Tag Archive | "Negative"

How to Get a Customer to Edit Their Negative Review

Posted by MiriamEllis

“When you forgive, you in no way change the past — but you sure do change the future.” — Bernard Meltzer

Your brand inhabits a challenging world in which its consumers’ words make up the bulk of your reputation. Negative reviews can feel like the ultimate revenge, punishing dissatisfactory experiences with public shaming, eroded local rankings, and attendant revenue loss. Some business owners become so worried about negative reviews, they head to fora asking if there is any way to opt-out and even querying whether they should simply remove their business listings altogether rather than face the discordant music.

But hang in there. Local business customers may be more forgiving than you think. In fact, your customers may think differently than you might think. 

I’ve just completed a study of consumer behavior as it relates to negative reviews becoming positive ones and I believe this blog post will hold some very welcome surprises for concerned local business owners and their marketers — I know that some of what I learned both surprised and delighted me. In fact, it’s convinced me that, in case after case, negative reviews aren’t what we might think they are at all.

Let’s study this together, with real-world examples, data, a poll, and takeaways that could transform your outlook. 

Stats to start with

Your company winds up with a negative review, and the possibility of a permanently lost customer. Marketing wisdom tells us that it’s more costly to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one happy. But it’s actually more far-reaching. The following list of stats tells the story of why you want to do anything you can to get the customer to edit a bad review to reflect more positive sentiment:

  • 57 percent of consumers will only use a business if it has four or more stars — (BrightLocal)
  • One study showed that ~1.5-star rating increase improved conversions from 10.4 percent to 12.8 percent, representing about 13,000 more leads for the brand. — (Location3)
  • 73.8 percent of customers are either likely or extremely likely to continue doing business with a brand that resolves their complaints. — (GatherUp)
  • A typical business only hears from four percent of its dissatisfied customers, meaning that the negative reviews you rectify for outspoken people could solve problems for silent ones. — (Ruby Newell-Lerner)
  • 89 percent of consumers read businesses’ responses to reviews. — (BrightLocal)

The impact of ratings, reviews, and responses are so clear that every local brand needs to devote resources to better understanding this scenario of sentiment and customer retention.

People power: One reason consumers love reviews

The Better Business Bureau was founded in 1912. The Federal Trade Commission made its debut just two years later. Consumer protections are deemed a necessity, but until the internet put the potential of mass reviews directly into individuals hands, the “little guy” often felt he lacked a truly audible voice when the “big guy” (business) didn’t do right by him.

You can see how local business review platforms have become a bully pulpit, empowering everyday people to make their feelings known to a large audience. And, you can see from reviews, like the one below, the relish with which some consumers embrace that power:

Here, a customer is boasting the belief that they outwitted an entity which would otherwise have defrauded them, if not for the influence of a review platform. That’s our first impression. But if we look a little closer, what we’re really seeing here is that the platform is a communications tool between consumer and brand. The reviewer is saying:

“The business has to do right by me if I put this on Yelp!”

What they’re communicating isn’t nice, and may well be untrue, but it is certainly a message they want to be amplified.

And this is where things get interesting.

Brand power: Full of surprises!

This month, I created a spreadsheet to organize data I was collecting about negative reviews being transformed into positive ones. I searched Yelp for the phrase “edited my review” in cities in every region of the United States and quickly amassed 50 examples for in-depth analysis. In the process, I discovered three pieces of information that could be relevant to your brand.

Surprise #1: Many consumers think of their reviews as living documents

In this first example, we see a customer who left a review after having trouble making an appointment and promising to update their content once they’d experienced actual service. As I combed through consumer sentiment, I was enlightened to discover that many people treat reviews as live objects, updating them over time to reflect evolving experiences. How far do reviewers go with this approach? Just look:

In the above example, the customer has handled their review in four separate updates spanning several days. If you look at the stars, they went from high to low to high again. It’s akin to live updates from a sporting event, and that honestly surprised me to see.

Brands should see this as good news because it means an initial negative review doesn’t have to be set in stone.

Surprise #2: Consumers can be incredibly forgiving

“What really defines you is how you handle the situation after you realize you made a mistake.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, and this edited review typifies for me the reasonableness I saw in case after case. Far from being the scary, irrational customers that business owners dread, it’s clear that many people have the basic understanding that mistakes can happen… and can be rectified. I even saw people forgiving auto dealerships for damaging their cars, once things had been made right.

Surprise #3: Consumers can be self-correcting.

The customer apparently isn’t “always right,” and some of them know it. I saw several instances of customers editing their reviews after realizing that they were the ones who made a mistake. For example, one rather long review saga contained this:

“I didn’t realize they had an hourly option so my initial review was 3 stars. However, after the company letting me know they’d be happy to modify my charges since I overlooked the hourly option, it was only fair to edit my review. I thought that was really nice of them. 5 stars and will be using them again in the future.”

