Is negative SEO real?
Or is it just another creepy online myth akin to Slenderman?
Negative is all too real. The evidence is there.
And any one of us humble content marketers could be the next target of a negative SEO campaign.
Thankfully, in 2016 Google updated its Penguin algorithm to demote spam links instead of triggering a penalty, but large-scale negative SEO campaigns can still damage a brand with manual actions and potential user distrust when people see the brand associated with questionable content.
One of my blogs was “touched” by the evil unicorn in the past, and there are still spammy backlinks to it around the (spammy) blogosphere, backlinks I didn’t get to remove to date. On this blog, I seldom publish sponsored content and guest posts, but I’ve seen my pitches declined because “your blog has been hacked in the past” or because they found spam sites linking to it.
Negative SEO is as real as you and I, and it’s not fun for anyone. For content marketers, it can be hugely damaging to business, brand and a content platform’s reputation.
But if you come under attack, all is not lost. There are some outstanding SEO tools you can use to analyze the problem and find a solution, too. I’ll review some in this post.
Diagnosis of a Negative SEO Attack
Do you fear your website might currently be under a negative SEO attack?
Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. If it’s negative SEO, the attack can have one or more of these six characteristics:
1. Your site loses rankings in the SERPs
If your website benefited from consistent growth to date but it’s now suddenly and strangely losing rankings in the SERPs of all major search engines (especially Google), there might be a competitor trying to mess things up.
2. Spammy URLs and anchor texts linking back to your site
When backlinks from suspicious or blatantly spammy sites begin to pop up in your backlink analyzer at some point, and they keep growing exponentially, this is something that clearly tells you this isn’t your ordinary spammer. It’s most likely a negative SEO attack.
3. Your site links back to spammy URLs with or without spammy anchor text (hacking)
This happens when you find out your own carefully-crafted pages and blog posts link back to “bad content” (Viagra and similar medicines, casinos, escorts and so on) that you never inserted in your text yourself.
What could possibly be happening is that a competitor hired a cracker to hack into your site via SQL injection or exploiting a PHP vulnerability or your CMS.
“Hacks might not be discussed too often when it comes to SEO,” says Anthony Tourville, digital marketing specialist at Bartlett Interactive, “but Google does put warning signs on the SERPs when they feel a website has been hacked, which usually will lead to fewer clicks and lower traffic.”
4. Negative reviews appear with suspicious patterns
You’ll most likely get a negative review from time to time, but when the number and quality of reviews start taking on suspicious patterns—increased number of negative reviews, poor or “bully” quality, etc.—you can safely suspect a negative SEO attack.
5. You find duplicate content from your site scattered all around the web
When you search for your content and you find countless copies of your blog posts, you know something’s up.
Legit reports carry a rel=canonical tag to specify the original source of the content, avoiding both a penalty and the accusation of content theft.
However, much of the so-called “duplicate content” doesn’t provide any legitimate way to go back to the original source, and often it doesn’t credit the original author either.
6. You find portions of your content scraped by clearly spammy websites
Sometimes you’ll find parts of your posts as somebody’s (spam) comments, or partially inserted into gibberish posts. That’s a scraper’s job.
Yes, it might be the random scraper scraping randomly from the web, but it’s hard to exclude the potential of a negative SEO attack here.
The 16 Top Tools to Detect Negative SEO and Fight Back with Guns Blazing
Years ago, Wooden Blinds Direct SEO Executive Lewis R. and his team battled with a negative SEO attack in the form of spammy links and duplicate content.
They suspected it was a competitor’s attempt to literally banish them from the SERPs. Once they identified the type of negative SEO war being waged, Lewis and his team fought hard to recover their company’s position in the SERPs with Google’s Disavow Tool and a lot of manual work.
Eventually, they succeeded.
Negative SEO tools are an essential partner in fighting bad competitors’ attempts to hurt your website and brand reputation. It’s impossible to do it all manually when your site is being attacked on a large scale.
