Negative SEO: 600K Spam Links! (Case Study)

// This article was written by Eliav Lankri (Eliavos) — SEO Expert

Take a moment to think what would you do if someone (a competitor) swamped your website with “spam backlinks”, even after you took your time to protect your backlinks Profile. What then? — This next case is real.

Like I have said — you truly have done everything by the book. Yet still someone decided to take a stand against you for being righteous, and send some links your way that may harm you — not by the dozens (though those might also be enough to cause damage and penalize your site). I’m talking about something around 600,000 backlinks, all dedicated to one purpose- taking your site ranking down and cause a severe penalty.

In “minor” cases it looks just like this:

When someone usually does this (and I truly don’t wish this on any one because such dirty work takes a hell of a clean-up) that person will focus on your original Keywords. If you practice in “Computer Games”, one day you may wake up to find a p*rn link from Russia (.ru) is linked to your site. Neat huh?

Matt Cutts on NEGATIVE SEO

Matt Cutts explains in this video how Google’s algorithm has evolved to become much more clever than it used to, how the algorithm identifies exactly when someone is acting to create Negative SEO and when you build your backlinks “naturally”.

The world of Negative SEO is divided into two kinds

Ever since I started working in the field, I’ve always divided these campaigns into two kinds: “Negative SEO for Dummies” and “Sophisticated Negative SEO”. What are the differences between the two?

NEGATIVE SEO for Dummies

More often than not, the “dummy” will open an account in Fivver and order hundreds of thousands of links directly to the site he intends to harm.
Most of these links will be built under the “original keywords” of the competing site in blogs and forum signatures that have nothing to do with the site’s niche (and again, by the hundred thousands).

There are many freelancers (whose work I usually admire) who allow you to coordinate your order. Meaning, one can order this service for the duration of six months, and each month those outlets add X number of links to the site one intends on taking down; using the method of “fire and forget”.
Smile, the Google ranking algorithm already knows how to identify the vast majority of such negative bad campaigns.

Sophisticated NEGATIVE SEO

Negative SEO campaigns of the sophisticated kind actually work, and they are far more dangerous. (By the way “google” don’t want you to know that they work)
While Google relies on their automatic ranking algorithm (which is the permanent case) — there will always be a way to “jam” the data the algorithm examines so it would not distinguish these links from the original data.
Negative campaigns of this kind usually cause your site to loose its ranking, and penalize it in most cases.

Why?
Usually Sophisticated Negative SEO will make it look as if the site owner himself is trying to sway the ranking algorithm; or at least it would appear so to the algorithm.

This method works thanks to the modern attitude of link building

Unlike the Negative SEO for Dummies, which actually causes a bombing of irrelevant links from forums and blog comments (all of which does not affect site SEO anymore), this method heeds on:
-> Spreading links for a duration of time
-> Linking internally; and not just to the home page
-> Linking to categories
-> Linking from various CMS (Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, Blogger…etc)
-> Combining several domains of the same subject which include the domain (one is willing to harm) *Remember this one
This method will eventually be tracked down by Google, and the site owner will get the infamous message in his Google Webmaster Tools.

This method will eventually be tracked down by Google, and the site owner will get the infamous message in his Google Webmaster Tools.

This is where My Part Takes Place

I have a client who works in jewelry. As you know, this field is very competitive worldwide.
During 2012 this client decided to open up an online website through which she could market her product. The Client did not know much in terms of site SEO. Still, her site got quality links from “quality” websites in the field, which put her on the radar of her competitors.

That year an action has taken place, by one of her competitors, apparently against several jewelry companies — pay attention, the fact that this person was not the sole target of the attack, but one of many, decreases the chances of the Google algorithm to actually notice someone is trying to hurt her, or anyone else.

At the end of the day, my client went from getting a small number of qualitative and respected links in the field to getting junk-links. Not any junk links, 600,000 of rotting junk-links for a long time.