When a customer has initially misunderstood a policy or offering and the business in question takes the time to clarify things, fair-minded individuals can feel honor-bound to update their reviews. Many updated reviews contained phrases like “in good conscience” and “in all fairness.”

Overall, in studying this group of reviewers, I found them to be reasonable people, meaning that your brand has (surprising) significant power to work with dissatisfied customers to win back their respect and their business.

How negative reviews become positive: Identifying winning patterns

In my case study, the dominant, overall pattern of negative reviews being transformed into positive ones consisted of these three Rs:

  1. Reach — the customer reaches out with their negative experience, often knowing that, in this day and age, powerful review platforms are a way to reach brands.
  2. Remedy — Some type of fix occurs, whether this results from intervention on the part of the brand, a second positive experience outweighing an initial negative one, or the consumer self-correcting their own misunderstanding.
  3. Restoration — The unhappy customer is restored to the business as a happy one, hopefully, ready to trust the brand for future transactions, and the reputation of the brand is restored by an edited review reflecting better satisfaction.

Now, let’s bucket this general pattern into smaller segments for a more nuanced understanding. Note: There is an overlap in the following information, as some customers experienced multiple positive elements that convinced them to update their reviews.

Key to review transformation:

  • 70 percent mentioned poor service/rude service rectified by a second experience in which staff demonstrated caring.
  • 64 percent mentioned the owner/manager/staff proactively, directly reached out to the customer with a remedy.
  • 32 percent mentioned item replaced or job re-done for free.
  • 20 percent mentioned customer decided to give a business a second chance on their own and was better-pleased by a second experience.
  • 6 percent mentioned customer realized the fault for a misunderstanding was theirs.

From this data, two insights become clear and belong at the core of your reputation strategy:

Poor and rude service seriously fuel negative reviews

This correlates well with the findings of an earlier GatherUp study demonstrating that 57 percent of consumer complaints revolve around customer service and employee behavior. It’s critical to realize that nearly three-quarters of these disasters could be turned around with subsequent excellent service. As one customer in my study phrased it:

“X has since gone above and beyond to resolve the issue and make me feel like they cared.”

Proactive outreach is your negative review repair kit

Well over half of the subjects in my study specifically mentioned that the business had reached out to them in some way. I suspect many instances of such outreach went undocumented in the review updates, so the number may actually be much higher than represented.

Outreach can happen in a variety of ways:

  • The business may recognize who the customer is and have their name and number on file due to a contract.
  • The business may not know who the customer is but can provide an owner response to the review that includes the company’s contact information and an earnest request to get in touch.
  • The business can DM the customer if the negative review is on Yelp.

You’re being given a second chance if you get the customer’s ear a second time. It’s then up to your brand to do everything you can to change their opinion. Here’s one customer’s description of how far a local business was willing to go to get back into his good graces:

“X made every effort to make up for the failed programming and the lack of customer service the night before. My sales rep, his manager and even the finance rep reached out by phone, text and email. I was actually in meetings all morning, watching my phone buzz with what turned out to be their calls, as they attempted to find out what they could do to make amends. Mark came over on my lunch break, fixed/reprogrammed the remote and even comped me a free tank of gas for my next fill up. I appreciated his sincere apologies and wanted to update/revise my review as a token of my appreciation.”

What a great example of dedication to earning forgiveness!

Should you actively ask restored customers to edit their negative reviews?

I confess — this setup makes me a bit nervous. I took Twitter poll to gauge sentiment among my followers:

Respondents showed strong support for asking a customer who has been restored to happiness to edit their review. However, I would add a few provisos.

Firstly, not one of the subjects in my study mentioned that the business requested they update their review. Perhaps it went undocumented, but there was absolutely zero suggestion that restored customers had been prompted to re-review the business.

Secondly, I would want to be 100 percent certain that the customer is, indeed, delighted again. Otherwise, you could end up with something truly awful on your review profile, like this:

Suffice it to say, never demand an edited review, and certainly don’t use one as blackmail!

With a nod to the Twitter poll, I think it might be alright to mention you’d appreciate an updated review. I’d be extremely choosy about how you word your request so as not to make the customer feel obligated in any way. And I’d only do so if the customer was truly, sincerely restored to a sense of trust and well-being by the brand.

So what are negative reviews, really?

In so many cases, negative reviews are neither punishment nor the end of the road.

They are, in fact, a form of customer outreach that’s often akin to a cry for help.

Someone trusted your business and was disappointed. Your brand needs to equip itself to ride to the rescue. I was struck by how many reviewers said they felt uncared-for, and impressed by how business owners like this one completely turned things around:

In this light, review platforms are simply a communications medium hosting back-and-forth between customer people and business people. Communicate with a rescue plan and your reputation can “sparkle like diamonds”, too.


