When Bad SEO Happens to Good People

One of my favorite SEO bloggers, Neil Patel, has a new post out about the many different kinds of Google penalties. It’s a great post–you should read it. But all this talk of how Google punishes wrongdoers rubbed one reader the wrong way: a do-gooder who had been consistently and unfairly penalized by Google to the point of harming their business.

Here’s what they had to say, edited only for brevity:

We have been online 13 years, never done any black hat anything, but the last 3 years we have lost 75% of our organic traffic.It’s always in big steps. They just keep hacking away at our business. Our graphs look like those above, but stair steps down. 15% here, 25% there, 35% there… We have laid off 70% of our employees and are running on fumes.

Google says it’s all about the user experience, however Google bases that on their understanding of what they think the user wants, not what the user really wants or needs. Our website was built for the user, not Google. And for 11 years it did a fantastic job, growth averaged 45% per 3 year period. Our customers were happy. They could find the parts they were looking for. Until 2013 and that’s when Google started implementing what it thought the world needed. The problem is Google is good at coding. It’s not good at the psychology of human beings. There is no algorithm for a human.

As a user of Google I find myself on worthless sites more and more. It takes more and more searching, page after page to find what I’m looking for. Certain search terms have become totally useless. I have found MANY sites that are clearly nothing but SEO black holes. They come up on the SERPS great, but when you get to the site, it’s empty of real information.

And I challenge Googles claims of “authorship” and “trust” based systems. I author it in an email to what I think is a prospective customer, only to find it posted later on a blog or competitors website. How is Google going to attribute that content to our site? It originated here, but they seem to be giving credit elsewhere. And really Google is an expert on every subject matter under the sun? And who are they to decide was is trustworthy?

To bring it back to the point of the article, which is helpful, but only in a historical way. You are documenting is what happened. Reading the article applying it to our website, It goes like this: No, we don’t sell advertising on our website, no we don’t do that, we didn’t do this, etc. No we don’t spam, never have, never cloaked, never paid for links (Sponsors a few website yes, but sites 100% in line with our products, and never bought links anyplace.) Then I get to this: Is there “shallow” or “the content adds no real value,” How do they decide that? I’ll give you an example, a list of numbers.. worthless right? But not if you are looking for that list of numbers because you (the user) knows what that list of numbers represents. Our top pages could be viewed as “lists of numbers” but in fact those numbers have come from years of hard work, experience and research. But to Google, they are just lists of numbers. Boom, we now have “shallow” content but to the user, those lists of numbers are very valuable. Oh and the competition just copies them. Now Google has to decide who is the author of this “no real value” content, but which is highly valuable to the customers we serve.

The Mobile issue is a big one for us, as our site is not optimized for mobile users, however that does not mean it’s not usable by mobile users. Up until the last few months our orders supported this position. We still got a proportional amount of orders via mobile system on our un-optimized site. Until Google decided for the mobile user that our site was no longer worthy of being included in their mobile SERPs. There 30% of customer hacked away.

If Google could inform us of how they are applying these penalties to us and allow us to explain it would go a long way toward finding a resolution. But they do not. I’m sure all our drops in traffic are caused by their penalties because the drops are dramatic, short sudden losses in traffic. That’s the clear indicator of a penalty. But if we go to our Google Webmasters site, the only things listed are all for the mobile issue which we know about. Nothing else.

Summary: If Google is going to apply a penalty to us, which they clearly have multiple times, we have the right to know what it is and why and at least be able to address it with them. Misunderstandings are almost always resolved with additional communication.

Frustrated doesn’t even come close to expressing how I feel.
–From: “Frustrated”

Emphasis mine.

I think the commentator brings up a lot of good points that we can all agree with: there is no algorithm for a human being (no fool proof one, at least); “trustworthiness” is a rather subjective term; and who decides content authority when the attribution trail is murky? Those are all excellent points, but I’ll save them for another post.

Let’s look at this from an SEO perspective: you’ve got a well-established domain and business all geared towards providing the best user experience and greatest value to their visitors and customers; you’ve never spammed, bought links, pulled sleazy advertising tactics, or given your readers shallow content; for eleven long years your site ranked highly, as it should, and brought in increasing returns. So far so good. Until the day that traffic began getting hacked off.

