As a website owner, links to your content are great, most of the time. However, they’re great until someone decides that your website is something they would like to target. I’ve dealt with nonstop Negative SEO attacks for months. In this post, I’ll be discussing my experience with negative SEO attacks, how you know that you’re having a negative SEO attack, and how to disavow bad links.
This post is more advanced, primarily for website owners who have had their website for at least 1-2 years. Honestly, a lot of websites have a quite few spammy links and they’re not cause for concern, but it is concerning if you’re targeted daily. Note: my own disavow file is PG-13 based on the awful websites that have targeted mine.
Use extreme caution when disavowing links as it can harm your website’s natural link profile if you don’t know what you’re doing. I offer link disavowal as a service if you don’t want to do it yourself.
Negative SEO attacks
Google looks at the links that link to you to determine how reputable your website is. If you’ve done avoided black hat SEO methods, it’s likely that your website has a low spam score (as estimated by Moz). However, what happens in a negative SEO attack is that people send awful links your way linking to articles that they would like to see drop in the rankings. The hope is that Google will think of your website as a spammy website–and their own website will rise.
Let’s say that you’ve written about a niche topic. Your article on this topic has done really well on Google and ranks on the first page in the first three slots. Great! You’re killing it. However, this is a competitive niche where other companies and competitors want your place. In my case, it’s a lucrative keyword with a thousands of dollars at stake for companies who want a cut of the pie. Personally, I have no stake in it besides the advertising revenue.
I monitor my rankings and I was a bit concerned when I saw this article drop in the rankings. I ended up looking into my backlinks, which I used to do every six months, which is fine if you’re not actively targeted or not sure. In my backlinks, I was being sent 30+ awful links daily to this article. I’ll be discussing how you can tell that it’s something sketchy and how to avoid getting a virus while doing this yourself.
It’s good to know that you will probably never know who decided to target you. You can’t take it personally or go around blaming people. It’s generally companies who hire external SEO agencies to simply increase their rankings who have no qualms about black hat SEO methods. However, if your competitors dislike you so much, it’s possible that they could be targeting you.
How do you know that you’re having a SEO attack?
As I mentioned previously, it can be a sign when your rankings drop a little. The best indication are your links. A lot of people get nervous about digging into Google Search Console, but I really enjoy the new interface. I’ll be writing more about how to find the links in your Search Console, however you’ll need to download the excel of websites that are linking to you.
Where to find the links to your website
You’ll want to go to Google Search Console, click for your website, and then go to Search traffic on the left, then click Links to your Site. From here, you’ll want to click More. I will walk you through the next step with a screenshot, so don’t worry if you’re wondering what this is.
From here, you’re going to click Download latest links. You must choose if you prefer a .csv or Google Sheets. I tend to prefer Google Sheets as you don’t need any programs installed to work with it. From here, it’s more about going through this file to see what links you have. Do not click the links.
What you need to know about disavowing and how to vet links
Most of the links are benign, however some have the potential to give you viruses and mess up your rankings. Leave website aggregators or websites like Pinterest. You’re only interested in the worst. Do not click on any links until you’re sure that’s okay.
The idea is that you want to use caution. If you’re not sure about a link, I recommend putting it into yellow to revisit later.
What I like to do is to paste the link into Google. It will show me what Google sees of the website. If I’m still not sure, I often will cut off the slashes to see what the website homepage looks like. Don’t do this too quickly or often as Google finds it weird and will check if you’re a bot.
This is when having a Moz subscription comes in if you’re paying the money for it. It will show you the spam score, otherwise, a more low-budget way involves pasting these links into the Competitive Analysis -> Backlink Checker bit in Keysearch, my favorite keyword research tool. It’s very sketchy when there are no backlinks although to be fair, Keysearch doesn’t catch all the links.
What does a sketchy link look like?
Well, a porn or dating website is pretty suspicious. I write about travel and not mail-order brides. I promise. That’s definitely spam that you don’t want. This is the same with gambling and other links that you can imagine google doesn’t like. I have received a link from a website called trumpquoteornot…which made me giggle a lot before spamming it.
If it’s a number with no text like you can see in the photo below, it’s sketchy. Spam it.
If you’re getting more than 2 links from the same (as well as others) website in the same day, it’s worth flagging for later. That’s why I like to switch views between the alphabetical view once I finish and the date view.
Keep in mind when you write about something that gets a lot of media coverage as it’s certainly possible that you will have your work linked to in mass in the days after an article goes viral. I have many posts from Albanian newspapers after they covered an article of mine with giving me a link. These should be whitelisted.
