How to Prevent Negative SEO

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Google’s recent Penguin update was designed to reduce the impact that low-quality backlinks had on a website’s natural search performance. And while this news was mostly greeted with frustration by webmasters who had been using linking schemes to artificially inflate their SERP rankings, there was one group that was happy about the change: the black hat spammers who utilize negative SEO to bring down their competitors’ rankings.

Negative SEO is the practice of attacking other websites using techniques that are likely to result in known SEO penalties, rather than taking a proactive approach to investing in one’s own website. As an example, somebody using negative SEO might direct these same low-quality backlinks to point at a competitor’s website, rather than taking the time to build high-value links back to his own site.

For a long time, Google denied that negative SEO could have an impact on the natural search results, though several conclusive case studies demonstrated that this type of attack could be used to dramatically lower a competitor’s rankings.

As a result, the best way to prevent negative SEO is to stay informed about the tactics that these spammers use and to monitor your site for any indications that an attack is underway. Here’s how to do it:

Step #1: Monitor Your Website’s Backlink Profile

Since we’ve established that negative SEO is a viable tool for damaging a competitor’s rankings, it’s imperative that you be proactive about preventing these tactics from influencing your own site’s performance. Really, the time to take action against negative SEO spammers is before you see your site’s listings start to slide down the SERPs!

Currently, the primary tactic being used in negative SEO attacks is the low-quality backlink, pointed at a competitor’s website. It’s cheap, easy to do, and difficult to trace, as Google has no way of knowing whether you or your attacker pointed that “10,000 links for $10” package at your website.

As a result, you best course of action for preventing negative SEO attacks is to monitor your website’s backlink profile for evidence that malicious links are being directed towards your site. There are a number of different tools that will give you this information, although if you’re seriously concerned about the potential damage a negative SEO attack may cause, I’d recommend using a paid program like Raven Tools or SEOMoz PRO.

While there are free tools out there that will give you some data on your site’s existing backlink profile, using a tool that allows you to sort links according to certain criteria will make the process of monitoring for negative SEO attacks much easier. As an example, if you decide to run a negative SEO check weekly, using a tool that either flags potentially damaging links or allows you to filter out only those links that were created in the last week will make the process of identifying malicious links go much faster.

As you peruse your site’s backlink profile, keep an eye out for any of the following indications of negative SEO:

  • Links from “bad neighborhood” sites (including backlinks from gambling, adult, and other illicit types of websites)
  • Links from foreign language sites
  • Links from pages that appear to have been created for the sole purpose of spamming the search engines
  • Links from pages that have more than 50 links in their body texts
  • Links from pages that trigger malware warnings within your browser

Now, keep in mind that seeing a few links that meet these criteria doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the victim of a targeted negative SEO campaign. There are plenty of different black hat SEO techniques out there that could result in low-quality links being pointed at your website, so the presence of a few bad backlinks doesn’t conclusively prove that a competitor is gunning to bring you down.

But no matter what caused the creation of these potentially negative links, your next step is the same…

Step #2: Use Google’s Disavow Tool to Report Suspected Negative SEO Attacks

In the past, the process of repairing negative SEO attacks required that webmasters jump through a series of hoops in order to determine which low-quality backlinks were actually causing damage (based on the absence or presence of no-follow tags) and persuade link hosting webmasters to remove those that were identified as being harmful.

Fortunately, Google has made the process of reporting potentially harmful backlinks much easier with the recent release of its Disavow Links tool. This service, found at within your Google Webmaster Tools account, can be used to create files that let Google know which backlinks you suspect come from spammers.

To get started, navigate to the link above and select your website before clicking “Disavow Links”:

You’ll then be required to confirm a notice from Google on the potential damage caused by inappropriately disavowing links (which we’ll discuss in more detail later on):

In the next step, you’ll be prompted to upload a text file that contains the links you’d like Google to ignore:

Therefore, before carrying out this final step, you’ll need to create a “disavow.txt” file listing the information you plan to submit to Google. This text file should contain three types of information only:

  1. Full URLs of specific pages you’d like to have devalued (listed on their own lines)
  2. The phrase “domain:” followed by any full domains or subdomains you’d like to block entirely (use extreme caution when doing this)
  3. Comments on your link devaluation requests following a “#” character

As an example, the finished “disavow.txt” file you upload might look something like this:

Now, here comes the caveat emptor part of this article…

The first thing you need to know about reporting negative SEO attacks using the Google Disavow Links tool is that you can do some major damage to your site’s natural search performance if you accidentally misinterpret legitimate links as malicious in nature. If a suspicious-looking link is actually passing valuable PageRank to your site, requesting its removal may lower your rankings unnecessarily.