Someone might argue market trends and shifting user interests might also be to blame, but in the absence of cataclysmic events (think, a plague wiping out 2/3rds of your customers in Europe during the Middle Ages–or perhaps getting into the slide rule business just before the invention of portable calculators in 1970) naturally occurring demographic shifts tend to be slow and gradual over at least a couple of years, more like the flow of sand dunes than the flick of a switch. If you’re seeing “stair step” drops, something is going on. And it’s unnatural.

Neil and a few others chipped in with sympathy, advice, and offers of help. There are only two things that I wanted to say in addition to their comments.

If you’re sure your SEO efforts are free of any blackhat activities (and there’s really only one way to know–ask your SEO techs or the SEO consultancy you hired to sit down and tell you exactly what they’ve been doing) then that does not mean there are no blackhat activities pointing to your domain. Enter: Negative SEO.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is the practice of using every underhanded SEO tactic possible, but all of it pointing towards a rival’s site. It is petty, vicious, and entirely expected–that’s what we humans have done for all millennia, haven’t we? Somebody invents a tool, somebody else figures out how to turn it into a weapon.

Its victims are as varied as its perpetrators. While smaller, younger business are easier to crush or push out of rankings, anyone can fall prey to it.

How Does It Work?

Ever seen those ads promising tons of PR9 links for only a few dollars? There are several such gigs on popular freelancing sites such as Fiverr–and even on “curated” marketplaces such as People Per Hour. Since most legitimate SEOs, marketers, and Google themselves regularly make efforts to educate people about SEO scams, you might have wondered who actually falls for those.

Dear website owners, you cannot get: 1.”Guaranteed” top rank;
2.In only 3 weeks;
3.For $15.
Pay no attention to the blinking banner ad. #SEO— The Sarritorialist (@Sarritorialist) August 31, 2015

The answer is: not just the ignorant and the shortcut seekers. These services are an easy way for unscrupulous people to launch an SEO attack on their rivals. Mad robots are not trained to be especially critical thinkers, they’re not the “Internet police”, and they don’t owe anyone due process before a conviction: if they spot a bunch of paid links pointing to a site, they will flag the site as spammy. No payment records searched, no warrants required. Case closed. You may appeal later.

But negative SEO doesn’t have to rely only on links, because SEO itself is about more than just links. The number one rule of negative SEO seems to be: any metric that can help your site can also be used against your site.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

The truth is, if you’re going to make a splash, you’re going to attract unsavory attention eventually no matter what. So don’t panic, and don’t let fear or worry cow you into avoiding reaching for the goals you really want. The best way to protect yourself is by expecting that someday someone will make it their business to sabotage your business–and then preparing for it.

It’s a three-pronged approach I would recommend to my own clients:

1. Monitor everything.

And I mean everything. Bounce rates, CTRs, server loads, link acquisition, HTTP responses–anything that can be measured that can even remotely boost your search engine rankings. Remember: if it can help you, it can harm you. No idea what to look for? Hire an SEO tech to set up analytics for you.

As an added bonus, keeping an eye on everything means you can be sure what SEO tactics your own team is using–and nip any problems in the bud.

2. Evaluate everything you monitor.

Here’s the hard part, where a lot of businesses fail. Don’t wait till you see a drop in traffic–traffic might be the last indicator that something has gone wrong. Take time out at least once a month to go over every report and bit of data with your techs or by yourself. It’s not an exam. You don’t have to have stellar reports or dramatically dismal results to talk about them. Analyze the information you have, and don’t be afraid you won’t know enough about SEO to spot something odd. You don’t need an SEO tech to tell you that, if your website sells artisan crafts, and you have a bunch of incoming links from websites selling mail order brides, something is not quite right.

3. Have a contingency plan.

Sit down with an expert and draw up a contingency plan for the worst case scenario. SEO is always a long-term investment: algorithmic SEO penalties may take months, or even years to fully recover from. Cut down on time wasted by developing a protocol you can put into place the moment an attack is detected. Once you’ve got a plan, don’t just leave it to gather dust till the day you have no other option. Review it periodically to make sure it’s still relevant and in line with current SEO best practices.

I think I may be the victim of negative SEO. What should I do?

First, calm down. One reason why I love tech is because almost anything that can be done can also be undone, provided you have the time and patience to do so. If you had a sound SEO strategy in place and/or followed the tips above, you should already have a backup plan. If not, it’s never too late to create a recovery plan. Enlist everything that can help you, and take action to mitigate the effects of the negative SEO.