I want to close by mentioning how evident it was to me, upon completing this study, that reviewers take their task seriously. The average word count of the Yelp reviews I surveyed was about 250 words. If half of the 12,584 words I examined expressed disappointment, your brand is empowered to make the other half express forgiveness for mistakes and restoration of trust.

It could well be that the industry term “negative” review is misleading, causing unnecessary fear for local brands and their marketers. What if, instead, we thought of this influential content as “reviews-in-progress,” with the potential for transformation charting the mastery of your brand at customer service.

The short road is that you prevent negative experiences by doubling down on staff hiring and training practices that leave people with nothing to complain about in the entire customer service ecosystem. But re-dubbing online records of inevitable mistakes as “reviews-in-progress” simply means treading a slightly longer road to reputation, retention, and revenue. If your local brand is in business for the long haul, you’ve got this!

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Moz Blog

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Search Buzz Video Recap: Google Algorithm Update, Core Update Advice, Fresher Featured Snippets, Google Ads, Bing Guidelines & Negative SEO

This turned out to be a pretty busy week in the search space. We had a possible, unconfirmed, but yet really heating up…

Search Engine Roundtable

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Google Organic Search Doesn’t Have A Negative Keywords Feature

I know this is obvious for most of you but while Google Ads (AdWords) has a way to exclude your site for coming up in the search results for specific keywords, Google organic search does not. You cannot tell Google, please do not rank my site when people type in keyword X or Y.

Search Engine Roundtable

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SearchCap: Google Search Console, negative SEO & more

Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web.

Please visit Search Engine Land for the full article.

Search Engine Land: News & Info About SEO, PPC, SEM, Search Engines & Search Marketing

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Search Buzz Video Recap: Google Core Algorithm Update, Autocomplete Changes, Negative SEO, Hijacks & One Line AdWords

This week in search, we got confirmation about the large Google update from Google as being a broad core update. It started a week ago Monday and seems to have gone on for ten or more days…

Search Engine Roundtable

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Winning the Negative Moment of Truth

Ratings and reviews are so important, Lecinski has a curious oversight in his book. He discusses many digital marketing tactics to get discovered, but he doesn’t focus significant space on how to make sure those discoveries (in the form of reviews, at least) are good for your brand.
MarketingSherpa Blog

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SearchCap: Google expands reviews, disallows some negative reviews & top SEO columns

Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web.

The post SearchCap: Google expands reviews, disallows some negative reviews & top SEO columns appeared first on Search Engine Land.

Please visit Search Engine Land for the full article.

Search Engine Land: News & Info About SEO, PPC, SEM, Search Engines & Search Marketing

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Negative SEO: Should You Be Worried? If Attacked, What Should You Do?

Posted by MarieHaynes

There has been a lot of talk lately about negative SEO. Does it really happen? If so, should you be worried? How do you know whether someone is attempting to attack you with negative SEO? And what should you do to protect yourself? The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the subject, and hopefully to reduce some of the fear exists in this area.

What is negative SEO?

Negative SEO occurs when someone makes attempt to lower a site’s rankings in the search engines. There are multiple ways that this can be attempted. The most common type of negative SEO that gets discussed is link based negative SEO, but there are many other techniques that unscrupulous people can use to try to reduce your rankings. We’ll talk about how to recognize some of these tactics later on in this article .

Does negative SEO really work?

We know that a site can be penalized or can be suppressed by Google algorithms if they have engaged in manipulative link building. The result can be a manual unnatural links penalty or an unnanouced demotion at the hands of the Penguin algorithm. So, if links that I made can hurt me, then intuitively it makes sense that links that someone else made could have the same negative effect. Or can they?

Google is quite adamant that true, effective negative SEO is very rare. In an effort to understand more about Google’s stance on negative SEO I decided to research every instance I could find where a Google representative discussed negative SEO. You can read transcriptions of a good number of John Mueller’s and Matt Cutt’s statements on negative SEO in this article. I’ll be quoting from these transcriptions several times in this Moz post as well.

Prior to January of 2003, Google had a page on their site that said the following, “There is nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. “ 

 And then in 2003, they changed the wording to say, “There is almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking….”

And really, the change made sense. I don’t believe Google was admitting at this point that you could drop a site by pointing links at it. Rather, they were likely conceding that there could be cases where someone could harm your website by, for example, hacking into your server and deleting your site or changing your robots.txt file to tell search engines not to crawl the site any more or other such nefarious things.

But what about links? Can a competitor point bad links at you and reduce your rankings? In 2007, Matt Cutts was quoted in a Forbes article on negative SEO: “Matt Cutts, a senior software engineer for Google, says that piling links onto a competitor’s site to reduce its search rank isn’t impossible, but it’s extremely difficult. “We try to be mindful of when a technique can be abused and make our algorithm robust against it,” he says. “I won’t go out on a limb and say it’s impossible. But Google bowling is much more inviting as an idea than it is in practice.”

