russian and Ukranian spambots last month. It's died down recently. Might be related.


 5:13 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Google is somehow missing the best sites on 2 popular subjects

That's how I try to think too. Of course, still hoping the re-inclusion request will work..

make sure you use the "domain:" attribute when disavowing.

Yes, I did just that. I just don't want to have anything to do with these sites/domains.

Most sites are easily victimized by negative seo because they have few existing links pointing to their sites and are often not high quality links either.

For the last few years I was assuming that Google doesn't want webmasters to actively seek links. So that's exactly what we did - we produced great original content/articles and assumed others will link to us. It worked to a certain extent, ie. a few relevant websites linked to us, but we never tracked it in a professional way.

On the other hand now I see it might have been a mistake -- because counting on natural/organic links means an easy target for negative SEO. For example, if my site received 10-15 natural links a year then a rogue webmaster has it easy because they can only add 100-200 of spammy links and my 'white-hat SEO' website is done. I thought it should not be this way but it apparently (still) is...

PS. I noticed one of the websites that I disavowed is in English. But what they apparently do is to take content from Russian (or Ukrainian) news websites, run it through an automated translator, and create 'original content' in English this way. In result, they have thousands of pages of fresh and 'original' (stolen?) content and rank well in Google. At the same time, they can hurt other sites in Google (even if Google bans their domain, they can move to a new one and have fresh and daily 'content' every day).


 7:09 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

On the other hand now I see it might have been a mistake -- because counting on natural/organic links means an easy target for negative SEO.

You're right - there's an unfortunate "catch 22" going on there. If you "build links" with the best of intentions, it is still possible they will appear "unnatural" to Google, and yet NOT having many backlinks makes you vulnerable to negative SEO.

This is a problem Google has created. They may have had the best of intentions, I don't care, I'm not judging them. I'm just saying they've known for a while that continuing to count links as they do was going to lead to problems.

Rather than build links, I would work more on social media profiles - which, in some cases, actually leads to followable links that can help with search. But in any case, social media CAN bring enough traffic to make up a Google shortfall - I know, because I've made that happen on a couple of sites. It's at least as much work as SEO, but the results tend to last longer.


 7:31 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

counting on natural/organic links means an easy target for negative SEO.

Links are just one piece of the puzzle. What's on the site is likely to count for something, too. Google claims to have 200+ ranking factors, so it stands to reason that scoring high for a variety of factors should help to dilute any negative impact from low-quality links.


 8:41 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Using the tools mentioned above, I found about 200 spammy domains (mostly .ru, com.br, .net, .ua, and .com) that linked from about 1,000 websites to the affected site. Initially I thought there were only about 10 linking domains.. Some had adult-related keywords (anchor text). Now I'm going to spend hours to add them to the Disavow list....

It feels there is a gang of criminals in your virtual neighborhood and you are on their mercy. The police thinks you are a member of the gang. They know negative SEO works and all they have to do is to change domains and follow the 'procedure' to sabotage their next victim. They can even start a 'negative SEO service' (if they haven't yet).

What's the most frightening is that the gang has a very powerful tool in their hands. I would call it 'drone SEO' because they can operate from different countries and do damage remotely. They can distort the reality and even do a lot of damage to the society. Imagine there's a political or social group/party fighting for the right cause and the 'drone SEO' doesn't share their views or don't like their political candidates. All they can do is to follow the negative SEO procedure and within a couple of months the targeted website can be eliminated for a long period of time.


 9:06 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

...doesn't share their views or don't like their political candidates.

Nobody spends time and money to oppose the views of someone else in another country. It's not personal. It's not about views. It's about money.

As I already told you, there's unusual spambot activity originating in Russia and the Ukraine. It's all about money. Some of it is to infect computers for a wide range of activities, but it all comes back to money.

It's nothing personal to you or your site so stop thinking in those terms and view this soberly for what it is. It's just someone trying to make money and your site got caught in the crossfire. Don't be surprised about it. That's reality and it's going to be this way for the rest of your online life.

Just as it's unwise to leave a laptop on the front seat of a parked car, there are activities on the other side of the world and next door to us that are going to affect us if we're not vigilant.

Although I believe that sites that do not promote themselves, particularly those in backwater niches, are vulnerable to being exploited in the manner you described and in other ways, it's also possible there are other issues going on with your site. Many times cases of "negative seo" turn out to be something else, sometimes dumb mistake type things related to improper implementation of code to badly executed "seo" activities.


 10:00 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Yes (political power = money), too. If it's the reality then we can hope Google will side with the real victims of the crossfire.


 10:37 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Some had adult-related keywords (anchor text).

These links with the adult related text, they were pointing AT your site? If so I would spend some time checking to make sure your site wasn't hacked at some point.


 10:43 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Sorry, not pointing but used adult keywords (anchor text) to link to the site.


 11:04 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

adult keywords (anchor text) to link to the site.

to link TO your site?

Many times what hackers will do is plant stuff on a clean website (your site) and then build crap links to your site to try and build up the authority of your page so that the link they planted has more value.

Why else would someone link to your site using adult keywords if your site is not adult (just assuming its not)? If I was going to do negative seo to your site i would use keywords that I don't want you to rank for so that you get penalized on those keywords.


 11:18 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Why else would someone link to your site using adult keywords if your site is not adult (just assuming its not)?