As such, you shouldn’t undertake this process unless you’ve actually experienced a negative impact in your site’s search performance (for example, a “bad links” warning within Google Webmaster Tools or a measurable decrease in SERPs rankings). While you shouldn’t wait until a competitor has tanked your rankings entirely, holding off until you have conclusive evidence of some negative effect occurring will minimize the chances that you overreact and remove otherwise valuable links.

(And even then, you’d be well-advised to consult with an SEO professional who can help you to conclusively determine which links are likely “diseased” and need to be disavowed versus those that simply look suspicious.)

In addition, be aware that Google hasn’t officially stated what effect reporting suspicious links will have on your site’s performance, so there’s no guarantee that using the Disavow Links tool will actually restore your pre-attack rankings. At this point, it’s best to think of it as one single tool that, along with others like the Google reconsideration request process, might help you to regain lost rankings over time.

While most webmasters will never experience negative SEO attacks, it’s important to monitor websites for evidence of this malicious practice, as prompt attention to perceived threats can mean the difference between minimal SERPs disruption and total business failure.

Though it’s unknown whether or not future Google algorithm changes will continue to foster an environment in which this type of attack can thrive, it’s important that all webmasters know the signs of a negative SEO attack, as well as what they can do to prevent harm from coming to their sites.

Sujan Patel
Sujan Patel has over 12 years of digital marketing experience and has helped hundreds of clients increase web traffic, boost user acquisition, and grow their businesses. He’s currently the VP of Marketing at When I Work, the top rated employee scheduling software. In addition to his role at When I Work Sujan co-founded and wrote the book on Growth Hacking titled 100 Days of Growth.
Sujan Patel
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  • Tommy Landry, Return On Now

    Good summary. What are your thoughts regarding potential negative SEO attacks using the Disavow Tool itself? If it starts factoring into the ranking algorithm, we will have a whole new challenge to sort out as SEOs.

  • steveplunkett

    Correction.. Negative SEO is anything that makes a search result go down in SERPs.

    Has been that way since the late 90’s.

    What you are thinking of is… a “tactic” of Negative SEO. Not the process.
    Competitive Link Bombing – is the practice of spamming a link, usually anchor text from as many websites as possible to lower a credible search engine result listing by activating Google’s Spam filters.

    Which can also work much better with fewer links from Adult websites to filter out safe search results from offices that have Google filters for employees or content firewalls.

    this would be called “Negative Sentiment Masking”.,. purely hypothetical example might be to post an extremely large amount of adult type of naughty pictures to Pinterest privately then unleash them overnight and associate them with a brand, etc… this would “taint” all brand mentions and scrutinize the brands online footprint for abuse for the next 24-72 hours, depending on day of week and time of year, holidays, etc..

    Also.. for certain brands, stabilizing their web footprint with Google, Yahoo! and Bing registrations (GET, GA, BWT, YAHOO? DIR, KNOWEm, etc) can also act as a nice little defense shield against such attacks.

    Negative SEO is not one activity but an entire ORM/SEO discipline created in early to mid ninities, (think .EDU and .GOV networks.. “How do we retract that email that was classified/gag order”, etc.. as ORM for some State and Federal Entities it’s now used to protect Fortune 5, 50, 500 and Forbes 400 clients.


  • steveplunkett

    also.. what you are talking is not “pro-active”, hence “preventative” but “re-active” so probably
    “how to fight or defend against some negative seo tactics”?


  • Chandler Bryson

    Good post Sujan, you brought good pieces of valuable information here., also explained effectively about Google Disavow tool.

  • Mark Ford

    Interesting article! I must admit I hadn’t even heard of Negative SEO until now. You learn something new everyday!

  • Rahul

    Sujan !!!

    Thanks mate, I was actually looking for information about the google tool . Now let me ensure that the dodgy links to affect the site and the ranking.

    I guess the next to do list would be to set up a google alert 🙂

  • Bob Jones

    Funny, I wrote a post last week which highlights several ways to trawl through your site’s back link profile in order to find the biggest chunk of bad links. As you mentioned, people need to realize that this tool isn’t dummy-proof and that you can really hurt your site if you’re not 100% sure what sort of links you should be reporting.

