Penalty Slap on Strong Brand, A Case Study in Negative SEO

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For years webmasters & SEO’s have tried to raise awareness with the Google spam team about their lingering concerns for potential Negative SEO via link bombing, duplicate content, etc.

Matt Cutts has made it clear that Google is focusing on discounting questionable links rather than directly punishing entire websites, but did somebody forget to tell the Penguins?

Did Penguin 2.1 Open the Door for Negative SEO wider?

The series of Penguin algorithm updates have targeted those cheating the system with paid text links, exact match anchor text, blog comment spam, forum spam, directory spam, and blogroll spam. The question is, has this opened the door even wider for link bombing and Negative SEO? The theory behind Negative SEO is that a site owner in a competitive industry with a desire to suppress a competing site could direct link spam to a competitor and provoke a Google manual spam penalty resulting in their competitors losing ground in search rankings.

Maggie Sottero Case Study

A major offline brand, Maggie Sottero, in the designer wedding dress industry approached me a couple months ago having fallen out of the SERPs for their brand name. Although Penguin is algorithmically punitive, in this case a review was flagged which triggered a manual penalty in Webmaster Tools for unnatural inbound links.

This penalty dropped Maggie Sottero off all organic rankings including their brand name “ Maggie Sottero”. Google provided them with no specific information or examples of what the offending links were. Before we discuss our review of the site backlinks and anchor text lets give you some background on their brand.

Background on Brand Strength

Established in 1997, Maggie Sottero Designs is considered to be one of the most recognized and sought after bridal gown manufacturers in the world. In October of 2010, Maggie Sottero was inducted into the DEBI “Distinctive Excellence in the Bridal Industry” hall of fame, and has received numerous additional bridal industry awards some of which include:


Maggie Sottero dresses are sold in nearly 1,000 independent bridal salons in the United States, as well as in over 70 countries internationally. Maggie Sottero is prominently featured editorially in bridal fashion media alongside neighboring designers Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera, and Monique Lhuillier and has long standing partnerships with leading bridal industry publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Brides, Bridal Guide, along with International publications such as Hoechzeit. Just recently they were featured on the Today Show.

Maggie Sottero receives over 150,000 brand searches and over 600,000 total visits per month. The brand has approximnately 60,000 Facebook followers and Maggie Sottero is a member of the ABPIA (American Bridal and Prom Industry Association) and is accredited by the BBB.

Was this Negative SEO?

Matt Cutts acknowledges in this Video featured in Webmaster Tools that Negative SEO is possible and occurs more frequently in some niches.

He also says that in response to growing complaints about Negative SEO, Google has provided the Disavow tool. With this tool, a webmaster could submit a list of all the spammy links pointed at their website for Google to essentially de-value.

When evaluating the actions that Maggie Sottero has taken over time, it’s clear that they have invested in winning industry awards and have not invested resources into SEO (just check the on-page). Also, this is a non-transactional site where the ability to find the brand far outweighs ranking for specific keywords.

Maggie Disavow

After requesting removal of as many questionable links possible, Maggie Sottero submitted hundreds of domains accounting for thousands of exact match anchor text links from spammy forums.

Maggie Sottero responded with a comprehensive disavow file and 2 reconsideration requests in Webmaster Tools. In response to both of our requests Maggie received the same canned response from Google, indicating that the site continues to violate Google webmaster quality guidelines without providing any specifics.

For a sample of the keyword-heavy spam links pointed to the site, check out the Open Site Explorer screen shot:
maggie sottero spam links

How to Solve the Negative SEO Dilemma?

This is obviously a complicated issue to solve without killing Google’s ability to assign value to a link. It’s my opinion that in order to shut the door on Negative SEO, Google should assign no benefit or value to links deemed to be Spam. The result will be that sites will neither benefit nor be hurt from such inbound links, thus neutralizing the incentives for any party to engage in such linkbuilding tactics.

Then a site such as Maggie’s that has strong brand signals via search and social could not be taken down and penalized for being victim’s of spammy links.

Andrew Pincock
CEO and co-founder of Trafficado, an internet marketing agency. Interests include entrepreneurship, small business, internet marketing, and economics.
Andrew Pincock
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  • James H.