You can try contacting Google, especially if you have concrete evidence of attack and its perpetrator–I’m sure they don’t take kindly to people trying to game their system to hurt others. But don’t expect much, particularly in the case of algorithmic penalties, since specific algorithms typically run on a pre-determined schedule that probably cannot be changed at your request.

Someone recently asked me what I think of SEO and I said: SEO is the lovechild of tech and marketing. Keeping that in mind, the advice I gave to the OP was: diversify your traffic sources. Avoid excessive dependence on any one channel and always have multiple ways to reach your core markets.

Finally, be clear about your business goals and priorities–sometimes a domain can be recovered but at a greater expense than it would take to set up a new domain. I understand this is not always an option, but there’s no fault in going with it if you must.

A Word About Mobile Optimization

Mobile optimization as an SEO guideline is no more “optional” than natural links or unique content. If you choose to ignore it, you do so with the full knowledge you will get penalized–just like someone buying links may do so with the full knowledge Google will slap a penalty on them eventually. There is no way around it. Good SEO includes good UX and an unoptimized site just does not stack up. I say this as someone who frequently uses her phone to browse non-responsive websites belonging to businesses she loves to buy from: your excellent products or outstanding service may keep bringing me back to that site, but its teeny-tiny unoptimized layout and massive impact on my device resources does NOT add to my happiness. Have the courtesy to anticipate a need before your users start to complain. Customer Service 101.

Alright Sparky, that’s it for now!

My parting words are the same as in my comment:

Wean your business off of Google, reach customers through other channels such as social media, apps, and secondary search engines, keep doing what you’re great at, DO make sure no-one is trying to sabotage you through SEO, and I am sure in good time you’ll find Google bending to YOUR will for once. Google does, after all, follow the money: users. If you’re what they want and Google does not serve up your pages, it’s going to lose out.

It’s up to you to demonstrate that.

A Question Still Left

One thing I’ve been wondering about is whether legal action can be taken against the perpetrator who conducted or paid someone to conduct the negative SEO campaign. I’d be grateful if someone could tell me more about it. Are there any business regulations or anti-trust laws that would apply to such behavior, especially since it’s a malicious practice that can drive a competitor’s business into the ground?


She walked into my room uncalled for.

“I have something to talk to you about.” she announced, her voice wavering.

I shuffled through some more pages before finally looking up at her. She stood midway between the door and myself, with all the stillness of a brewing storm. Her hands clutched at the folds of her clothing and her wide-open eyes implored me for answers to questions she had forgotten to ask.

I swallowed. “What would you like to talk about?”

She parted her lips–and gulped for air. False start.

I leaned back in my chair, giving her time to gather herself while I watched the stolen features of her face: her great-aunt’s eyes, too small; her father’s jaw, too large; her grandmother’s chin, too pointed; her mother’s cheeks, too round. Her entire face could have been an afterthought, thrown together at the last minute.

“You have to see me,” she said earnestly, “You have to see me.”

Getting up, I wrapped my arms around her and caressed her cheek with a thumb.

“I do see you.” I murmured softly, smiling into her anxious face.

She looked at me, a flicker of uncertainty before I felt her hands gently close around my waist. I leaned in to kiss her; she pushed me back, seated me firmly in my chair, and stood in front of me.

She fiddled with the plastic buttons of her woolen cardigan as my eyes swept over her. Clumsily she began to undo them, keeping her eyes determinedly on her own fingers. She took the cardigan off slowly without looking up, and began to smooth down the wrinkles in her shirt. She might have been all alone in the room, she might have been all alone in the world, the way she refused to lift her gaze. I smiled amusedly.

Her eyes darted up towards me, and she pulled off her shirt.

I sat up straighter in my chair now, watching her torso twist and curve as she raised the shirt above her head, the flare of broad shoulders and ribcage tapering to a waist thicker than it could
have been. Her breasts, wider apart than most women’s and small for a chest the size of hers, strained against her brassiere and emphasized the fine hair in her cleavage. I caught a glimpse of her unshaven underarms, and then her head was through; she dropped the shirt on the floor, and paused for a minute, her arms hanging passively by her side as if she had just woken and happened to find herself standing shirtless before me.

If all she wanted me to be was a pair of eyes, she sure wasn’t making it any easier.

