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

4:27 am on Dec 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

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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]

3:50 pm on Dec 15, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Sure, but Google also cares about not letting third parties manipulate its search results. 

Yes, but to what extent? If they're only concerned to the extent that it doesn't wreck their results, having one site get screwed over is not likely to harm their advertisers or visitors.

Google must realize that everyone and his dog knows how to manipulate links by now, but they've only come up with new and more disastrous ways to count them in the algo. They may be "concerned", but if they were REALLY concerned, they'd remove links or just "not count" the bad ones, as we've all discussed.
4:03 pm on Dec 15, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Additionally, such a link policy reinforces my opinion that Google's algorithm is incapable of determining editorial links from those that are not with any type of accuracy

I doubt if any algorithm is capable of making such determinations with 100% accuracy--just as no algorithm is capable of judging content quality, user intent, or relevance for a given query with 100% accuracy. It's all about probabilities.

I've always thought that Google could save itself a lot of hassle and money on the spam-fighting front by devaluing or ignoring links to the kinds of sites that are most likely to pay for links. Yandex it taking a small step in this direction (See Search Engine Land's Dec. 6 article, "Yandex To Stop Counting Links As A Ranking Factor For Commercial Queries In Moscow.")
4:47 pm on Dec 20, 2013 (gmt 0)

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You generally don't get a manual review from the Webspam Team without them taking a close look at your domain. A Manual Review "STARTS" with a spam report... a searcher or a competing domain owner reported the domain to the Webspam Team, the Webspam Team in facts reviewed and found something that (in the case of unnatural links) PENGUIN 2.0 could not handle so they defunct that value.

You get that right? You are saying "Negative SEO WAS working for this domain until Google's Webspam Team got involved!"

That's a blue moon event... for sure.

It is very rare for someone that has absolutely zero insider data for a domain can pull off a successful Negative SEO campaign. It is even more rare that the Negative Campaign didn't work as expected to getting nailed by PENGUIN so the culprit had to bring in the Webspam Team on special assignment.

I'm sure it could happen... but really most Negative SEO complaints are not based on sabotage. They are primarily based on misunderstanding, misinterpretation, lack of insight into the Google Guidelines or lack of experience with the history of the domain.

You are best to seek out genuine recovery services because "picking out unnatural links" when you are not the team that defined when a link is unnatural is all guesswork and guesswork rarely leads to fruition on the first attempt.

Reconsideration attempt 16 or maybe 24... you bet!
7:26 pm on Dec 20, 2013 (gmt 0)

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A Manual Review "STARTS" with a spam report...

Even if it's true, I'm not sure how it is relevant or changes anything. The attackers can point thousands of links to your site and the same attackers fill out a spam report.

You are saying "Negative SEO WAS working for this domain until Google's Webspam Team got involved!

I'm not sure if you refer to my posts and what you mean by "WAS working." The fact is, the attack started a couple of months ago (because then the unnatural spike in back link count from the spammy domains suddenly appeared). During that time, there was no increase in visits (because no reasonable visitors would visit these low-quality sites or click on the links).

You are best to seek out genuine recovery services because "picking out unnatural links" when you are not the team that defined when a link is unnatural is all guesswork and guesswork rarely leads to fruition on the first attempt.

I also hope the Disavow tool is a genuine recovery tool that will allow to neutralize the links planted by the attackers.
8:46 am on Dec 21, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I have just had the manual penalty lifted for one of those sites I mentioned previously.
It seems they at last looked (manually) at the site and the supposed unnatural links they complained about, instead of solely relying on their algorithm.

I did not bother disavowing any links. I only filed a re inclusion request telling them that I am not responsible for any links, good or bad, to the site, and that they were being silly.
Seems it worked. :)
This was my 4th re inclusion request all basically saying the same thing.
5:17 pm on Dec 29, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I just discovered and disavowed about 500 domains. Some spammers were comment spamming on other sites linking to a blog they made on my site which linked to one of their sites. I am soooooooooooooo angry right now. Looks like they got away with it for a few years.
4:28 pm on Jan 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Good news - the penalty has been revoked. The site hasn't come 100% to the search index yet, but the change is extremely positive already. Thank you to all WW members, especially one of them who gave me helpful advice. Also thanks to an objective Google editor who noticed the problem and didn't allow the bad people to win.

More thoughts:

- The penalty process allowed us to take a long look at the site and to actually fix things that should have been fixed on the site. I'd call it an internal self-detox and I'm sure it will improve the site overall in the long term. It allowed us to learn a lot in the process which may be useful in the future. We'll continue adding the bad sites to the disavow list and/or blocking them by .htaccess referer if needed.

- I do think Google is up to something good with the disavow tool. Meaning, it will help prevent attacks of other innocent sites in the future. Of course, they need to have a lot of data from different and legitimate webmasters to confirm that the sites actually engage in such practices to prevent bad guys from using the tool in an inappropriate way. I believe it's important to give useful comments in the disavow.txt file to help Google editors connect the dots and organize your list in a logical way (ie. help their algorithms use the data in an efficient way).

- I still have some questions about the way to proceed in the future, especially if we should keep the sites that deleted the backlinks on the disavow domain list or not. Or if to allow domains from the spammy countries to access the site via HTTP referer. But these are probably good questions for a new thread.
6:07 pm on Jan 5, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Hi Selen. Congrats on getting the penalty revoked and thanks for coming back with the update. Can you please also keep us informed on the ranking recovery as and when it happens.

Regards, Shai
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