So, at that point Google is admitting that negative SEO via linkbuiding is a possibility, albeit quite a remote one. Let’s jump forward to 2012. In April of 2012 Google released the first version of the Penguin algorithm which was created to reduce and even penalize for the use of unnatural links. This is when the topic of whether or not you could negatively affect a competitor’s site by pointing bad links at them became a very common discussion. Take a look at the Google Trends data for searches for “negative SEO”:

Shortly after Google refreshed the Penguin algorithm in October of 2012, Matt Cutts announced the creation of a new tool, the disavow tool, which would allow site owners to ask Google not to count links that they felt could damage their site. Matt stated that the vast majority of sites would not need to use the tool and that Google’s algorithms were really quite good at making sure that these bad links would not hurt your site. But, he did admit that it could potentially be a concern for people in high money, competitive niches, saying, “For the people who are in maybe super competitive poker, casino, whatever kind of niches and they’re worried about, ‘OK, what if someone is trying to do some ill will towards my site?’ we’ve just released a new tool called disavow links.”

If you read through the transcriptions of things that Matt Cutts and John Mueller have said about negative SEO, here are the points that Google seems to be emphasizing:

  • Google works hard to ensure that a competitor cannot hurt your site by pointing bad links at it.
  • They have things built into their algorithms to help determine whether the links are self made or not. For example, if there has been a pattern of unnatural linking that has been occurring for many years, then it’s not likely that a competitor is at fault.
  • If you notice a bunch of bad looking links pointing at your site, most likely they are not going to do any harm to you. But, Google admits that they may not get things 100% correct all of the time and as such, it’s not a bad idea to disavow any spammy looking links that you see.
  • If you see a situation where you feel that negative SEO is actually being effective, Google would like you to report it either in the webmaster forums or by contacting John Mueller and they will look into the situation to see if they can improve their algorithms.
  • The vast majority of cases where people report negative SEO attacks to Google end up NOT being negative SEO.

Examples of things that are NOT negative SEO

I can’t tell you how many times I have had a client claim that a competitor is attacking them with bad links when in most cases, this probably isn’t true. If you start looking at your backlink profile and seeing some odd looking links it’s a normal reaction to think, “I didn’t make these spammy links! So, if I didn’t make them, who did? It must be my competitor!” 

Here are some examples of situations where negative SEO was suspected, but in reality there is another explanation for what is going on:

Example #1: “Weird” links are not necessarily bad links

There are some websites that link out to almost every site on the web. For example, most sites will have links from sites like:

  • askives.com
  • mrwhatis.net
  • m.biz (and hundreds of m.biz clone directories. I don’t know where these come from, but although it’s probably not necessary, I disavow them just to be safe. In my opinion, they’re not likely negative SEO though.)
  • directories that have scraped dmoz.org
  • links from sites that analyze and provide domain info
  • Chinese sites that scrape alexa.com

…and so on.

Example #2: Sitewide links are not all bad links

I’ve seen site owners get really upset when they look at their “Links to your site” section of Webmaster Tools and see something like this:

The fear is that Google is going to think that you built tens of thousands of links to your site. Now, in the example that I have given, where the site is a well known one like yellowpages.com, it may be a little more clear that this is not an unnatural link. But, what if a site owner in your niche really liked your content and linked to you in their sidebar? And what if they linked to you with a keyword? Underneath “Links to your site” in Webmaster Tools is a section called, “How your data is linked” that contains your most commonly used anchor text. So, if I got a sitewide link from a site with thousands of pages and they linked with a keyword, I’m going to see that Google thinks that the majority of my links are keyword anchored. Oh no! I’ve had people think that they’ve been hit by negative SEO because they have seen a single keyword anchored sitewide link. In my opinion, Google is pretty good at figuring out that a sitewide link is really just one vote from a site. A single sitewide link is not a sign of negative SEO even if it causes thousands of links to appear in Webmaster Tools.

Example #3: Your old habits are coming back to haunt you

Have you ever in the past purchased a link building package? For example, years ago when I was learning SEO I purchased a citation building package to one of my sites. It was one of those deals where you pay $ 100 and you get a whole bunch of directory listings. (Yeah…I’m not proud of it, but hey…we all had to start learning somewhere.) I’ve since cleaned up those links. But, the amazing thing is that they keep replicating. I will often see new links appear that are using the same text that I used when I purchased that package. It would be easy for me to say, “Hey! I haven’t built any links in years…and now I’m seeing spammy directory listings appear. This must be a competitor pointing bad links at me!” But really, my own actions were the cause for these unnatural links.

