Can Negative SEO Hurt a Site? – Anatomy of a Backlink Attack

Can a Website Be Harmed by a Negative SEO Backlink Attack? I Say Yes.

It is no surprise to most people who do SEO that there is such a thing as negative SEO. As a result, when Google’s Matt Cutts acknowledged that negative SEO exists and can potentially hurt a site, we pretty much all offered a collective shrug. My response was a loud “duh,” mainly because for the past several months I have been dealing with what I believe is a backlink attack on a website I manage.

Is There Such a Thing as Negative SEO? You Betcha.

When I first encountered the problem I am about to discuss, I did a quick search to see what I could find about dealing with what I call a backlink attack. I was able to find SEO companies advertising that they do exactly this kind of work. I won’t name the companies here, but if you do your own search you will find examples. One company claimed it is doing nothing illegal by engaging in backlink attacks.  Illegal, maybe not.  A cause for a civil lawsuit? I think maybe so.

Let me tell you what is going on.

The Details Surrounding A Negative SEO Link Attack

I need to preserve the privacy of the company I will be discussing, so pardon the paucity of details.

As with many SEO I have taken over websites to find disastrous backlink profiles. The sort of profile that would have made you wince even before Google’s efforts to deal with spammy links. This particular site was no exception. It also is a site that was massively hit by both Penguin and Panda, moving from the top of Google to many, many pages down. The SEO who was handling the site at the time wasn’t sure what happened after he had managed some major recovery from the first Google changes and got slapped back down in October of 2012 (exact match domain name anyone?) This time the site showed no recovery and I was eventually brought in to fix it.

A check of the backlinks for the site made me do a double take.  There were links from about one hundred sites that all turned out to be owned by the same company. The links started appearing in 2012.  I thought the situation was odd, and even wondered if someone had been engaging in a backlink attack, but I am not by nature suspicious, so I figured well, some prior SEO must have gotten these links thinking they would help.

My next step was to communicate with the company to which I could trace all the sites to ask for the links to be removed.  Here was the conversation:

  • Me: Message to webmaster on main website – Hi, I noticed there are links from a number of your sites to  Would you please remove them since they are harming our SEO?
  • Webmaster: Email response – We cannot find the links, would you please send us a list?
  • Me: To my brain, how can you not find the links? But ok. So I gathered all the links and sent an email. And the email bounced. Odd, I thought.
  • Me: Message to Webmaster on main website – Hi, you will recall I asked you about removing links but you couldn’t find them. Here is a list of all of the links.  Please remove them. Thanks very much.
  • Webmaster: Email Response – We cannot find the links, would you please send us a list? (From the same email address.)
  • Me: Giving it one last try, sends another email responding that the last email bounced and I provided the links on the website. Of course the email bounced.
  • Me: Various curse words and off I head to Google’s disavow tool.

As you would expect, I disavowed all of the domains from the company and moved on to other SEO issues.

The Links Return

About two weeks later I saw that Google had completed the disavow so I took a look at the backlinks again.  Much to my surprise and dismay there were more backlinks from the same company’s various websites. This time I reported the site to Google as a spammer (nowhere else to report it) and started to disavow again.

I contacted the last SEO and asked, “did you, by any chance, put a series of sites dealing with X on so-and-so’s website?”  The response?  “No, I have never heard of those sites.”  I believe the SEO, it is a good and reputable company. Unfortunately, the timing is such that if the SEO didn’t do it, someone not connected with the website did. So if the SEO didn’t do it, someone else did. This is why I am convinced a backlink attack is occurring on the site.

Have These Links Impacted the Site’s SEO?

I am pretty sure that these links have had a very negative impact on the SEO of the site. Through my efforts I have been able to restore some aspects of the site’s ranking on Google, even getting some important terms to the front page. However, I knew from experience that something was not quite right. In my opinion, what is not right, what I am fighting, is a backlink attack utilizing toxic links to intentionally harm the site’s ranking.

How Am I Dealing With the Problem?

I am dealing with the problem in two ways.

Watching for more backlink attacks

First, obviously, I keep a constant eye on the backlinks for the site. I decided to invest in several tools to keep a watch for further backlink attacks. The one I have found most useful is called Link Research Tools. The tools on Link Research are far from free, but the detox tool analyzes each and every backlink and lets me know if it judges the link as toxic, very low risk or something in between.  I manually check each and every site I am not certain about and make a decision about whether to leave the link, contact the webmaster to ask for removal, or disavow immediately.  About 99% of the links coming from the company in question were listed as toxic. I disavowed every link that came from one of the sites, including those that slipped through the detox tool’s algorithm. Every time a new link from the company appears, I disavow it. I closely watch for toxic or harmful links from other websites (not from the same company) and disavow those as well. I try to contact the website first to see if I can get the link removed. I never can.

In case you are wondering, I had to disavow about 95% of the links to the website as a result of this apparent backlink attack. About 85-90% of those links were from the same company’s websites and/or affiliate sites.

Considering legal action

Second, I will shortly be sending a cease and desist letter to the company that keeps linking to the site. We are also seriously considering filing a lawsuit so I can see if it is possible to identify who is responsible for these links. In other words, what SEO company and who hired it. I know it would be a novel lawsuit, but given the importance of Google to any business these days, and also the fact that Google has made it clear that toxic backlinks will hurt a website, I think I have a chance at making a good enough argument to get me past a summary judgment motion. We will see.

Watch Your Back(links)

Some SEO have always been willing to engage in black hat techniques. Clearly, from what I have seen on the web when researching negative SEO and through my own experience, some of these folks have decided a good black hat technique is to do what they can to bring other sites’ ranking down through a backlink attack.

I have no idea if anyone from Google will ever see this post, but if they do, I ask them to please find a way to deal with this problem.  At the very least they need to pay attention to websites that are outright offering to perform backlink attacks and they also need to start taking reports about sites that are being used to perform these kind of attacks and eliminate them from consideration for a website’s ranking.

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