You’re checking the backlinks pointing to your site, as you do occasionally, when you see it:
a huge spike in links.
At first, you’re not sure whether to be excited or scared, but when you look closer, your fears are confirmed—you’re being attacked.
Someone is bombarding your site with spam links (like the ones below) in the hopes that you will be penalized by Google.
It’s likely a competitor, but it’s almost impossible to tell who.
While this type of scenario is most likely to happen in competitive niches, it can happen anywhere.
The term for it, as you may know, is negative SEO.
Will it hurt your rankings?
It can. There are many stories in forums of negative SEO causing organic search traffic to crash.
However, you should first understand whether there’s a real risk to your site.
In order to get penalized by Google, the number of spammy backlinks would have to be overwhelmingly huge compared to the number of good links.
For a site such as Quick Sprout, there’s almost no risk that a negative SEO attack would be successful because it has hundreds of thousands of quality links pointing to it.
If your site has only a few hundred links, or even a few thousand, that’s when you need to be concerned.
I have some good news for you (among the bad): If you do get attacked, it sucks. It will cost you weeks or months of lost revenue. However, you can almost always recover from negative attacks.
Additionally, if you follow the four steps that I lay out in this post, you’ll be able to prevent negative SEO attacks from causing any real damage most of the time.
Step #1 – Automate your data updates
The first thing you should do is get regular updates about your site’s health.
To do that, log in to your Google webmaster tools account and go to Preferences. Next, make sure that the “Enable email notifications” box is checked:
While you can pick specific issues to be notified of, it’s best to set the type to “all issues.”
You’ll immediately get notified if there are any signs of foul play like getting hacked or having malware on your site.
Next, get email updates about new backlinks: The longer you wait to address a negative SEO attack, the more likely it is to be successful.
If you get a daily email that gives you a quick overview about new links pointing to your site, it will be obvious when someone spams your site.
If you see an abnormal quantity of links or tons of links with anchor text such as “pills,” “payday loans,” etc., you have an issue.
There are a few tools that can help you track your backlinks.
A free option is OpenLinkProfiler.
As a free option, it’s limited, but it’s still a decent solution for small sites.
Once you create an account, go to the Backlinks panel, click “Link Alerts,” and then input your website and email:
You’ll then get a daily email that lets you know whether any new backlinks were detected.
You can either look at new links manually by going to the “new links” page:
Or you can also go to the “email notifications” section and change the status of new/lost backlink notifications to “Daily”:
Again, you’ll get a nice email summary every day.
You don’t need to do anything big with these email summaries. Just take a 10-second scan of them for anything out of the ordinary.
Step #2 – Monitor your top backlinks
There’s one more type of negative SEO attack you should be aware of although it’s far less common than the ones I mentioned above.
Sometimes, someone doing negative SEO will create a new email account similar to yours (e.g., Neil.Patel38388@gmail.com) and then email sites that link to you asking them to take down the link to your site.
This is clearly unethical, but some people don’t care.
While you can’t monitor all of your links, you can keep track of the best ones.
You can find your best ones with any backlink database tool. On Ahrefs, you type in your site in the “site explorer” tool, and then click on “links” in the sidebar:
This will bring up a list of links to your site, sorted by URL rank by default.
Get to know your top 20 or so links well because they’re likely the ones that will be targeted.
From here, do two things:
- pay special attention to them in the “links lost” section of those emails we set up in step 1
- check all of them manually once in awhile (maybe once or twice a month) just in case one slipped by. You could create a tool to do this for you if you’d like.
Finally, you may be able to prevent a negative SEO attack from being successful by doing all your outreach from an email address for your domain (e.g., Neil@QuickSprout.com).
Then, add a line to your signature that reads something like this:
This is the official email address I use for all matters regarding (site name).
That way, some of your contacts may notice something fishy when they get a removal request from a different email.
Step #3 (if applicable) – Monitor and report fake reviews and mentions
This next step applies mostly to local businesses although any website can implement it to be safe.
Many businesses get links from review sites such as Yelp:
These links often carry a lot of weight since Yelp is an authoritative site in the eyes of Google.
However, the quality of the link you get from Yelp depends on how your business is weighed compared to other businesses in your industry.
For example, if someone searches for plumbers in Florida, they get a page like this:
That’s the page that’s most authoritative to Google, not the individual profile pages for each business.
But the profile pages are the ones with links going back to the businesses’ sites.
Finally, the higher up on the page the link is within the search results, the more authority is transferred to the profile page, which is then transferred to the actual business website.
This is because links higher on a page are generally more important than those lower on the page.
A competitor involved in negative SEO has an opportunity to hurt you in a few ways here.
The plan will be to leave negative reviews on your profiles, which will lower your rankings on sites like Yelp. This in turn hurts you by:
- lowering your search engine rankings
- lowering the number of customers who hire you based on those reviews
If someone resorts to those dirty tactics, react quickly.