For this post, I divided the tools I tested in two categories—Analyze and Fight Back—to cover the two steps involved in battling negative SEO.
1. Monitor Backlinks
You can analyze your backlinks with Monitor Backlinks to find out which ones are potential threats or the results of a negative SEO attack.
When you open your Backlinks tab, you’ll be able to assess each link in the list with the help of several metrics and orange warning signs.
This tool also gives you a handy Disavow Domain button and options for assigning a score to the backlink (Good, Bad, Pending, Ignored).
You can use the Disavow Domain feature to disavow backlinks within Monitor Backlinks, but it limits you to links with a warning sign.
If you want to manually assess backlinks, you have to select them and click the With Selected button at the top of the list, choose Disavow from the drop-down menu and pick either Domains or URLs.
Monitor Backlinks also allows you to create a backlink list you can export and submit to Google’s Disavow Tool. Click the Disavow link in the tab and you’ll see a list of all the domains and URLs you have previously disavowed in Backlinks:
As you can see, you can upload a disavow file obtained from any other backlink assessment tools, but let’s focus on Monitor Backlinks’ own system here.
After clicking the Add Rules button, you’ll find these options:
Once you have a list of backlinks you want to disavow, you need no further options than that Export button in orange right there (you can include dates, if you want). After that, simply upload the .TXT file you just exported to Google’s Disavow Tool for a reconsideration request.
You can read this how-to guide by Monitor Backlinks for further guidance on the disavow tool.
To test out the Monitor Backlinks tool for yourself, sign up for their generous 30-day free trial—that’s more than enough time to fight off a negative SEO attack and recover your SERP standings. If you love the way to tool works, you can stick with it and be prepared for next time—or rather, you can ensure that there is no next time.
In a world where hundreds of Fiverr ads offer negative SEO services for $10 or less, monitoring your backlinks is the only way to stay ahead of potential attacks.
Here’s how you can achieve this with Ahrefs:
- Login to Ahrefs and click your site Dashboard. Go to the New tab under Backlinks.
- Choose Live Index and set the time period you want to analyze (for example, links from the last 90 days).
- Look at the URLs, then select the ones you want to disavow in Google’s Disavow Tool and click the Disavow URL button—that will generate a list you can copy and upload to Google.
- To complete this action, go back to your Dashboard and click the Disavow Links option on the right-hand side of the page. On the page that opens, click the Export button on the right-hand side and click OK when it asks you to Save as a TXT. This is the file you’ll upload to Google.
It’s a similar process to working within Monitor Backlinks, but the price point for this tool is higher due to the additional SEO features included. If you’re looking for an affordable tool that does backlinks best (and throws in some other basic SEO features like keyword rank tracking), Monitor Backlinks is the way to go. If you’re looking to invest in more SEO features, then Ahrefs is a good choice.
3. OpenLinkProfiler.org by SEOprofiler.com
This is a free backlink analysis tool I have used quite often over the past three years. It’s produced by the SEOprofiler tool but offered as a free service to all site visitors.
Who doesn’t love free stuff?
In the Backlinks tab, LIS (Link Influence Score) tells you about the quality of a backlink. While a low LIS doesn’t necessarily mean a backlink is toxic—it could simply mean the linking site is new, like some of my blogs that got a 3% score because they’ve yet to grow—it can be a good indicator of backlinks to manually look up and assess if you’re suspecting a negative SEO attack.
The Link Disinfection tab might be a more helpful indicator for negative SEO. However, make sure to assess backlinks manually, too. The tool mistakenly added some backlinks from one of my own blogs as potentially (68%) dangerous (which it isn’t).
You can then go to the Export Links tab to export your backlinks for analysis. You have to register for a free account to export up to 1,000 links per website, but you can export more if you upgrade. The same limits apply for the PDF Report option.
4. Google Search Console
Google Search Console (aka Webmasters Tools) shows you any broken pages you have on your site, and it’s also a great tool to discover hacking attempts and spammy inbound links.
