Negative SEO & Using Google’s Disavow Tool

What is Negative SEO

Negative SEO is the term used for using blackhat or unethical link building techniques  for the purpose of sabotaging a website, i.e. your competitors, and their rankings.  Negative SEO can come in a variety of different forms however the objective is typically to reduce visibility of the target website, such as rankings, and increase the chance of search engine penalties, reputational damage, duplicate content and more.

Kissmetrics posted some solid categories on the types of negative SEO you may receive such as:

  • Hacking your website
  • Building hundreds or thousands of spammy links to your website
  • Copying your content and distributing it all over the internet
  • Pointing links to your website using keywords like Viagra, poker online, and many others
  • Creating fake social profiles and ruining your reputation online
  • Removing the best backlinks your website has

Unfortunately Negative SEO can also occur when a business hires an SEO agency that conducts in poor link building practices. This is all too common and a big reason for the mistrust of business owners in our industry. It’s often the outcome from cheap SEO services although the price of SEO often doesn’t prevent it.

An example of Negative SEO

Some time ago I received a client because their WordPress website hack and they didn’t feel their web administrator was doing all they could to remove the hack. Since receiving this client I’ve since removed the hack however the website still continues to be slammed by low quality, spammy viagra backlinks.

negative-seo-example

Jan 2014 Negative SEO Attack

 

As you can see in January 2014 this site had a huge spike in referring domains, over 6000 domains, as well as the sheer number of referring pages (450000) which doesn’t show the spike in this example. If we take a look at the anchor cloud which shows the % of text being used to link to the website we will also see the effect of this negative SEO campaign.

negative-seo-anchor-cloud

Negative SEO Anchor Cloud – A result of the WordPress Pharma Hack

 

If you want to find our more Matt Cutts from Google talks and answers some questions we’ve all had about how Negative SEO might affect our online business.

What is the Disavow Tool

So how can we monitor our website for Negative SEO and what can we use to remove negative links? Fortunately we have a number of tools and the single most important being the Google Disavow Tool provided to us by Google themselves. Find out more about disavowing links here.

The Google Disavow Tool was released in October 2013 and is Google’s way of allowing online business to remove low quality and spammy links from affecting our website. It’s basically telling Google “hey guys would you mind ignoring this link as we don’t feel it relates or adds value to our business”. Keep in mind that this won’t remove the link from the source website but simply request Google to ignore it.

This tool comes with a warning from Google however and as a business owner you need to be careful or seek help from an seo expert that can assist.

google-disavow-tool-warning

What Google is basically saying is that if your disavow ‘Good’ links then you could reduce your rankings in Google. If you ever decide you’re going to disavow links then you need to check, double-check and then triple check that you’re only disavowing bad links and domains.

How To Monitor & Export Your Backlinks

In order to get started with disavowing links you must first have a clear understanding of where all of your links are coming from so you can begin to audit which ones you’d like to remove.

Once again Google provides us with a tool in Google Webmasters to export a sample of our backlinks. You’ll want to go to traffic -> links to your site -> more. After that select download table and you’ll receive a csv file for your links. Note that the export will only contain a maximum of 1000 domains so you can use a sample of all three options to get the best overview.

links-to-your-site-export-webmasters

In most cases you’ll want to use a tool such as Ahrefs for continuous ease of monitoring. Ahrefs as mentioned is a paid tool based on a monthly subscription thats sole focus is identifying backlinks to websites. It’s a great tool for reverse engineering competitors links as well as identify successful content and finding a network of blogs and websites to distribute your content to.

ahrefs-domain-search

Simple type in your domain name into the site explorer text field and then select search links. You’ll see in the screenshot above that you also have the option to hide disavowed links and upload a disavow file, we’re going to talk about this feature a little further down.

From the left hand menu select inbound links -> links to find a report of all of your links.  You can view, filter and sort your list in a variety of different ways to see your data from different angles. I highly recommend playing around with all the options so you can begin to identify which links you might want to disavow.

