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No-Nonsense Negative SEO Attack Guide: How to Spot, Stop and Survive

Ready for some SEO horror stories?

One person’s well-established website disappeared from search engines virtually overnight.

And another highly focused firm’s website traffic dropped a whopping 70% in just a few days.

What do these two instances have in common?

Both were the result of a surprise negative SEO attack.

Thankfully, both survived and have since rebounded from the attack, but there’s a lesson to be learned here:

Always. Be. Prepared.

And that’s exactly what this guide aims to do, by giving you actionable advice on how to spot and stop the most common and harmful negative SEO attacks on the web.

That way, should your site ever be targeted, you won’t be caught by surprise.

Instead, you’ll know exactly what to do to survive.

 

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What Is a Negative SEO Attack?

First, a (very) brief history:

Back in 2012, Google released one of its most popular algorithm updates: Penguin.

Penguin existed for one main reason…

To stop manipulative link schemes and keyword stuffing.

And it lived up to its promise.

But one thing it didn’t intend to do was bring about the birth of negative SEO.

Let me explain:

Soon after Penguin’s release, manipulative SEOs discovered they could directly sabotage their competitors’ Google rankings by using the very tactics Penguin was created to stop.

As a result, honest marketers began to experience unexplainable drops in rankings and even, in some cases, complete de-indexation by search engines.

Negative SEO officially became a thing, and Google and webmasters have been battling it ever since to great effect.

Recently, John Mueller even stated in reference to negative SEO attacks:

 

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But SEOs have found enough evidence to question whether this is 100% accurate.

Why should all of this matter to you?

It matters because negative SEO is real and it can seriously damage your site’s rankings, traffic, profits and even reputation.

That’s why you need to know how to identify the warning signs of a potential negative SEO attack and stop it before it wreaks havoc on your rankings.

No-Nonsense Negative SEO Attack Guide: How to Spot, Stop and Survive

Negative SEO attacks come in all shapes and sizes.

Which means the way you handle a negative SEO attack will vary depending on the type of attack.

There are six common negative SEO attacks every site owner should be aware of:

  1. Link Spamming
  2. Content Scraping
  3. Heavy Crawling
  4. Bounce Rate Manipulation
  5. Robots.txt Sabotage
  6. Redirect Manipulation

Below, I’ll tell you what each type of negative SEO attack is, how to spot it, stop it and come out the other end.

1. Link Spamming

Link spamming is the result of someone flooding a competitor’s website with tons of spam backlinks.

Google then notices these spam backlinks when it crawls the competitor’s site and penalizes it.

For years this was the most common type of negative SEO attack. But recently, Google has put several measures in place to help prevent it from hurting the target site.

That said, it’s still a risk and you need to be prepared.

What to Look For

Any victim of link spamming will experience a sudden and drastic increase in spam backlinks pointing to their site.

Which means spotting a link spamming attack early on is easy as long as you’re using backlink management software.

For instance, Monitor Backlinks regularly updates your new backlinks and makes them readily visible to you in its Backlinks module:

 

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That in itself is useful in helping you find backlinks that look unnatural.

But then there’s also this:

 

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Spam Score is a Moz metric that tells you the predicted spamminess of a backlink.

One look at this column and you’ll know with confidence whether your site is under attack.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Any links with a Spam Score of 8 or higher (red in color) are all but guaranteed to be spam.
  • Links with a Spam Score between 5 and 7 (yellow in color) should be manually reviewed.

How to Stop the Attack

There are technically two ways to remove spam backlinks in this instance.

The key word being “technically.”

Let’s be honest, reaching out to the domain owners of these types of backlinks will prove at best ineffective and time-consuming.

The recommended option, in this case, is to disavow each backlink’s domain using Monitor Backlinks’ Disavow tool.

(Note: If you’re not yet a member, you can gain access to this tool and the entire suite of Monitor Backlinks backlink management tools for free here. No credit card required.)

I cover how to use it to disavow spammy domains in greater detail in this post.

But here’s the basic gist:

First, select the backlinks you want to disavow:

 

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Then, click the “Disavow” button and select “Disavow domains” from the drop-down:

 

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Next, go to the Disavow module and verify all links are present:

 

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Then, click the “Export Disavow Rules” button at the top-right of the page:

 

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Finally, click the “Send to Google” button to upload the disavow file to Google via their Disavow Tool in Search Console:

 

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2. Content Scraping

Content scraping happens when the attacker swipes content from your site and publishes it word-for-word on other sites.

They then attempt to index the content before you index your own, fooling Google into thinking your content is the duplicate content.

What to Look For

Your main goal is to find content that has either been copied from your site word-for-word or has been copied and run through an article spinner or similar software.

In order to find this, you’ll need to use a tool like Copyscape.

This online tool will automatically search the internet for duplicate content related to one of your pages.