On the left sidebar, under Search Traffic:
- Links to Your Site — See some of the backlinks Google found for your website. Anything massive and suspicious should appear here.
- Manual Actions — If your website received a manual penalty, you’ll find it here, together with the reason.
Under Google Index, browse:
- Index Status — Is your website still indexed? If there’s a drop in indexed pages, when did the drop start? Choose the Advanced view for the chart to see, in addition to Total Indexed pages, pages that are Blocked by robots and Removed.
- Blocked Resources — This shows which pages on your site are blocked by robots, something worth noting if you see more than you have blocked yourself. Robots.txt is a hackable file once a cracker intrudes the server.
5. Moz’s Open Site Explorer
Open Site Explorer (OSE) is Moz’s historical tool for backlink profile analysis.
- Enter your website URL into OSE when you load up the tool.
- You can see your Inbound Links on the page that appears, under Metrics.
- The linking pages are shown as All links by default, high to low. Change that to Only follow because followed links (without the rel=nofollow tag) are those that impact your site in search engines.
- You can safely ignore the Spam Score column, since it’s often mistaken—quality websites like Growth Hackers and Make A Living Writing are given a Spam Score of 1 and 4, but they’re definitely not spam!
Check Linking Domains and Anchor Text on the left sidebar: These sections will give you an at-a-glance overview of the domains that link back to your site and the anchor text they’re linked with.
You can see immediately if something’s up here, and only check the anchor text and the linking pages from the domains that sound suspicious or blatantly spammy.
Like Moz, SEMrush gives you a “toxic score” for each backlink—Page Score (PS), based on the volume and quality of links pointing to a page. This isn’t meant to be taken as a certainty, but as an indicator that something might be wrong with that page.
In the case that you’re seeing not-so-good Page Scores, you can fight back with a disavow tool (or you can ask the webmaster to remove the link, but that request may or may not be honored).
- Go to Domain Analytics → Backlinks and check your backlinks (you can choose to display only your follow links).
- Check referring IPs and domains. IPs can give information on negative SEO because the ones that are known spam are blacklisted and collected in spam databases.
7. CognitiveSEO’s Site Explorer
A good tool for negative SEO analysis that gives a links list with indicators of the quality of backlinks—Link Influence and Domain Influence—that you can export if you register for the tool.
Nofollow backlinks are all labeled in CognitiveSEO, and it’s interesting that the tool displays anchor texts before the URLs associated with them. This is helpful to see at glance if you’re being massively linked to from junk sites or if most of your backlinks are legit.
Like for Moz’s Site Explorer, the Anchor Text and Referring Domains tabs are helpful to see immediately if something’s up.
This is a seriously handy tool to find unauthorized duplicate and scraped content online.
Simply enter your blog post or page URL to find out whether it has been copied elsewhere.
While you have to enter one URL at a time with the free version of Copyscape, you can check your entire website (up to 10,000 pages) if you upgrade to Premium.
9. Broken Link Checker
This plugin offers a helping hand in discovering and catching spammy outbound links!
I’ve been using this handy WordPress plugin for years to clean up my broken links and any suspicious links coming my way with the Unlink option.
- Within your WordPress Dashboard, go to Settings → Link Checker and configure your plugin. (I recommend you activate email notifications for new broken links, as well as custom CSS for both broken and removed links.)
- Let the plugin run and analyze all of your internal links.
- Assess the links under all tabs the plugin provides: Broken, Warnings and Redirects.
- Mass Unlink any bad or suspicious links you find.
While this tool was born to help you catch and take care of broken links, you can successfully use it to check if your site has been hacked and loaded with spammy links. I definitely recommend you check the Redirects tab, as many spam links are redirected links.
10. Keyword Rank Tracker Tools
I recently reviewed 11 keyword research and rank tracker tools in this post. The rank tracker tools in particular can help you monitor your site’s position in the SERPs and act swiftly as soon as you see a consistent drop in ranking points.