My innocent client did not understand why though her traffic numbers were so high, yet the number of her orders kept shrinking. She decided to take a decisive action and call on me for help. We talked about working on a site “which was never touched by a SEO specialist”. After we talked I asked her if I could get a couple of days to check if I can actually access such a vast niche.

The Point of the story

Through one of my first checks I approached an ahrefs.com account which I really like, and saw the next thing:

image via ahrefs.com

This data knocked me right out. It instantly made me get the sense of what was going on. As I dug further and deeper, I realized the whole business was smellier than it initially looked.
I asked for access to the GWMT for further exploration — then I uncovered the fact that the problem was much bigger.
The site was penalized.

In spite of the obvious negative aspects, I have decided to take positive measures and dive right in. I informed the client of the risks included in the necessary actions I was about to take, and explained to her that whatever happens, we will succeed, for good.

This is the graph today:

image via ahrefs.com

The actions I took to save the innocent client

1). As I mentioned, I dug and kept on digging without rest until I deduced that this was in fact a case of Sophisticated Negative SEO. What the assaulting party actually did was combine several links from the same domain, which created a naturality out of which every comment/article exports a number of links so that the Google algorithm could not identify a foul play has been made.

2). I accessed the GWMT and did not miss the message that informed of the penalty.

3). By using the tool “DetoX” I’ve extracted a list of all links associated with the site, and their risk levels. I have filtered a huge amount of links which I finally distilled to a final list of links to work on (a job I’m still doing).

4). The initial attempt: I took ten thousand links (those Detox marked as the most dangerous) and sent them to one of my nice freelancer. My guy extracted all associated e-mails within one week.

5). This is the part where my actual work starts. I have opened a new domain through which I had sent every day (automatically) a ranging number of e-mails from 100–250 e-mails, basically requesting to take down the links to my client’s site. You might be surprised, but I got replied. Some took down the links, some wanted money for it (yes, they take advantage of the situation) but the great majority did not answer e-mails.

6). I have thoroughly documented all of this communication and submitted a request of Disavow (after waiting a while for more responses from the notorious site owners). My request included the sites which removed the links, the sites that did not, and those who ignored pleading (whom I wish to ignore in return).
I was very clear in my request. I have arranged a .txt file with remarks that will be clear to me two months down the road if I may wish to make additional amendments.

7). After I have asked Google to reconsider my site’s links profile, I received a notice that it was still not up to their standards. I re-iterated steps 3 through 6, only now with 15,000 backlinks (again, with the help of my freelancer from clause 4)

8). After repeating the process an additional time Google approved my request.
The penalty has been revoked

9). I checked again for the prize aspect — the ranking. Did the site retain its original rank as it was before the attack? Almost.

I can’t put my finger on the thing that saved us, but I will say the following:

Remember the small spike in the amount of links?

Before I began all of the process I have listed above, I took care to maintain several quality links from respected sites in the field. All of those respected links were not marked under the site’s keywords, but under the URL of the site alone (for example: MOZ.com) — as it should be in a natural fashion. Not just anyone can do that though. Like all things in life, this action requires certain connections.
In this specific case my client had some connections I have decided to get to positive use.

Where is the site today?
The site is once again up on the search engine’s results; the huge traffic my client once got from Google has returned.

The deed is still not thoroughly undone though, the ranking is still not as high as it used to be. Some of the keywords in which we were ranked Top 10 are now ranked in the Top 20 (though I believe this will be quickly resolved and improved)

To Summarize: NEGATIVE SEO

This article is not intended on scaring you. My intent in writing this was simply to expose you to yet another “grey area” in which anyone can find trouble. The best thing one can do in such a case is act slowly but surely, and not impulsively. Of course, if you have any advisor at hand- use it. It is always best to hear an additional opinion, following manuals or tracking your links profile as events occur in order to prevent them properly.

Am I finally over the whole deal?

By my own choice I still keep working on the site, cleaning the links and updating the Disavow file every time. Even after the penalty has been revoked I would rather maintain this status (and clean another two-hundred thousand links).

// SOURCE (Hebrew)

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