Just type in your page’s URL and click the “Go” button…

 

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…and Copyscape will tell you if there’s duplicate content:

 

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How to Stop the Attack

If you do find duplicate content, then your next step is to fill out a Legal Request Form and submit it to Google:

 

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Simply follow the steps and Google will process and research the request.

3. Heavy Crawling

Heavy crawling occurs when the attacker uses bots to forcefully crawl your website and either overload the server or crash the site entirely.

The perpetrator’s hope is that Google will visit this site enough times while it’s down that it’ll view the site as being unreliable and penalize it as a result.

What to Look For

The most obvious signal is a slow-loading website or one that consistently crashes.

The slower speed should be visibly noticeable. But not always.

You can use Monitor Backlinks’ Speed summary at the top of the Overview module to see if any major speed decreases have recently occurred:

 

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Or, you can use a tool like GTmetrix to run a separate speed test:

 

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How to Stop the Attack

As soon as you notice a decrease in speed or consistent crashing, contact either your webmaster (if you have one) or your hosting provider.

If you’re tech-savvy, then you can also check the robots.txt and .htaccess to find out who the culprit is that’s forcing the crawling.

For some general advice on how to improve your website speed, check out the tips in this post.

4. Bounce Rate Manipulation

Attackers use bounce rate manipulation to intentionally manipulate a site’s bounce rate and dwell time.

They do that by using bots to repeatedly visit and then immediately leave the site.

The end goal of this type of attack is to increase the bounce rate and decrease dwell time—both of which are negative quality indicators that result in de-ranking and possible de-indexation.

What to Look For

Use Google Search Console to monitor your site’s click-through-rate (CTR) for your main keywords.

If you see a major unwarranted increase in CTR, you’re likely the victim of a negative SEO attack.

Also, look for a significant drop in dwell time (the average time a person spends on a site).

How to Stop the Attack

Unfortunately, there’s currently no instant or direct way to combat bounce rate manipulation.

You’ll need to use various marketing tactics to generate lower bounce rates and increase dwell time. A couple of the most useful tactics are:

  • writing more in-depth long-form content and
  • applying UX tweaks to entice readers to stay longer.

This post from Kelly O’Hara lists out four specific methods used to decrease bounce rate and increase dwell time.

5. Robots.txt Sabotage

Robots.txt sabotage occurs when someone hacks into your robots.txt file and blocks all search engines from crawling your site—which, in turn, makes your site disappear from search engines.

This type of attack is rare and usually results from disgruntled employees or SEO contractors. But anyone with hacking skills can hack into your site and sabotage your files if it’s not protected.

What to Look For

If your site suddenly disappears from search engines for no explicit reason, robots.txt sabotage should be a prime suspect.

There are two ways to check your site’s index status:

One, use Monitor Backlinks’ summary bar on your Overview module:

 

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If it suddenly reads “0,” then your site’s been de-indexed.

Two, use Google to search for site:[yoursite].com.

You’ll get one of two results…

This means your site is indexed:

 

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And this means your site is not indexed:

 

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How to Stop the Attack

Once you’ve verified the cause is robots.txt sabotage, simply open your robots.txt file and remove the disallow rule that’s blocking search engines:

From this:

 

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To this:

 

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Here’s a guide that shows you how to do this and more with your robots.txt.

You can access your robots.txt file using your FTP program of choice.

Once the disallow rule is deleted, search engines will again be able to crawl your site.

6. Redirect Manipulation

Redirect manipulation is another form of hacking where the attacker hacks into your site and adds redirects to links in your content that link to other sites.

In most cases, the attacker’s intent is to drive traffic to their own site.

That’s bad in itself.

But what makes it worse is that most of these sites are malicious. And when Google notices you’re linking to malicious sites, they’ll penalize you without question.

What to Look For

Regularly check your pages for newly added redirects.

With Monitor Backlinks, it’s as simple as going to your Backlinks module and activating the “Destination page with” → “Page with errors/redirects” filter…

 

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…and reviewing the “Anchor & Link To” column:

 

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Look for any pages that aren’t supposed to have redirects.

How to Stop the Attack

If you see malicious redirects…

First, change all passwords linked to your site. This includes WordPress, your hosting provider, FTP provider, email accounts and so on.

Then, download and install high-quality website security software to help prevent any future hacking attacks.

Two popular website security software providers are OpenVAS (free) and Netsparker (paid).

Negative SEO Attack Wrap-up

As you read in the intro, negative SEO attacks are serious and cause major issues for your site and brand.

But if you’re prepared when an attack happens, you’ll stop the damage before it gets out of hand.

In short:

First, know where your search engine rankings are at all times.

(Monitor Backlinks’ Keyword module can help with that.)

Second, check your site for each of these types of negative SEO attacks on a weekly basis.

If you do that, then I’m confident you’ll be well-equipped to survive any type of negative SEO attack.

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