Google Disavow tool provides us with the option to disavow via domain or URL so you’ll need to identify the best way to export your links. In most cases my preference is to export links in Ahrefs using the 01 Backlink / Domain which allows the option of producing a csv file which only has one link per domain. The reason for this, as shown in the example below, is that in the case of a negative SEO account you might have hundreds to thousands of links from a single down. To make the disavow audit easier you’ll want to go through on a domain basis rather than url basis to reduce your workload.

ahrefs-backlink-count

Once again you’ll want to export all of your links using the Export feature. Export to csv again and save it in the same place as your Google webmasters export.

Other places that you can export links are:

  • Majestic SEO
  • Open Site Explorer

I’ve only used the latter which is good for another view of your links, and you may find links that others haven’t, but my preference for paid tools for this job is Ahrefs.

How To Disavow Links

Once you’ve got your export files from each of the different applications, i.e. webmasters, ahrefs, open site explorer etc, you want to put all of your links into one CSV file or XLSX file.  You’ll get something that looks like this.

ahrefs-link-output

At this point you may want to do additional filtering to ensure that you disavow only the bad links and domains but in our case we’re going to skip this filtering and move straight on towards formating your URLs into the Disavow file format. Google provides us with the following example for disvowing by URL or by domain.

# example.com removed most links, but missed these
http://spam.example.com/stuff/comments.html
http://spam.example.com/stuff/paid-links.html
# Contacted owner of shadyseo.com on 7/1/2012 to
# ask for link removal but got no response
domain:shadyseo.com
  •  URL is simply the url on a single line i.e. http://spam.example.com/stuff/comments.html
  • Domain uses the format of domain: followed by the domain name i.e. domain:shadyseo.com

Filtering by Domain

Basically what we want to do is break down all of URLs just to the sub domain or domain level i.e http://spam.example.com/stuff/comments.html becomes spam.example.com or simply example.com. There a few ways you can do this within Excel, as Marie has shown in the Moz article, however in my case I’ve found an excellent online tool that does the job perfectly and I find to be much faster.

Simply point your browser to https://urltodomain.com/

  1. Select the URL column in your spreadsheet and copy all of the links.
  2. Paste them into the URL to Domain text window
  3. I use the default options plus check the box for “Add the word domain: before extracted domains”
  4. Press the URL to Domain button

Here is an example.

url-to-domain

Once you’ve pressed the button you’ll be presented with results and what is even better is that they’re already formatted into the domain: format that the disavow file requires as well as removing any duplicates.

url-to-domain-results

Once you’re at this point simply export the results to text file, or CSV if required, and you’re ready to go. Name the file disavow.txt and we’re ready to upload this file up using the Google disavow tool. Just remember to check, double check and triple check your results to make sure you’re only uploading URLs and domains that you don’t want to affect your site.

Uploading your Disavow File

To upload your disavow file simply point your browser at https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main

  1. Hit Disavow links
  2. Choose file and select your disavow.txt file
  3. Press submit

Once submitted you’ll see a confirmation in red that Google has accepted your disavow file. If you’ve completed your disavow file using URLs then just remember that the text file can be no larger than 2MB so make sure that you filter at the domain level to reduce the file size if required.

disavow-upload-results

How To Confirm Your Disavow Links

Now as far as I’m aware there is no way to confirm that links have been removed successfully in your Google webmasters accounts. Recently Ahrefs released a new feature within their software that allowed you to upload your disavow file and hide the disavowed links completely. This feature is really good and highly recommend if you go the paid path to use this software to help confirm and validate your disavow links.

It will also help when finding any new links that come onboard that you want to disavow too. In the case of my client this is highly recommended as the links have continued to flow in.

ahrefs-domain-search

  1. Select Disavow links
  2. Upload disavow file
  3. Once you’ve submitted press the hide disavowed links

ahrefs-hide-disavow-links

Questions?

The disavow tool is something that can feel a little confronting and overwhelming when you first start to use it but once you’ve run through the process a few times you should be able to gain a good grasp on what you need to do. Like mentioned throughout the blog post you just need to be very careful that you don’t disavow valuable links as this might significantly hurt your business.

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