I assume to dilute the website's theme. But the adult keywords were maybe 10-15% of all keywords (in comparison to all keywords). The site is not related to adult theme in any way.


 11:51 pm on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

Links from bad neighborhoods do hurt your site.


 6:02 am on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

I have been a webmaster for the last 7 years and I have not been in the situation that a person is doing negative SEO for my websites. However, I came across a situation that I want to share with you, which I think is a suspicious activity and unnatural to build links.

I was doing SEO for a hotel website say example.com, and it was a very reputed one in its area, in fact the top most one. However, other hotels in that area were continuously getting fake reviews and actually using my website URL. They placed in their Google local listing too. Naturally, The more quality hotel by far (which I was working for) was slipping behind day by day. I reported the problem to Google but the reviews and URL are still in places by the day. I am very frustrated by the matter and do not know how to solve the issue.


 6:27 am on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Why else would someone link to your site using adult keywords if your site is not adult (just assuming its not)? If I was going to do negative seo to your site i would use keywords that I don't want you to rank for so that you get penalized on those keywords.

@shepherd it is a well know blackhat technique to spam adult keywords at a competitors site. Google treats adult websites differently. What sometimes happens is that the site being attacked can get a "temporary" hit in the serps while Google tries to work out is this really a website that has decided to become an adult site.

Like I said this is usually a temporary situation but it can be disrupting. If a spammer is tenacious enough and the backlink profile of the target is not robust enough then it can have permanent damage.

A spammer can spam adult keywords at WebmasterWorld all day every day and not much will happen but do it to a 6 month old website and there is a chance that Google misinterpret the site as being some how adult in nature. The last thing Google wants is for a "possible adult site" turning up for a non adult keyword.


 9:52 am on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

helping some non-profit sites exist

it is purely informational website

As Martinibuster said, follow the money. I'd bet 10/1 this is a case of the site/server being hacked over a negative seo attack based on the information provided by the op.


 3:46 pm on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Nice thread. Negative SEO does exist. It's not conjecture. We've got some fantastic resources on that in <our website> and it's actually a service (identifying and combating such attacks) that I continue to get more and more requests for. We've been suggesting for awhile that clients/subscribers sign-up for monthly link alerts and keep a running updated disavow file. Negative SEO doesn't discriminate, it's just a best practice for site owners to be proactive.

[edited by: aakk9999 at 4:00 pm (utc) on Dec 12, 2013]
[edit reason] removed specifics, per forum Charter [/edit]


 5:37 pm on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

In my opinion Google should not count these low quality links. In addition, will be great for each webmaster to discount links from WMT (i am talking about negative seo, and spam robots).

I think links still should matter, because from one point, even you build artificial links, you cannot get more links because these sources are limited.


 7:55 pm on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Negative SEO does exist. It's not conjecture.

If people are still debating whether it exists or not, they need to look at the facts. Penguin goes after bad links and as long as links do not leave behind a social security number or DNA, then Google will have a really hard time determining who created the links. Even with Adsense code on the website and a person being logged into Google, the amount of computing power needed to determine who created a link would be extraordinary. I don't think Google has evolved to this level yet. No matter, bad links are dealt with by Google with their algorithm and manually. Nothing positive comes from having bad links pointing to a site, which is why people who say negative seo does not work are uninformed. Obviously negative seo won't work on big or Google protected sites, but many seo blogs cite cases of effective negative seo attacks on smaller websites. Anyone ranking good in Google is a potential future victim.


 8:35 pm on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

I could meet somebody in a dark alley at midnight and slip a $100 bill into their pocket in return for a link to my site. How is Google going to know who paid for it, or if anyone even paid for it at all?


 10:20 pm on Dec 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

They look for patterns. If your site matches a pattern of link buying or selling site, it will be probably labelled as such.

So in the above example, if a link purchase is one off, and the seller sells one link only to you (does not sell links to others), you could almost certainly get away with it. But if this seller sells links to many sites, or you are buying links from many sites, this shows the footprint.

Unfortunately, some sites may show footprint even when they are not buying or selling links - they are collateral damage because otherwise Google cannot scale.

To try to draw some parallels:

I worked with ePOS (point of sale) and this was the way Loss Prevention in stores/shops worked. The averages and an acceptable deviation from these average were calculated for various metrics. And if a checkout operator's metrics were outside this acceptable corridor, they got investigated.

For example, one of metrics may be an average number and total value of returned items supervisor performed in a day/week. So if someone was doing fake returns and pocketing money, this would get highlighted and this supervisor would get investigated or a detective would be sent in the store.

Staff never knew where the limits were - they were kept secret (and they were slightly different depending on a store type).

So when someone starts to cheat, at first bogus returns are still "hidden" because at first they are very careful. They do one bogus return and pocket the money. Nobody noticed so after a few days they do another. And another. And they get braver, the amounts get larger and the number of bogus returns get higher - it is a human nature. Until they break the limit. And this limit breach is not one-off, it soon happens day after day, week after week over the x period.

So the ePOS system highlights this pattern and the retailer investigates. And in most cases supervisors were found guilty. When found guilty - this is publicised within the company - to serve as deterrent to others.

See the similarity?

But Google cannot afford to investigate - it does not scale. They penalise. (They may take a closer look if there is a reconsideration request. Eventually, taking a closer look over many websites over the time may perhaps result in some adjustments to the metric as they *will* learn something from the write-ups of webmasters' many reconsideration requests.)

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