Example #4: A well-meaning employee or friend is building you links

You might laugh at this example, but I’ve seen it happen. I had a client who contacted me for help with a manual unnatural links penalty. He swore he had never purchased or built a link in his life, but his backlink profile was full of a lot of pretty manipulative stuff. He assumed it had to be a competitor doing this. As we were doing the cleanup for his site we noticed new bad links that were appearing. Agh! We’re under attack! Well, it turns out that the site owner’s nephew had been doing some reading about SEO. I am not kidding. He thought he was helping his uncle out by SEOing his site for him. Oy vey.

Example #5: A previous SEO made these links

Some people are shocked when they find out that their SEO company has been building them unnatural links.  I have seen many cases where an SEO company promised they were going to give a site “White hat links” or links that were within the Google guidelines, but in reality it looks like they outsourced the job to a cheap linkbuilding company that created spammy bookmarks, blog comments and forum signatures.  If you’ve got unnatural links and you’ve ever hired an SEO company, there is a good chance that those bad links were actually made on purpose and that YOU paid for them!  Remember, prior to April of 2012, these links used to work well to rank pages and very few websites would get penalized for using them.

Example #6: You’ve been hacked

While someone could negative SEO your site by hacking into it, not all cases of hacking are negative SEO. A while back, a friend of mine emailed me and said, “Hey! Did you know that one of your sites is ranking highly for Michael Kors handbags?” His suggestion was that I take advantage of that and throw an affiliate page up on the site. :) I had a look at the backlinks and here’s what I saw:


This was not a competitor trying to hurt my rankings. In fact, the tens of thousands of spammy links that were pointing at my site were actually helping my rankings at that point. What had happened here is that someone had taken advantage of a vulnerability in a WordPress plugin that had not been updated. They were able to hack into the site and create a whole bunch of new pages. They then pointed huge numbers of spammy links at these pages and redirected them to their Michael Kors affiliate sites.

If you are looking at your backlink profile and you see odd keyword anchors for things like viagra, cialis, casinos, payday loans, ugg boots, etc, then there is a good chance that you have been hacked. In most cases these links can be removed by finding and removing the pages that the hacker created on your site. However, if you have been hacked, it’s a good idea to have someone familiar with cleaning up hacks look at your site to figure out how the hacker got in and how you can close that door.

In this situation, we removed the offending pages, found and fixed the access point, AND I also disavowed all of those links. According to Google, if you get hacked and have bad links pointing to you, you can probably ignore them because their algorithms are good at picking up and just discounting this sort of thing. However, it concerned me that these bad links actually were helping this site. If Google was just discounting them then they should have had no effect. I am 99% sure that I would have been ok to leave them, especially since the pages they pointed to had been removed (which also removes the link pointing to that page), but just to be absolutely sure that something odd didn’t affect me with the next Penguin update, I disavowed them all at the domain level.

I now have alerts on Google Alerts and Moz Freshweb Explorer set up to help me determine when someone is hacking my site. To do so for your sites, in each of these tools you can set up alerts for things like:

  • site:yoursite.com “michael kors”
  • site:yoursite.com viagra
  • site:yoursite.com casino
  • site:yoursite.com “payday loans”
  • site:yoursite.com “cialis”

…and so on.

Signs of things that COULD be negative SEO

I said at the start of this article that the vast majority of cases of suspected negative SEO that I see really aren’t negative SEO after all. But, there are situations where it does indeed happen. Here is the type of link that you can commonly see when someone is trying to attack you with negative links:

  • Links from foreign forums
  • A huge number of links from sites with TLDs of .ru, .cz, .cn, .pl, .ro, .bg, .biz, .com.ar, .com.br and .info. Not all of those links are going to be unnatural, but if you are suddenly getting an influx of links from russian sites, it could be a sign of an attack.
  • A large number of links from complete nonsense blog posts:

  • Lots of keyword-anchored links from multiple sources. (I’d like to reiterate that receiving one sitewide link from a questionable source is not a sign of negative SEO, even if you are suddenly seeing thousands of links coming from that site.)
  • An influx of links from bad neighbourhoods such as porn sites, gambling sites, payday loan sites, etc.

There are many other tricky techniques that can be used to attack sites with negative SEO, but most sites will not need to worry about these tactics. (I’ll explain more about whether or not you need to worry below, so keep reading!)  I’m not about to describe all of the different ways you can do negative SEO, as I don’t want to give any evil people any ideas. But, the one tactic that I will mention and that you can keep an eye on is someone redirecting penalized sites to yours. Take a look right now at your site on ahrefs.com. You don’t need a membership to see whether you’ve got redirects pointing to you. Scroll down until you see “backlink types” and then “redirect”.

Now, not all redirects are bad. If you have affiliates, they may have pages that redirect to your product pages, These are usually okay, and there are many other valid reasons for a site to redirect to yours. But if today you see that you have three sites redirecting to you and next week you’ve got 30 or even 300 sites redirecting to you, then this could be a sign of a problem.