    That’s a good thought, Andrew! But if Google doesn’t enforce some kind of devaluing of a link, the spammy links will never truly disappear. People will keep attaching spam because there is no consequence. However, you’re right about competitors using that “devaluing” factor as a weapon against their competitors. And it is a sincere problem.

    The Disavow tool seems like a nice advancement against negative SEO, but I’ve yet to see it work for anyone. Your case study example shows how this is still a real problem, especially if Google cannot provide you specific examples why your site is still not “clean” in their eyes.

    I wonder if there’s a way Google can trace who planted the faulty link on your site? If there’s a way you can trace that back to a competitor, it would seem much more fair for Google to penalize them for leaving a false trail. But then again, competitors would use third-party resources to attack you (and those aren’t very traceable). It is a tough thing to figure out.

    • Andrew Pincock

      I agree that the links should be devalued. That’s my point. Devalue them so there is no positive or negative effect. The are neutralized.

      • oli

        That’s exactly what i have been saying for a while now. How is it going to work if all i have to do to take down a competitor is buy a $40 link spammer tool and spam the %#$%^ out of my competition…
        It doesn’t’ make sense why google would give negative values…if you were marked out of a 100…you should get 0 for link spamming not -90. Otherwise people will use this to take down competition resulting in even worse results altogether…

  • Scott McKirahan

    I thought I was going to see a case study here about a company that got negative SEOd. Instead, I see what could just as well be a case study of what happens when you hire a crappy SEO firm.

    Where in this article does it show (or, better yet, prove) that any of the links were a result of negative SEO? Maybe I missed the part where someone from the company put their hand on a bible and swore they had nothing to do with it or that they didn’t hire some cheap company that used an automated tool to spam all of these forums and blogs.

    Or, is it your point that a competitor could have done it just as easily? For what purpose? They don’t sell anything from the website. It seems like a lot of trouble to go to for no real reason. Sure seems highly unlikely to me. I’d be checking the legitimacy of the halo around the head of the Maggie Sottero company!

    • Andrew Pincock

      Scott — good points. The same net result from hiring a crappy SEO could happen. I should have emphasized that they have never used an SEO and they did not build those links to themselves. They naturally ranked on keyword terms based on their site authority and therefore there would still be motive for knocking them down the page.

      If we discovered a hired SEO agency building these spammy links, I would have never suspected negative SEO. Tough to prove though, you’re right.

    • Andrew Pincock

      Also, if the only recourse is the disavow tool, yet Google fails to reevaluate the situation post-disavow, a real brand is left to obscurity on their own brand searches. How is that a better search experience for users looking for their brand?

    • Michael Pellman

      Scott McKirahan made some good points above. Negative SEO seems like a lot of work to perform or pay to have performed with the hopes that it removes a competitor from the SERPs. Not only this, removing the competitor does not guarantee you move up in its place. While I don’t doubt it is possible, I think efforts are better spent on your own site than trying to hurt your competitors.

      • Scott McKirahan

        Thanks for the props, Michael. That’s really my feeling. You would have to spend 10-20-30-100 times as much effort trying to take down competitors as it would take to boost your own website. In this case, it doesn’t even make any sense, since it isn’t even a website where you can buy something. It accomplishes about as much as sabotaging a Pinterest page!

      • Andrew Pincock

        I hear you guys. Negative SEO is tough to prove, but when nobody in the organization knows how these links showed up, it’s on the list of possibilities, right? I’m not sure if you’ve been to Fiverr lately, but hammering a site with thousands of exact match spammy links might run you $100.

        If the post were titled “Disavow Tool is Insufficient Recourse for Removing Spammy Links” would that yield more productive feedback? I feel like the main point is we have a real brand that has been removed from the SERPs for it’s name. They’ve gone through the established process Google has setup and they remain banned. They are not even attempting to regain rankings on commercial terms, simply their brand. As long as Google choses to suppress their site in the results for brand searches, they are doing a disservice to the user.

      • Jay

        Not at all. Most spam links, ones that can truly hurt someone’s rankings, are automated and can be purchased for cheap. There’s no effort at all.

