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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