You wake up on Monday morning. Everything seems calm. You wake up ten minutes before your alarm as the sun’s rays gentle shine through the slit in your blinds.
The birds are singing. The weather outside is a balmy 22 degrees. To top it all off, your favourite song is playing on the radio on your commute to work.
You get there, steaming hot mug of fair-trade Ethiopian coffee in hand, and sit at your desk.
What could possibly go wrong today?
And then you take a look at your website rankings.
In the tank.
Like they were never there.
It’s a nightmare scenario for anybody who relies on the Internet for sales, which in today’s day and age describes just about everyone with a business.
You cross off everything on your web-traffic drop checklist and frantically check your usual Search Engine media sites for news.
Was there a recent algorithm update? How could I let an algorithm change pass me by without noticing?
There’s no information.
Nope. Zip. Nada.
Your content strategy is air-tight and foolproof. Your social media coordinator basically lives on Twitter. Everything was hunky-dory. So what’s happened?
Well, we’re not going to lie. It’s possible, if pretty unlikely. But you might have been hit by a negative SEO campaign.
What is Negative SEO?
The long and short of it is that somebody—a competitor in your field, someone you stood up on a date, a third-grade nemesis and fellow aspiring Pokémon league champion—is doing bad stuff to your website.
Black hat stuff.
This could be as simple as paying an unscrupulous link-builder on a black hat forum $30 to build a ‘healthy link profile’ to your website. Which of course ends up being composed of thousands and thousands of low-quality redirects from online gambling sites or shady malware hosts.
Or, as Bartosz Góralewicz examined on Elephate back in 2014, your nefarious rivals could have engineered a sophisticated and sneaky way to evade even the savviest webmasters and still tank your website traffic.
Basically, it means bad actors—usually industry competitors—trying to negate your position in the SERPs to raise their own artificially.
How Do I Know If I’ve Been Hit?
Okay, so now that you know what negative SEO is, it’s time to figure out if and how you’ve been affected by it.
You’re going to need to put that cup of Sidamo away. Or brew a second. And you’re going to need to pull out your technical SEO skills or call whoever does it for you.
Okay? Deep breaths.
Open Google Search Console
First things first, you’ll want to log into both Google Analytics and your Google Search Console.
Why? Well, if your site’s been hacked and loaded up with malware (which is not negative SEO, but could explain why your rankings have suddenly taken a nosedive), you can bet that Google has tried to get you to fix it.
Check Your Links
The first thing you should do after you check your messages in Search Console is to check your backlink profile. You can do this right from your search console, or you can use a third-party tool like Moz’s Link Explorer or Ahrefs.
Why? Well, hopefully, what you see there is a healthy backlink profile that looks ‘organic.’ Everybody’s going to have some odd or weird-looking backlinks from time to time—the Internet is a weird place, after all—but if you’ve been hit by an old-school method of negative SEO, you’ll see a sudden influx of links you don’t recognize. From shady sources.
Are you suddenly getting a lot of hits from people searching for inexpensive Viagra or adult films?
When you suddenly have dozens or hundreds of low-quality links coming from sources you wouldn’t want your audience finding, that’s a good indicator that a competitor has targeted you with a negative SEO campaign. Although, there is another very common possibility for this which I’ll go into below...
Yes: Bad Backlinks! (Or: No, Looks Fine to Me)
If your sudden rankings drop is indeed caused by bad backlinks, it’s time to round up all of them. Yes, all of them.
And copy and paste them into Google Search Console’s Disavow links tool.
DO NOT STOP HERE. You can’t expect Google to do all the hard work for you. You need to contact the domain owners to ask them to remove the shady links pointing to your site, too. This paper trail you’re creating will be useful to show to Google if they decide to follow up on your case.
It’s rare it comes to this, but you want to demonstrate that you did what you could in good faith first.
Keep in mind adding backlinks isn’t the only way a competitor could hit you where it hurts. There’s also the possibility they have broken your legitimate backlinks you worked hard to secure.
They could have persuaded other webmasters to link to them instead. This method of ‘negative SEO’ is very time-consuming. It won’t happen overnight; nobody works that efficiently. This would be a slow bleed over time as your links get broken one or two at a time. But if you aren’t in the habit of checking your link profile obsessively (and many people aren’t! People have jobs to do, after all,), then this is another way a scummy competitor could have come for your Internet dominance.
But what about if your backlink profile looks totally normal?
Run Your Content Through a Plagiarism Checker
This is the next step in the process. Copyscape is the most frequently-used program (we use it ourselves), but any will do if you trust their coverage.
