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?

4 thoughts on “When Bad SEO Happens to Good People

  1. Great overview of negative SEO and so many of the things that surround it. Thanks for the mention as well 🙂

    The monitoring piece is critical as a defensive measure.

    We’ve also found that going on the offensive is probably the most effective technique. That doesn’t mean we try and return fire lol, but doing everything in our power to build high quality links to our content, and building up domain authority is the best way to allow outside sources impact our search engine rankings.

    Great article!

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