Anatomy of a large-scale negative SEO attack

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  • March 25, 2014

One of our clients (I’m not going to say which one but they have been with us a couple of years so we know their history) is currently the subject of a fairly aggressive negative SEO attack and we thought it would be interesting to share what such an attack looks like.

The client in question was the subject of a link penalty in 2011 (just before they moved over to us) and we fixed this in 2012 so although their link profile is (was) clean, they are perhaps more at risk of a penalty through negative SEO than a site that has always been squeaky clean in the past.

The increase in links is very recent with most coming in the past three weeks so most link tools have not yet picked anything up. Ahrefs has picked up some of the activity but new links are coming in all the time, so far we think there are over 2000 new domains in March, roughly doubling the size of the link profile.

The chart below gives you a decent visualisation and clearly indicates something has occurred.


It’s probably worth noting that the pattern of links is very different to any that we have seen in the 100+ penalty recovery projects we have done in the past 18 months so negative SEO is certainly not widespread but somebody has clearly put a fair amount of effort in to hurt this particular site, maybe because they rank very well at the moment.

There are a few tell-tale signs that this is negative SEO rather than the usual case of a rogue link-builder or agency that has been too aggressive. The first sign is the anchor text – I hope you can see from the pivot table below that this is not the sort of anchor text that an SEO would normally build to a respected UK business (hint; they are not a porn site).


The second big flag that this is negative SEO is the type of domain that’s linking. There are far more foreign domains such as .kr and .ru than you would expect in a normal link profile and plenty of the .com and .info sites are clearly not UK based as well.


Combating the attack

Since it’s still fairly early days there are no alterations in rankings to report but we are taking it very seriously. We are running daily link audits on all new links reported by the major link data suppliers and disavowing any bad links we find so that hopefully there are never enough links live to cause Google to give a manual or algorithmic penalty.

Even with daily audits the risk is that in the time between the links being placed and us seeing them in the link tools Google could release a Penguin update and the site would be wiped out but we have to trust that Google will be able to spot this attack for what it is and handle it appropriately.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

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