Usually when I google a link, I look the title of the website. I don’t write about animals or sayings in other languages, so when my keywords are within the title of a page from a website about sayings in another language, it’s very suspicious. Think about what kind of websites that you would expect to link to you.
I often consider it a bit of red flag when a website that is sending a lot of links to mine only has a http://. Given that Google prioritizes https://, it’s often a bit suspicious combined with the other factors discussed here. To be fair, some blogs aren’t https:// and that’s okay. However, for more professional sounding URLs, it makes me evaluate a link more in detail. Don’t spam solely on this basis.
Links to the same specific pages from suspicious websites. I have two articles that have been targeted for negative SEO attacks. I tend to be more careful in evaluating any links from websites that I don’t recognize as a result. That said, some also link to my homepage.
One of the big red flags of a negative SEO link is that they’ll be including your keywords in the title and/or the anchor text. In many cases, it’s just garbage on the page and a way for people to give you terrible backlinks.
If you write a blog and your blog has been around for a while, your website might be listed on the sidebar of what seems to be a normal blog with a lot of links as their inspiration. This is lovely and I love discovering people who like my blog this way. I often drop a nice comment saying hi on one of their posts. White list a website like this.
Some are content farms that are probably created using machine learning and/or copying content. Some are spammy and some are benign. If it seems like a real website, such as a travel agency, that links to you (if you write about travel) it’s likely that they stole one of your posts to promote it to their audience. In this case, I won’t spam it, however, if it’s garbage text that doesn’t make sense within the SEO snippet, spam it.
How to check your links with caution
My favorite technique to use is to create a third and fourth column called Potential Spam and Spam. I write 0 next to all the links in this column for both rows, and pull down the row until the bottom of my disavow list so that every row has a 0 next to it. The idea is that it’s not spam until I’m sure. The Potential Spam allows me to flag something.
Then, go to Data -> Sort links by Column A (Links) alphabetically. The idea is that I can see when the same website is giving me many links. I usually just read this through list white listing links. I like to put a 1 next to the row in the potential spam column to where I suspect something.
After you have your set list, go through at least twice. I recommend using the filter function to filter the ones with the Spam score of 1 and copy what you have. Create a new sheet and paste all the links as a value. The idea here is that you reduce this down to the domain level to make it easier to create your disavow file.
How long does it take to disavow your links?
I have over 7,000+ links. If you’re good in Excel, it can take about 2 hours once you get the hang of it. The first time that I ever disavowed, it took about six hours as it took me a while to figure out what was there. That said, it gets faster, so be sure to note where you left off.
It’s important to save your disavow, so you can add to it later. I like to keep mine in Google for easy access. It is an involved process and you must be careful as you don’t want to disavow good links.
Creating the perfect disavow file
I recommend using Google Sheets. Create one column in front of the domain that states domain: that you drag down the sheet. The second column will be the longer spammy URL. You’ll want to create a third column next to the URL where you strip the URL of the extra junk after the .com (or whatever else is there) as well as the www. bit. No slashes. It should look like the line below.
domain: www.google.com/webmasters google.com
Once you’ve cleared out the bold part, you’ll want to delete the second column. You’ll be left with domain: google.com. You’ll only want this listed once, so even if they sent 15 links to your website from different articles, listing these links at the domain level will save you time, so delete the repeated ones.
This is the correct format for the disavow file.
Download this as a .csv under FIle -> Download as. I like to put the date in the name of the file prior to doing this, so I know when I last cleaned my disavow file. I recommend saving this file. The idea is that next time that you do your disavowing, you can just add more links to the bottom. (Google sees it as a new file each time.)
The next time that you do you disavow file, you’ll only need to go as far back as the previous one, so you can delete the rows for the dates that you’ve already accounted for. I usually just add the few spammy links to the bottom of my document kept on my Google drive to save time as I do mine fairly regularly.
How to upload your disavow file
If you click here, it will bring you to Google Search Console. Select the correct website then Disavow Links. Then upload your file. I recommend checking every couple months (or even weekly) if you’ve seen some nasty links recently! The impact for me was fairly fast in terms of improving my rankings on the targeted post.
Keep in mind that these links do not disappear from the list of links to your website, but Google will be aware that you don’t want to be associated with them. That’s why it’s important to write down somewhere where you left off.
Google only keeps one disavow file for each website, so you can download your previous disavow file if you’ve done it before. In general, I recommend saving this text file somewhere and converting it into a Google document that you can just add to the bottom (order doesn’t matter) as needed for the future. I sometimes find that there are repeat offenders, so I just search for the website name to see if I must do anything.
I hope that this detailed tutorial helped you figure out how to disavow links. If you’re reading this thinking…I don’t want to do this, feel free to send us a message as creating disavow files is one of our services!