Can these redirects hurt you, though? Can an influx of bad links hurt you? Do you need to worry?  Google has given conflicting advice in this regard. In one place, they have said that bad link signals will definitely pass through a 301 redirect, but in another place they have said that attempting to 301 redirect a penalized site to a clean site will not cause a penalty on the clean site.  In my opinion, what Google is saying here is that if you are redirecting one of your own sites to another of your own sites, then they’ll pass the bad link signals.  It’s just like you building your own unnatural links.  But if you try to 301 to someone else’s site then they won’t let those links count.  How does Google know the difference?  That’s part of the secret sauce.  I do think that they use all sorts of signals to determine whether links are self made or made by a competitor.

Should you worry about negative SEO?

OK, so let’s say you see evidence that someone is attacking your site with unnatural links. Does this mean you are going to lose your rankings?

Google really does work hard to algorithmically protect sites from this type of link causing a problem. And, I would say that for the vast majority of you who are reading this post, you DO NOT NEED TO WORRY ABOUT NEGATIVE SEO

Yes, just shouted there. I really want to emphasize that most sites do not need to worry.

This is the point in the article where the black hatters start getting upset. I wonder who the first person will be to post a comment saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! Negative SEO works because I’ve done it on hundreds of sites.” Or, “I know negative SEO works because my site got taken down.”

Here is my opinion on the types of sites that could possibly be adversely affected by a link based negative SEO attack:

  • Sites in very competitive, high-money niches such as casinos, payday loans, insurance, pharmacy sales, etc. – People who are running negative SEO in these circles have more knowledge of sophisticated methods that just may possibly work. Some of these people spend hours and hours trying to find loopholes in Google’s algorithm that will allow them to take down a competitor. When Google adjusts their algorithms to be able to combat those methods then these people spend even more hours trying to beat the system. They also have huge budgets that they can throw into a negative SEO attack. For the average small business owner to pay someone to do a high level intensive SEO attack that has the potential to work, it would likely cost more money than it would cost to implement regular SEO methods on your own site.
  • Sites that have a long standing history of doing their own manipulative linking. If you have received a manual link-based penalty in the past or have been affected negatively by the Penguin algorithm, then in my opinion you really should keep a watch out for additional unnatural links pointing to your site. In a hangout, John Mueller spoke about a situation where Google may not be certain whether to discount bad links that look like negative SEO because the site itself had a lot of signals that indicated that the site owner had been engaging in webspam. He implied that Google may not be able to tell what was self made and what was an attack:

    “It’s something where we see these problematic links and we don’t really know how we should react to that. It’s not that we can just close our eyes and say, ‘Oh well… we can recognize these problematic links and ignore them. It’s more that we don’t know what we should do with all of the other signals that we find attached to your website”

In these cases, if it does appear that negative SEO is being targeted at your website, the best tool you have is to do monthly monitoring of your backlinks.

How can you protect yourself from negative SEO?

If you are in a competitive niche, or if you have a history of being penalized and having to do link cleanup, then you really should be monitoring your backlinks regularly. What we do for our regular link audit clients is a monthly backlink audit. This really should be frequent enough to find and clean up unnatural links. However, if you are under a strong attack where new unnatural links are coming in daily, it may be a good idea to do this cleanup every one-to-two weeks.

It’s not a bad idea for other sites that are at low risk of succumbing to a negative SEO attack to do a monthly link audit as well. What we have found is that when you monitor your new links monthly, you can easily see the new, good links that your site is attracting. This can give you a lot of ideas on how to get even more links. If you see, for example, that a few people had recommended a particular product of yours via a link from forum posts, then you may want to create more content surrounding that product and engage on an email outreach campaign to get more people to link to that content.

But wait….why would I recommend doing a regular link audit if Google says that they can catch negative SEO and discount it? The reason is that you’re relying on an algorithm and the algorithm is not going to be 100% accurate. Here are some quotes from John Mueller of Google regarding their accuracy on catching and discounting negative SEO:

“It’s a tricky situation and not something where I’d say that we can guarantee that we always get it 100% right. But, from the cases I’ve looked at I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

“We do work very hard to make sure that third party effects like that don’t play a role within the search results. It’s something we can’t absolutely guarantee that we’ll always get it right. So, if you’re seeing something like this you’re welcome to let us know about that. “

“If you’re looking at the links in Webmaster Tools for example I might go ahead and submit a disavow file for those links. In general though, we do recognize these kind of situations and handle them appropriately. “

How to do your backlink audit

There are many different ways to do a backlink audit. Some people will use automated link auditing tools, but if you do choose to do this it is vitally important that you do a manual audit alongside of the automated suggestions. I can’t tell you how many failed reconsideration requests I have seen because people have relied solely on these reports. I have also seen these tools recommend disavowing some fantastic natural links as well. In my opinion, you must look at your links manually!