11. SEO Defend
You can find this negative-SEO-specific plugin in the WordPress repository. Once installed, the plugin places a widget in your WordPress Dashboard and begins a negative SEO risk analysis of your website.
The widget will show you six SEO risk scores:
- DMN: Domain-related risk factors like domain age, domain lock (at registrar), WHOIS information and authority.
- CNT: Content-related risk factors, including hotlinking, content duplication and scraping.
- BKL: Backlink-related factors, that are quality and velocity.
- ALG: Algorithmic factors, to avoid search engine penalties.
- SCM: Social risk factors, such as fake profiles and spam.
The plugin’s widget and its scores are only the first stage of SEO Defend’s protection: When you click the button Get SEO Defend Continuous Protection, you’ll be redirected to the SEO Defend website to sign up for a protection plan, starting at $3.95/mo (Basic plan, for one site).
Registering will activate email alerts every time the tool suspects a risk, allowing website owners and businesses to stay ahead of negative SEO attacks.
You can still try this tool free for 30 days, and the metrics widget in your Dashboard stays free.
12. Stop Spammers
A complete suite to stop spammers (and negative SEO attackers) from flooding your comment forms with spam and trying to hack into your website.
After installing the plugin, go to Stop Spammers → Summary on your WordPress sidebar and you’ll see the panel shown above, that gives you an overview of how many spam and hacking attempts the plugin blocked so far. All the plugin options are also explained in detail here.
Stop Spammers is a rather complex and multi-featured security plugin that activates most of its protection options by default, but there are some you should pay closer attention to for negative SEO:
- Protection Options — All you need is activated by default here. Pay attention to make sure all options under Validate Requests in the list are checked, except for Amazon Cloud and country block. Headers, HTTP referrers, disposable email addresses, 404 exploit probing, spam IPs and other exploits should all stay checked against hacking attempts and spam.
- Block Lists — To block emails and IP addresses from accessing your website.
- Challenge & Deny — Options to display a custom “access denied” message to spammers after login attempts, or to redirect them to a specific page of your choice. CAPTCHA options are also all in this section.
- Web Services — You can add your API Key for various spam battling services like StopForumSpam.com, BotScout, Spamhaus.org and others to check your spammers’ IPs against these active databases.
- Log Report — A very helpful log to trace all hacking and spam attempts back to the source! Each attempt is logged by date, email (if applies), IP (with WHOIS lookup and spam database lookup buttons), author and/or user/password combination used, the script used for the attempt and the reason why it was logged (see screenshot below).
- Threat Scan — A scanner for script vulnerabilities, like base64_ and eval() functions in PHP, that are often used for hacking into sites and inserting malicious code (or bad links for negative SEO). The scanner will return chunks of code with the “bad” function highlighted in red if it finds any, and it will suggest that you remove the script using it, if possible.
13. WP Security Optimizer
WP Security Optimizer is another life-saving tool for your website. Whether the negative SEO attack you’re fighting against is backlink-only or you experienced some hacking as well, this tool will help you hide any WordPress vulnerabilities that might expose your site to further attacks.
Upon installation, WP Security Optimizer tells you immediately if you have sensitive information in some of your files that could expose your WordPress installation to security holes, especially the WPScan attack (to find out what version of WordPress you’re using), brute force and DoS attacks, and defacement.
A notice message saying WP Security Optimizer has detected files that expose version number. Click Here for more information will appear at the top of your Dashboard. The Click here link will take you to a yourbusinessdomain/wp-admin/admin-ajax.php?action=admin_security_notice page giving you a list of all vulnerable files and their paths. These are mostly ReadMe files, in my experience.
At the end of this list, there’s a Click here to fix and delete files link for you to fix the issue.
On with the plugin settings. Go to WP Security Optimizer on your WordPress sidebar and check that all email alerting and XML-RPC protection options are checked. They should be by default.
This page tells you how many attacks have been blocked to date, which IP addresses they originated from, all the WPScan options that are active, XML RPC protection and brute force protection options (you can edit these or leave the default settings).