    If anyone’s interested, here’s a link to my post:

    • Rahul

      Thanks Bob !

      Sharing is Caring .

      Will surely give it a good read 🙂

  • Mark Walters

    It’s good that you emphasized the need to regularly monitor your link profile for signs of negative SEO. The sooner you can pick up on it the better. If you wait until a penalty has already been implemented before trying to disavow links then it will take a lot longer for rankings to be restored. It only takes 5 or so minutes to review your link profile once a week, so do it!

  • Mohideen

    Back link tracking its become little difficult without yahoo can you list out some best source and best thing i find with Google Disavow Tool really helps me to stop unwanted links Thanks for the best content Sujan

  • thoufeeq

    Awesome post, Sujan.

    And regarding the disavow tool, ya its a double edged-sword, of course 🙂

  • Barry Halpert

    you can always just contact Google and tell them to not count certain links or surpass them with better links.

  • Richard

    Disavow tool has made life easy for most of the webmasters. Deletion of those spammy links can help you to gain rankings in SERP’s.

  • John

    Negative SEO is something invented by Google for webmasters to scratch their heads on !
    Are we to believe that Google left the door wide open for negative SEO to exist. It occupies webmasters and keeps the attention off Google so webmasters can squabble between themselves and Google can earn more money.
    A +

  • Magazine SEO

    The best training for social networking is playing a Bescherelle and act with the same courtesy you would face to face for the rest not rocket science …

  • http://http// Reel Effect

    Excellent post! I’m sure a few years back Matt Cutts said no competitor can hurt someone else’s site and just recently I’m hearing a lot about negative seo

  • Mary Grace Viado

    Putting emphasis on regularly monitoring a website’s backlink is the first step to actually know if there are malicious links created which was pointed to your website. If you’ve carefully examined your backlinks and saw that there are malicious links which you thought of as affecting your website’s ranking, then that’s the time you should be running Google’s Disavow tool. It is important to know if a link is actually hurting your website or not; or else, you’ll suffer the consequences of being careless. As a webmaster, you do not have full control over the illicit things being done to hurt your website. What you have full control of is your website, the tools you use to check your website’s performance and data, and the offsite SEO tactics you are doing. Maximizing the use of your tools and putting effort in analyzing your data is the best you can do. I must say that Raven Tools is a good backlink checker tool to use. You can really retrieve valuable data.

  • anthony

    Another easy to use, paid program for monitoring backlinks is

  • Kev

    It’s a real shame that the current WMT couldn’t simply have a deselect tickbox beside each link to Disavow automatically.
    I guess people could tend to ‘fidget’ with the tool to experiment, but there could be a 3 month ‘hold’ on any adjustments to discourage this!
    Equally, if Google were so intent on getting us to manage spam, why not start by showing us which links they view to be good or evil? Again, why can’t WMT display this?

    Love google, but if they want to cut out Black Hat and spam, they need to make it easier for genuine webmasters to fight back!

  • Mark Griffin

    there are plenty of inexpensive tools about now that can take care of this easily

  • Demetrice O

    Sujan – Good information regarding backlinks. It’s always good to stay on top of this to ensure everything is running smoothly.

    Thanks for the post!

    Demetrice :)>

  • Brian Talbot

    Sick of it, I’m really sick of this. My site hit by a huge attack in the last 2 weeks and my ranking for the exzct keywords the anchor text targeted has gone. Started sliding Monday, and by Wednesday my site was page 3 for all but one of the 11 keywords targeted. That one has dropped 2 places but is still on page one.
    My site ranks for thousands of keywords, but just these few vital ones have been hit – just the ones the anchor text on these bad links are from.
    There are URL’s above mine that are not even on the topic my site is on. I can’t imagine what criteria Google had to rank them so highly. I look at “View Page Source” in my browser to see if I’m missing something on an HTML or CSS level that would give me a clue why these sites are ranking above mine now. Where they mention the topic/ niche at all – and even at that level I can find no connection between these sites and the phrases they rank for. No mention of the topic or any assoicated words, phrases or themes. Yet they are two pages above me?
    I signed this petition to ask Google just to clarify why they allow spam to be a profitable way to proceed, because one thing is certain. One of my competitors has done this and is benefitting from harming my site. In other words benefiting from creating link spam, and that’s not right. That just can’t be right at all.