If you are working on a site that does not have a history of unnatural linking, you can probably get away with just using the links that you get from Webmaster Tools. Google has said in the past that Webmaster Tools links are “all you need”. However, John Mueller and Matt Cutts have clarified that statement saying that they are all you need in order to pick up your patterns of unnatural linking. This is fine if you are lucky enough to have a complete list of all of the links that have been ever made on your behalf, but if you don’t have that then you’re likely going to have to go looking to other sources to find all of these links.  We have come across many unnatural links that are indexed in Google and not reported in Webmaster Tools. And, we’ve even been given some of these as examples on failed reconsideration requests. The links you see in Webmaster Tools are just a sample of your links. As such, we use links from the following sources:

  • Webmaster Tools (Recent)
  • Webmaster Tools (Sample)
  • ahrefs.com (a paid tool)
  • majesticseo.com (a paid tool, but it’s free for your own site if you verify your site)
  • opensiteexplorer.org (This is Moz’s tool, and for most sites you can get a good number of your links for free provided you register an account with Moz. I would say though that I find that Open Site Explorer tends to pick up more of the good links and doesn’t catch as much as the overt spam as Ahrefs and Majestic.

We then sort the links into a more manageable list so that we only analyze one link from each domain. If you are doing monthly audits, you will want to keep track of which domains you have already audited so that you don’t waste time assessing that domain again. You can use a VLOOKUP formula in Excel to highlight which domains you have already audited in previous months. You can use a similar VLOOKUP to highlight domains that are already in your disavow file.

It took me a while to understand how VLOOKUP works.  There are many tutorials out there, but here is my simple explanation:

  • Let’s assume that your link auditing spreadsheet is “Sheet1″ and you have a list of your disavowed domains on “Sheet2″.  Let’s say that column A of each sheet contains your domains and column B of “Sheet2″ contains the words “in disavow”.
  • Let’s assume that you have 1000 domains on “Sheet2″.  Again, this is your list of disavowed domains.
  • On “Sheet1″ create a new column and enter this formula:
    =VLOOKUP(A1, Sheet2!$ A$ 1:$ B$ 1000,2,FALSE).
  • Now, copy that formula down the entire column.  You will end up having each row saying either “in disavow” or “N/A”.
  • For those domains that are in your disavow, you don’t need to re-audit them because you have already disavowed them.

I have prepared hundreds of link audit spreadsheets.  This summer I dedicated a huge amount of time to creating and programming a system that allows me to keep track of my monthly audit clients and create awesome spreadsheets for manual link audits.  The sheet that is produced chooses the best link from each domain to audit, eliminates domains that I have already audited for each client, marks the nofollows, marks which links are keyword anchors, and marks which domains have already been disavowed (and also takes into account subdomains when you have disavowed the full domain.)  It also tells me whether or not each domain is my list of tens of thousands of domains that I call my “disavow blacklist”  and also my whitelist that contains domains that I know contains links not made for SEO purposes such as sites like alexa.com, aboutus.org, known dmoz scrapers and so on.  

This system saves me a huge amount of time, especially for those clients for whom we do regular backlink audits.  I want to thank Moz for allowing me to mention this system.  I am now making it available for others to use (for a fee). You can get more details here.  

The next step, once you have audited your links and determined which ones are ones that were made to manipulate Google, and are therefore unnatural, is to add these sites to your disavow file.  You almost always want to disavow these domains on the domain level.  This means including “domain:example.com” rather than “http://www.example.com/page1.html”.

Once this is done, add these domains to your existing disavow file and upload it to the disavow tool.  Don’t worry…there is no harm in submitting regular disavows.


I have covered a lot of info in this post and hopefully I haven’t confused too many people. The topic of negative SEO really is a tough one to understand. On one hand Google says, “Don’t worry about it.” But, on the other hand they tell us that although it shouldn’t be a problem, it’s not a bad idea to disavow any spam links you find pointing to your site even if you didn’t make them.

Here are the takehome points of this article:

  • Not everything that looks like negative SEO is negative SEO. All sites have weird links pointing to them. Don’t always assume that every odd looking link is one that a competitor has made.
  • A sudden influx of odd links very well could be an attack.
  • In most cases, if a site does get attacked by a competitor pointing spammy links at them, Google’s algorithms will just ignore those links and you won’t see a drop in rankings.
  • If you are in a hyper-competitive niche then you are much more likely to fall victim to a sophisticated negative SEO attack. 
  • If you have a history of doing a lot of unnatural linking yourself then you could fall victim as well, as Google may not be able to tell the difference between your unnatural links and the attack links.
  • Sites that are not in a competitive niche and have not been engaging in manipulative linking, most likely do not need to worry about negative SEO.
  • In any case, if you think you are under a negative SEO attack, it is a good idea to audit your links regularly and submit a disavow file.

Negative SEO always brings up interesting discussion. Have you been a victim? Do you do monthly audits? Do you feel that Google is good at preventing negative SEO?  