Next, go to WP Security Optimizer → File Integrity Check on the sidebar. This part of the tool checks that your WordPress PHP files and folders aren’t corrupted, as well as finds any “extra” files a cracker might have injected into your folders.
If no issues are found, you’ll be returned a Clean status, otherwise it will return a list of files it detected as being corrupted. You can always hit the Rescan button to run a manual check.
14. BBQ: Block Bad Queries
This tool specifically blocks bad queries containing malicious code that uses PHP functions like eval() and base64_ to hack into your website.
The free version of the plugin doesn’t have any settings for you to play with—it protects your site automatically. However, if you upgrade to BBQ Pro (starting at $15 for one website, one-time fee) you’ll have more control over the plugin and access to advanced settings, such as query patterns, customizable firewall options, 5G/6G blacklist technology, pattern testing and SQL injection protection.
15. Google’s Disavow Tool
This is the tool you’ll use to tell Google what backlinks to disavow so they won’t damage your website any further. Of course, you can start with a tool like Monitor Backlinks to gather all the information you’ll need here.
When you’re ready to disavow, you need to log into your Google Search Console to use the Disavow Tool:
- Click the Property associated with your website in Search Console.
- On the left sidebar, go to Search Traffic → Manual Actions if you have a manual penalty assigned, or directly to the tool if you suspect an algorithmic penalty or you wish to act preventively.
- Select the website you want to disavow links for and click the Disavow Links button.
- Inside of the tool, click the Disavow Links button. A dialogue will open to allow you to choose a file (.TXT) to upload and click Submit.
16. Google Alerts
This simple Google tool will help you stay notified of any future (spammy) backlink, so you can act right away.
- Load up Google Alerts after logging into your Google account.
- Insert the keyword or key phrase you want to be alerted about in the Create an alert about… field.
- Next to the Create Alert button that appears, click the Show options link: It will show you a drop-down menu to configure your alert.
- Click Create Alert and you’re set to go.
How to Use Your SEO Tools to Fight Negative SEO
Negative SEO is real, and it’s dangerous.
Still, not many people believe it exists. Some—especially on some webmaster forums, where I found myself increasingly uncomfortable over the last four years—believe it’s a cowardly way to cover for spam webmasters have done themselves and now feel guilty about.
You’d know it if you did something to hurt your rankings. If your analysis and activity logs show nothing wrong and the damage keeps on increasing, that’s definitely someone else’s doing, so don’t give such people’s comments too much weight. Focus on solving the problem together with your team and webmaster.
Back to Lewis, the SEO Executive behind Wooden Blinds Direct, and his negative SEO story. Here’s what happened next, after he was able to identify the negative SEO tactics and counteract them with tools like those above:
We’ve put in place a strategy for prevention, including Webmaster email alerts and added security for our WordPress-based blogs. We can also now rely on Penguin 4.0 to devalue any spammy links. Of course, there is still the chance that negative links and citations can slip through the net, so we proactively monitor them each week.
We also actively check for content duplications by simply copying and pasting phrases from our most recently published content. This means we can identify if anyone has stolen our content word-for-word, without referencing us, and thus posing the threat of us being penalised.
As for the work involved, negative SEO tools can only help you assess some kinds of attacks—you’ll have to manually check everything else, unfortunately.
That means you and/or the webmaster in your team will have to:
- Manually assess backlinks to see which are good and which are spam.
- Check and assess all the duplicate or scraped content pages you found, and make sure you don’t disavow anything legit.
- Manually analyze the code of all the hacked pages and the site’s database, then do the clean-up.
- Manually assess any reviews your website receives on review platforms and social media channels.
I’ve done this myself for a client in 2014 and for one of my own blogs. The battle against negative SEO can be tough and exhausting, but when you do it right, your website will recover its position in the SERPs.
As a last piece of advice, make sure to warn your audience that something’s going on that’s affecting your website—they’ll appreciate the honesty and will know it’s not you if suddenly spam links pop up in the posts they’re reading.
Don’t give up—and good luck!