A b2b marketer getting stuck in negative SEO

Everything You Need To Know About Negative SEO

Building a steady stream of traffic to your website from search engines takes time and hard work. To be successful you have to consistently create compelling and well optimized content. But even if you achieve this, it’s no guarantee of success – negative SEO, while perhaps not common, is a threat to every website out there. This post will explain what negative SEO looks like, why you should care and what you can do to fight it.


What is Negative SEO?

Links have always been a big part of SEO and still are today. Getting natural links to your website from other authoritative websites related to your industry increases your site’s authority significantly.

But, what many people don’t realize is that spammy links to your site have the opposite effect. In fact, if you have a lot of spammy links to your website, it could lead to a Google penalty, hurting your search traffic in a major way. Negative SEO is when your site has spammy links pointed to it. If your website has been around long enough to earn links, there’s no doubt it’s earned some spammy links. Every site has some amount of spammy links, whether they want to or not.

What spammy links look like:

  • links from websites that are unrelated to your industry
  • links from spam, low authority or penalized websites
  • links that you paid for to manipulate search rankings
  • links from a directory
  • links from comment spam or forum spam (commenting with the sole purpose of creating a link)
  • links from websites in another language

While the above factors can be good indicators that a link is bad, there’s no way to know for sure if a link is helping or hurting your site’s authority. Later in this post I’ll show you some tools that will help you identify which links to keep and which ones to remove.

Ways your site can end up with spammy links: 

  • at one point or another you engaged in link building techniques that are now against Google’s rules (like buying links, comment spamming…)
  • a competitor pointed spammy links to your site to get you penalized
  • unrelated or un-authoritative websites linked to your website over time for various reasons


How To Fight Bad Links

There are two different ways to fight negative SEO and undo the damage of spammy links:

1) Ask people to remove the links. There are a number of different tools that I will go over later in this post that can help you find contact information for owners of sites with bad links to your site. Once you have their contact information, ask them politely and appropriately to remove the link. This should be your first plan of action for removing spammy links.

2) Disavow links. In 2012, Google released their Disavow Tool. This tool allows site owners to submit a list of links to Google that they wish Google to mark as “no-follow.” Once a link is counted as “no-follow”, it won’t count for or against your site. This is a great way to fight negative SEO. This tool should only be used after removing as many links as possible with the first method.

I will give a detailed walk through of both of these steps later in this post.


Should I Spend My Time on Negative SEO?

Before I give you a detailed walkthrough on how to fight negative SEO, I’d first like to help you figure out if it’s worth your time. There are a few different reasons that you might want to focus on fighting negative SEO:

1) An Algorithmic Penalty

Every once in awhile, Google changes the algorithm that they use to determine search rankings. Theses updates are designed to give users better search results. If you notice a sudden drop in traffic right around one of Google’s algorithm changes, a shady link profile is probably a contributing factor.

Not sure if you’ve been a victim of an algorithmic penalty? Take a look at this chart detailing every Google update for the past 15 years. If you see a major decrease in organic traffic around one of these updates, then you can bet that you were hit with an algorithmic penalty and should definitely take a look at your links.

Tools like Fruition’s Google Penalty Checker or Barracuda that will analyze your Google Analytics data and show you the likelihood that your site was effected by a Google algorithm update.

2) A Manual Penalty

Manual penalties are more serious than algorithmic penalties. A manual penalty is when Google personally reviews your site and determines that it breaks their rules. If this happens, spammy links pointing to your site are probably a factor. To see if you’ve been manually penalized, navigate to Google Search Console and navigate to Search Traffic > Manual Actions.

There are two kinds of manual penalties that are related to spammy or unnatural links:

a) Unnatural links from your site – your site is linking to other sites that are spammy, or in unnatural ways.

b) Unnatural links to your site – unnatural of spammy links are pointing to your site.

The methods I’ll cover in this post only pertain to the second kind of manual action. As a result of this kind of penalty, Google can do one of two things:

  • A site-wide penalty is bad news. It will result in your whole website dropping significantly in search rankings, becoming de-indexed completely or blacklisted.
  • A partial penalty results when Google decides that your site as a whole is fine, but there are specific pages that have spammy links pointed to them, or content that is thin or duplicate.

3) Preemptive Action

Even if your site hasn’t been penalized by Google or another search engine, checking your link profile and getting rid of spammy links if you have a large number will help protect you against future Google penalties. Chances are that even if Google isn’t penalizing you right now, they might crack down on you in a later algorithm update.

Take a look at what the head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts, says about this approach:


**While preemptively fighting negative SEO is a valid thing, if not done correctly, your attempts at protecting yourself can actually hurt your site’s authority, so proceed with caution.


How To Find Links To Your Site

Whether you’re suffering from a penalty, or just preemptively cleaning up your link profile, the first step is to figure out what links are pointing to your site. The easiest way to do this is in Google Search Console. Navigate to Search Traffic > Links To Your Site. Your screen should look like this:

Google Search Console > Search Traffic > Links to Your Site

Under the section titled “Who links the most” click on “More.” On this page, click on the tab entitled: “Download latest links.” It will then give you the option to download a spreadsheet of all the links to your website organized by the date they were created. You can download this spreadsheet as a Google Doc or a CSV file.