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Oh No! Clients Requesting Negative SEO

I am a bit tired of covering the negative SEO topic but no one can fully deny that it does not exist…

Search Engine Roundtable

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The Positive Negative SEO Strategy

There’s a case study on Moz on how to get your site back following a link penalty. An SEO working on a clients site describes what happened when their client got hit with a link penalty. Even though the link penalty didn’t appear to be their fault, it still took months to get their rankings back.

Some sites aren’t that lucky. Some sites don’t get their rankings back at all.

The penalty was due to a false-positive. A dubious site links out to a number of credible sites in order to help disguise their true link target. The client site was one of the credible sites, mistaken by Google for a bad actor. Just goes to show how easily credible sites can get hit by negative SEO, and variations thereof.

There’s a tactic in there, of course.

Take Out Your Competitors

Tired of trying to rank better? Need a quicker way? Have we got a deal for you!

Simply build a dubious link site, point some rogue links at sites positioned above yours and wait for Google’s algorithm to do the rest. If you want to get a bit tricky, link out to other legitimate sites, too. Like Wikipedia. Google, even. This will likely confuse the algorithm for a sufficient length of time, giving your tactic time to work.

Those competitors who get hit, and who are smart enough to work out what’s going on, may report your link site, but, hey, there are plenty more link sites where that came from. Roll another one out, and repeat. So long as your link site can’t be connected with you – different PC, different IP address, etc – then what have you got to lose? Nothing much. What have your competitors got to lose? Rank, a lot of time, effort, and the very real risk they won’t get back into Google’s good books. And that’s assuming they work out why they lost rankings.

I’m not advocating this tactic, of course. But we all know it’s out there. It is being used. And the real-world example above shows how easy it is to do. One day, it might be used against you, or your clients.

Grossly unfair, but what can you do about it?

Defensive Traffic Strategy

Pleading to Google is not much of a strategy. Apart from anything else, it’s an acknowledgement that the power is not in your hands, but in the hands of an unregulated arbiter who likely views you as a bit of an annoyance. It’s no wonder SEO has become so neurotic.

It used to be the case that competitors could not take you out pointing unwanted links at you. No longer. So even more control has been taken away from the webmaster.

The way to manage this risk is the same way risk is managed in finance. Risk can be reduced using diversification. You could invest all your money in one company, or you could split it between multiple companies, banks, bonds and other investment classes. If you’re invested in one company, and they go belly up, you lose everything. If you invest in multiple companies and investment classes, then you’re not as affected if one company gets taken out. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

It’s the same with web traffic.

1. Multiple Traffic Streams

If you only run one site, try to ensure your traffic is balanced. Some traffic from organic search, some from PPC, some from other sites, some from advertisements, some from offline advertising, some from email lists, some from social media, and so on. If you get taken out in organic search, it won’t kill you. Alternative traffic streams buy you time to get your rankings back.

2. Multiple Pages And Sites

A “web site” is a construct. Is it a construct applicable to a web that mostly orients around individual pages? If you think in terms of pages, as opposed to a site, then it opens up more opportunities for diversification.

Pages can, of course, be located anywhere, not just on your site. These may take the form of well written, evergreen, articles published on other popular sites. Take a look at the top sites in closely related niches and see if there are any opportunities to publish your content on them. Not only does this make your link graph look good, so long as it’s not overt, you’ll also have achieve more diversity.

Consider Barnacle SEO.

Will creatively defines the concept of barnacle SEO as follows:
Attaching oneself to a large fixed object and waiting for the customers to float by in the current.
Directly applied to local search, this means optimizing your profiles or business pages on a well-trusted, high-ranking directory and working to promote those profiles instead of — or in tandem with — your own website.“

You could also build multiple sites. Why have just one site when you can have five? Sure, there’s more overhead, and it won’t be appropriate in all cases, but again, the multiple site strategy is making a comeback due to Google escalating the risk of having only one site. This strategy also helps get your eggs into multiple baskets.

3. Prepare For the Worst

If you’ve got most of your traffic coming from organic search, then you’re taking a high risk approach. You should manage that risk down with diversification strategies first. Part of the strategy for dealing with negative SEO is not to make yourself so vulnerable to it in the first place.

If you do get hit, have a plan ready to go to limit the time you’re out of the game. The cynical might suggest you have a name big enough to make Google look bad if they don’t show you.

Lyrics site Rap Genius says that it is no longer penalized within Google after taking action to correct “unnatural links” that it helped create. The site was hit with a penalty for 10 days, which meant people seeking it by name couldn’t find it.

For everyone else, here’s a pretty thorough guide about how to get back in.

Have your “plead with Google” gambit ready to go at a moments notice. The lead time to get back into Google can be long, so the sooner you get onto it, the better. Of course, this is really the last course of action. It’s preferable not make yourself that vulnerable in the first place.

By diversifying.


SEO Book

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