      • Jay

        The question that needs to be asked is whether or not one company can accurately police a billion different websites. Further, should they even have the authority (audacity) to try. The solution is simple and already brought up, don’t value spammy links. With that, there’s no longer any incentive for people to spam, they still can’t manipulate their rankings, and it eliminates the possibility of negative SEO.

  • narek

    Good article. Google will have to think something smart about this as negative SEO will always be there. Our website was also bombed with low quality links and it took us 2 months to clean and revoke but we were lucky to have not too many of them.

    • Andrew Pincock

      Glad you were able to get it cleaned up!

  • kevin pike

    Good Post Andrew. If anything, I hope this posts is read by someone at Google and they can take care of you on this issue.

    I’ll give Google a few kudos today as they just released a WMT update to better communicate on sites that get hacked. But, I’ll agree with many others when saying the disavow tool has been an EPIC FAIL.

    Perhaps Google could provide a case study on a situation where a site was wrongfully hit and they did take action (in a timely manner) from a disavow request. At least then Google could set some expecations with Webmasters, and we would know what to expect. #WishfulThinking

    • Andrew Pincock

      Yes, WMT does keep improving and I’m happy about that as well.

  • Krystian Włodarczyk

    For Google it doesn’t matter, if a particular brand recovers from the penalty. For them, it is a SERP clear of spam… and another AdWords client. It would be fair though, if Google could put bigger effort to analyze backlink profile of a violated website. If it has a clear profile based on historical data, it shouldn’t be affected by any Negative SEO blast.

    It could work the other way as well – why to bother with removing backlinks you have no idea about? It would be better, if we could send them the backlinks we struggle to create in terms of day-to-day marketing tasks.

  • Dwight

    I think I am in agreement with the majority, well then again maybe not. 🙂 I have yet to see any reason why Google really cares about if a brand disappears like this or not. One site out of millions and millions. Sure there are reasons why this wedding dress site should be ranking but then again who says the sites ranking in its place are not as good if not better. Nobody but Google correct?

    Regarding negative SEO, not sure where the case study is here, as I was hoping to read about how a brand recovered from it. If someone could create a case study about such a topic I am certain it would get a lot of traffic since this is why I came to read this article. In the mean time I will watch a colleague of mine who’s site is being bombarded with negative SEO for the last month and it is still going on. Hopefully it stops at some point or what are his options? What a shame Google has created a mess.

    Lastly I do like your idea about devaluing the links, then it has no effect positively or negatively

  • Andrew Pincock

    The reason they should care is that when someone searches “Maggie Sottero” and you don’t return “” you are serving a bad experience. When you’re talking about a keyword search with millions of possible sites, I get that. But this is THE site that should matter when you search for the brand.

  • Alex Filler

    So, does that state that the Disavow tool doesn’t work as advertised?
    And one more thing: I was getting the impression, that the Disavow tool can be handled by the webmaster herself. Reading about answers from G about guidelines still being violated contradicts that conclusion.

  • Ash Nallawalla

    I can see the thinking behind Google not doing anything until you prove that you made a serious effort to remove the bad links. I don’t agree that a victim should spend time cleaning up badly-managed blogs and forums because those sites probably have thousands of dubious links to other sites.

    The unfortunate thing is that the negative SEOers know that and so they continue to sabotage competitors.

  • Abhi


    Got here after getting frustrated to see that my websites are being slowly poisoned on a continuous basis by link spam. I disavowed all spammy links 2 months back and when today I again checked for the backlinks in the WMT I can see more spammy links coming.

    Now disavow file is never processed immediately and u have to suffer from low rankings until it does get processed (I hope it does get processed on a major update, being optimistic between all the negative) . As rankings are always updated faster as google finds new backlinks I’ll be never be able to catch up with the spammer, he builds spammy links > Google tanks my site on the fly > I find the links and disvow it > Wait for few month for the file to be processed > By then Google find more spammy links and I get no benefit as my diavowed file is not having new links which am not aware of.

    I have not built a single link to my websites. Can say this with my hand on bible if Google wants this because its the maximum I can do to make them believe am not a Spammer but a victim of Negative Seo.