Since you should know all your customers, it should be easy to spot fake reviews right away even if they’re well written.
Dealing with them is pretty easy in most cases. Sites like Yelp usually have a “report this review” button available to the owner of the business profile:
The tricky part is finding the fake reviews in the first place and doing it fast enough so that you can remove them before they cause any damage.
To find them, use some sort of a monitoring tool.
Once you’re signed in, enter the term you want to create an alert for into the text box. Then, click the Options link below to expand your options:
I recommend getting these alerts at least once a day.
You should set up alerts for all the names that could be used for your brand. For example:
- Quick Sprout
- Neil Patel
- Misspellings – e.g., Neal Patel, Quik Sprout
From the emails you get, you can quickly find reviews of your brand and its mentions in groups and forums.
This will help you not only protect yourself from negative SEO but also maintain a good brand image in general.
Finally, you also might want to manually monitor specific review sites that are really important to your business.
They could be Yelp, Amazon, Angie’s List, etc. If they send you customers on a regular basis, check in with them once every day or two.
Step #4 – Disavow bad links
The final step is a last resort.
In theory, the best plan is to just not make any enemies, but even that doesn’t always work.
Eventually, you may be faced with that huge spike of spammy links that threaten to destroy your Google rankings.
You need to make sure that Google doesn’t count those links when the algorithm is deciding where to rank your pages.
It’s a tool that can be dangerous because it can actually harm your rankings if used incorrectly:
Basically, you create a text file that contains all the URLs that should be ignored, and Google will do that the next time it crawls any of those pages.
However, if you disavow a link that was actually helping one of your pages rank well, that page now has one less good link.
What this means is that you need to be careful, and I’ll show you how to do just that.
A possible shortcut: If you have an Ahrefs account with a standard plan or higher, you have access to a disavow feature.
You can turn it on beside the main search bar:
In the link reports, you’ll see an option to disavow a URL or domain by clicking a link:
At any point, you can go to your “disavow links” and export a file that could be uploaded into the disavow tool.
This will save you time in the long run because you don’t need to worry about tracking old links that you’ve disavowed, but it’s not mandatory either if your account doesn’t support it.
Disavowing manually: This is the option that most use, and it works fine.
First, you’ll need to download as many backlinks pointing to your site as possible. It’s difficult to get all the links, but if you use multiple sources, you can get a good number of them.
Start with Google Search Console (former Webmaster Tools). If you go to the backlinks section, there’s an option to download sample links and “latest” links. Do both:
Then download whatever links you can get from backlink databases such as Ahrefs, Majestic, Open Site Explorer, and Open Link Profiler.
Add them all to one giant spreadsheet. All you really need is the URL/domain name.
Here’s the scary part:
You need to determine whether each link is legitimate or not.
This involves a lot of manual tedious work for large sites.
You can use some shortcuts such as:
- looking for spammy domain extensions (e.g., “.ru”)
- looking for spammy anchor text (e.g., “viagra”)
- looking for well-known domains that are obviously good links
That’s the bulk of the work. You’ll have to visit many URLs to check them. Consider dividing this work up if you have a team.
Next, you need to strip the trailing URL data so that all you have left is the domain name.
To do that in Excel or Google sheets, use this formula in a column next to the URLs:
Drag the corner of that cell down so that the formula is applied to all the URLs in the column:
In the example above, you’d start with column B and end up with the bare domains in column A.
Next, get rid of the “http://”, “https://”, and “www.”. You can do this with a simple “find and replace” function (replace each phrase with a blank space).
Next, highlight all the domains and remove the duplicates.
Finally, you need to add the term “domain:” in front of all the sites so that the disavow tool knows to discount links from the entire site.
While you can disavow specific URLs, it’s usually best to remove all the links from the spammy domain.
Do this by using the formula:
Here is the resulting table:
You should now have a list like the one in column B above.
Finally, copy and paste these into a simple text file:
You can add comments using the “#” sign, but those are just for you. The disavow tool simply relays the information about the links to the search engine’s algorithm.
Finally, go into the disavow section of your Webmaster Tools account, and choose the domain that these links affect:
After clicking that button, you can upload your disavow text file.
As long as you did everything right, you’ll get a success message like this:
It’s a lot of tedious work, but it’s not too complicated.
Within a week or two, Google should remove most of those bad links from consideration.
Negative SEO is a terrible business practice, but some people still use it.
I’ve given you a 4-step process that will protect you against the bulk of potential negative SEO attacks or at least limit the damage they do.
I encourage you to employ these steps as soon as possible because they aren’t very useful if you use them long after the damage has been done.
Have you ever been affected by negative SEO? Share your experience in a comment below.