But, I can hear you saying already, "I didn’t plagiarize my content!"
We know you didn’t. Don’t worry. We’re not accusing you of that.
But another way somebody could toss your rankings into the gutter is by setting up bots to scrape the quality content that you worked so hard on and distribute it onto hundreds or thousands of low-quality sites.
As you know, Google introduced their Panda algorithm change in 2011. And SEO as we know it changed overnight. Suddenly, all those websites that reused ‘thin’ content that was poorly written, derivative, barely changed from its source material—the Internet as we knew it up to then—were toast.
Panda changed everything. And you know what it also did?
It provided a way for your competitors to lower your rankings by ensuring that your content was everywhere on the Internet. When Google’s spiders see this, they assume that the block of text is unoriginal. Totally unfair, right?
Listen, it’s not all bad. Google will take into account that your site has been hosting that same content for longer than the dozens of low-quality sites that have popped up with it. After all, there’s no way for you to control whether or not a bad actor scrapes your content.
But this will let you know if other people have scraped your content, and might provide you with some clues as to who’s doing it.
Call an Expert
I’m not going to pretend that I’m a wizard of the technical side of SEO. My job is to produce content, and so I can focus on strategies that might involve that. On the back end, I’m pretty much hopeless, which is why I work in an office that employs people who are good with that stuff.
If you don’t know the difference between a meta tag and a meta narrative, you might want to call someone who does. Have them look over your site index.
It may turn out that you haven’t been hit by negative SEO at all. You might have accidentally deleted a crucial feature of your sitemap, and now Google can’t index your site correctly.
Or maybe you’ve picked up some malware along the way that’s slowing down your site significantly, ruining the experience for your users and causing your bounce rate to skyrocket.
There are always ways to troubleshoot your rankings slipping. And most of them don’t rely on the far-fetched explanation that a jealous competitor is investing time and money into taking your website down rather than building theirs up.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. It does happen. But if you’ve checked these avenues and nothing’s coming up, maybe it’s time to look at some other more likely scenarios instead.
Did I Do That?
In the famously snarky 2012 piece by Dr. Pete Meyers for Moz, Dr. Pete suggests that “70-80% of unexplained low-quality links...[were] the result of bad SEO by either [the client’s] own team or someone they hired”.
Did you run into someone at a bar who offered to get you backlinks for $20? Or were you hanging out around some of the sketchier SEO forums on the Internet a few years ago?
The fact of the matter is that there are few ways for competitors to torpedo your website but a thousand different ways for you to do it yourself. Especially if you were involved in any sort of get-links-quick scheme.
Have you ever heard about the following meme about dating? It goes a little something like this:
When you’re trying to meet your dream life partner, envision the three qualities you want the most in a mate. For me, it might be something like ‘organized, kind, and adventurous.’ For you, maybe it’s ‘good-looking, well-read, and loyal.’ Another person might desire somebody who is ‘funny, athletic, and tips their servers handsomely.’
Now take those three qualities and turn them into two. That third quality becomes its opposite. And that’s the person you get to date.
You can have a link profile that is built quickly.
You can have a link profile that is high-quality.
And you can have a link profile that is inexpensive.
But you can’t have all three.
Anyone who promises you all of the above is trying to sell you a bridge in New York. Or, specifically, they’re trying to sell you a low-quality Black Hat SEO package.
This might inflate your rankings at first. But then they will plummet. Maybe you hired this person over a year ago, and a new algorithm change just took you out of the running.
The odds are just that it’s more likely someone on your end is doing bad SEO than a shadowy conspirator is working to jeopardize what you’ve worked for.
Are their bad actors in the industry? Absolutely. There are in any industry, after all.
How To Recover From A Rankings Dip
If you’ve done all of the above and then some, odds are your rankings will return to normal relatively soon. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make liberal use of the disavow function in your search console.
But if you want to build up what you’ve lost? Then it’s time to do what you do best: slowly build your link profile by creating incredible content that people want to share.
This method takes time. It takes a lot of effort and energy. But it’s 2018. There are no shortcuts anymore. The only way to get users to your site is to produce a site users want to visit.
LinkNow Media is a web marketing agency that works to build brand presence online for our customers the old-fashioned way. That means creating compelling content, having an airtight backend design, and registering you on local business directories manually.
Over the years, we’ve specialized in creating sustainable growth for our clients. And we’ve done the same for ourselves. We’re one of the fastest-growing companies in Canada for that reason. Want to know what we can do for you? Call us today to learn more.