While this file might miss a few links to your site, it’s a great place to start. If you use Moz’s Open Site Explorer or SEMrush, you can use these tools to identify any links that Google Search Console may have missed.


How To Identify Spammy Links

Now that you have your links, it’s time to figure out which links are spammy. As I said earlier, there is no way to know for sure if a link is hurting your authority or helping it, but there are some tools that can help.

First, upload your links into Screaming Frog. Don’t have Screaming Frog? Go download it, it’s free. Go ahead and remove any links that don’t return a “200 ok” status code (dead urls), or have 0 external links (the link to your site is no longer on that page). Removing these urls will save you time later on.

Now it’s time to look for bad links. Upload your links into a program like Link Detox and it will show you which links are spammy. Link Detox is said to be about 90% accurate.

If you don’t want to pay for Link Detox, a great free tool for helping you narrow down which links are bad is DisavowFiles. This program helps you see how many times your links have been “disavowed” or marked as bad links by other websites.

Whichever tool you use, you are going to still have to do some manual review of suspect links to make sure your getting rid of the right ones.

As a reminder, here are signs that a link is bad: 

  • links from websites that are unrelated to your industry
  • links from spam, low authority or penalized websites
  • links that you paid for
  • links from a directory
  • links from comment spam or forum spam (commenting with the sole purpose of creating a link)
  • links from websites in another language


How To Remove Bad Links

The first step to getting rid of your bad links is to reach out to site owners themselves to see if they will remove the links. If you have a lot of bad links, this process can take awhile.

A tool like rmoov will find the contact information for the site owners for all your links, help you manage link removal requests, and even give you templates to craft the perfect email.

You will probably have to reach out three or more times to get any kind of response from a site owner. Site owners will respond in one of these ways:

  • Remove the requested link without complaint
  • Agree to remove the link for a fee
  • Refuse to remove the link

The way you craft your removal request can help you get a more positive response. Want help crafting the perfect link removal request? Here’s a great guide.

If you prefer not to use a tool like rmoov, you can do it manually. WHOis.net is a great way to track down contact information of site owners.

Disavowing Left Over Links

Once you’ve sent site owners multiple requests and waited about 3 months to make sure you get as many positive responses as possible, it is now time to use Google’s Disavow Tool.

What is the Disavow Tool?

In 2012, Google released this tool to help site owners take control of their link profile and fight negative SEO. This tool allows you to submit a list of links that you would like Google to mark as “no-follow” meaning that they won’t count for or against you.

Disavowing on the domain level

You can either disavow one link from a website or disavow a whole domain. If a website is obviously spammy and has a lot of links to your site, then it can save a lot of time to just disavow on the domain level.

Another reason to disavow on the domain level is so that you won’t have to keep disavowing links from that domain in the future.

Be careful not to disavow a domain that might be able to give you high quality links in the future. Once a domain is disavowed, all links from that domain will be disavowed as well.

Formatting your file

Google wants to see that you have done everything in your power to get bad links removed before you try and disavow them. You should include notes in your disavow file about what you did to remove the link. In order to use this tool successfully, you need to follow some pretty strict guidelines.

Here’s how to format your Disavow File:

  • Make it a text file (.txt)
  • It should be UTF-8 encoded
  • Each line should include only one link or domain
  • if you are disavowing on the domain level, put “domain:” in front of the url, for example “domain:mltcreative.com”
  • each line that isn’t dedicated to a url to be disavowed i.e. each line that contains a comment, should start with a “#.” Don’t go crazy with the comments.

Here’s what your Disavow File should look like:

Disavow File example

Make sure to include a comment with the date that you created the file so that you’ll know where to start the next time you go back to review your link profile.

Submit your Disavow File

  1. Do a Google search for “disavow tool
  2. Log in to the correct google account
  3. Select the correct property
  4. Click “Disavow Links”
  5. Click “Choose File” and select your disavow file

If you formatted your file correctly you should see a message telling you that you submitted your file successfully. It will usually take around 6 weeks for Google to disavow the links in your file.

If you were hit with a manual penalty you should now put together a reclusion request. Here’s what Google has to say about reclusion requests:

Once you’ve removed or disavowed the artificial links, request reconsideration of your site. Including documentation about the links you’ve had removed, and an explanation of any links you were unable to remove, will help us process your request. After you’ve submitted a reconsideration request, be patient and watch for a message in your Search Console account — we’ll let you know when we’ve reviewed your site. If we determine your site is no longer in violation of our guidelines, we’ll revoke the manual action.


While this process is very in depth, and can be tedious, if you followed all these steps, you should be able to protect yourself from the dangers of negative SEO. Moving forward, you should perform link audits every few months to make sure and take care of any new spammy links that might be pointing to your site.

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2 replies
  1. Jeric
    Jeric says:

    I think not all links from directory sites are bad. Like for example, DMOZ directory is an authoritative directory listing site, and if your site was listed there, Google also count that as a good link. 🙂

  2. Luke O'Kelley
    Luke O'Kelley says:

    Good point Jeric! I guess the more accurate advice is to just use discernment about directories. Thanks for pointing that out.

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