Trancelike, her arms reached back and her fingers struggled momentarily to undo the clasp of her bra. With unusual reverence, she slid it off and I leaned forward to feast my eyes on the large, dark aureolas of her pendulous breasts. Her nipples were already hard but it never really took much to make her nipples stand as if in protest, just like it never really took much to draw out her inwardly fiery temperament. I tore away my eyes from her chest and looked at her face, but she refused to meet my gaze once more, already fiddling with the button of her jeans.

The dull toothy sound of her zipper filled my ears and she began to pull her pants down over her wide, wide hips and fleshy thighs. I watched as she balanced on one foot, but her clumsiness nearly got the better of her. She placed a hand on my shoulder to steady herself as she pulled out of a pantleg, like a cat shaking off the unpleasantly confining proof of some owner’s enthusiasm for petwear.

A foot free now, she stamped on her pants till she could lift out the other leg, and then without reason she stamped with both feet as she straightened. Like her pants could sneak back up if she didn’t? I would have laughed, if the crotch of her worn-out boys’ boxers–complete with an opening for a penis she didn’t have–hadn’t been right in front of my face. She stood motionless, her hand still on my shoulder, watching me from above as my eyes fixed on the trail of fine, dark hair running straight down over her belly, disappearing into the white waistband of her underwear.

Her fingers hooked into the waistband, slowly revealing more of herself to me.

My eyes widened as I looked at the unkempt wilderness between her legs. I imagined what it would be like if I were to sink to my knees before her, to kiss and caress those curving thighs and part through the veil of hair, press my lips to her plump mound of Venus and let my fingers tease apart the thick folds of her sex; I imagined what it would be like to slide my mouth along their sides, feel the smoothness of her innermost flesh against each little bump on my tongue and taste the salty-sweet, slightly bland flavor of her emotional tides; I imagined what it would be like to suck on her clitoris and hear the sound of her nearly silent, almost hesitant gasps and soft moans she forgot to keep locked inside. The faint scent of her arousal drew me closer, and the darkly curling tendrils of hair tempted me to reach out, to risk getting entangled in her.

So I did.

She shied away from my fingers as if I would injure her and watched me wordlessly, searching my face without looking for an apology. Her hand slid up slowly, perhaps unconsciously, moving between her breasts and over her chest, till it rested on the back of her neck, like it always did when she was thinking her way to a decision. She kept a steady gaze on me, but I wasn’t sure if that was uncertainty in her eyes or betrayal.

Then she lifted away her hand, tearing off a length of her flesh. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t make a sound; she went on baring herself, right down to the bone, and didn’t stop.

Sinew by sinew, she peeled away her mortal coil till she reached the fiber of her intellect. She twirled it round a finger, and in one fluid unthinking motion, she snapped herself free. It fell to the floor in a single, silent wave, the thread she had clung to, and she stood before me now clad in her moral fabric. Her unceasing fingers tugged at it, making room for her to slide out, and then it too sank to the floor. All she had left on was her emotional make-up; and then off it went too. Layer after layer she shed of her Self, and when she was done, she picked it all up and lay the bloodied vestments of her being at my feet.

And I–I parted my lips, and gulped for air.

Written: 22/1/2015

You know how 1st world feminists get told that they don’t need feminism? They’re told that they should be glad they’re not “really oppressed” like the women in 3rd world countries. That things could always be worse.

You know what my mother tells me? She says I don’t need feminism because I should be glad I’m born in an urban city of Pakistan. She says, at least I wasn’t born in a rural area where girls are married off to men twice their age. That things could always be worse.

And our house maid, Shabana, who was married to her uncle at 15 and, at 18, has 2 children, she doesn’t even know what feminism is. She was told by her father that she should be glad her husband doesn’t beat her and hasn’t thrown tehzaab (acid) at her. That things could always be worse.

Am I the only one seeing a very disturbing pattern here?–Tumblr user Sharjeea


I’ve said it before: the most important thing about privilege is not whether you have it or not, but what you do with it. We’re not all oppressed the same way–from an intersectional perspective, some of us may hold privileges in one way even if we suffer in another way–but that does not mean the solution is to pat ourselves on the back for the meager privileges we hold in an unequal society.

The race to the bottom can get only more horrific, never ending as long as there is someone to crush. Oppression remains as long as society is unequal and unjust. If children in Africa are starving, it doesn’t make a dint of a difference that you have scraps to eat, unless you agree that the minimum morally acceptable action is to force a person to live on scraps.

Things are already “worse”. Focus on making them better.