Anatomy of a negative SEO attack, targeting the Jellyfish UK website

Blog | 16 Jan, 2015

As Google's latest updates continue to penalise old school black hat / spam based SEO tactics, the desperation to succeed at others' expense is resulting in increasing numbers of backlink SEO 'attacks', or negative SEO.

Following our SEO Director Nick Fettiplace's recent emphasis on the importance of backlink checking to protect your site from the potential damage of these attacks, we thought it would be interesting to share more - specifically our Jellyfish UK negative SEO case study.

You may have seen it on Econsultancy, but here’s the inside story courtesy of SEO manager Jonathan Verrall and the team:

After many years in the marketing business, I guess that nothing should be viewed as a surprise, but we were somewhat taken aback when our SEO team demonstrated that a recent drop in visibility for our own website had been caused by negative SEO.

And let's make something very clear – we don't know who perpetrated this attack, and we are certainly not accusing any of our reputable peers. The comparative SEO data shown here is merely to illustrate how we have performed in relation to other search agencies, and what has changed as a result of the recent negative SEO activity.

So, how was our SEO performance trending over the last 12 months?

Jellyfish SEO performance

As you can see, against a range of comparative agencies, our performance has been very strong, building nicely during 2013 and peaking well above the pack during October 2014.

Isolating our results and comparing to the timing of key algorithm updates using the Jellyfish Penalty Checker tool, we can see that the Penguin 3.0 update on October 17th (2014) caused a substantial decline in our visibility:

SEO visibility decline

Just to clarify, this update focused on low quality backlinks, and the trend evident from the visibility graph clearly shows how the Jellyfish UK website's SEO performance was negatively impacted.

Backlink performance analysis

We decided to take a closer look, re-reviewed our backlink profile, and noticed an influx of links throughout October, seemingly out of nowhere. Additionally, there was another onslaught of links to our domain during November, both evident here:

Plotting negative backlink profile

Diving deeper into our backlink profile using Jellyfish's preferred tool CognitiveSEO, we were able to better identify the negative value of these backlinks and to clarify their effect on our website.

CognitiveSEO shows influx of unatural links

Unnatural link graph CognitiveSEO

Looking at data from August onwards, the data indicates negligible levels of unnatural and suspect links until....boom; end October, early November, the graph spikes with almost 2,000 low quality links suddenly pointing at our domain.

Over a period of a just a week, the health of our website's backlink profile was dramatically impaired as a previously healthy backlink profile was systematically undermined:

Health of links in profile

Unnatural, suspect and OK backlinksUnnatural, suspect and OK links

Further investigation revealed that somebody had run a 'Comment Spamming' campaign against our website, using software that automatically, in rapid succession, posts comments on blog platforms to acquire backlinks.

Whilst the majority of the comments never get published, some slip through the net. The black hat SEOs who undertake such practices use many hundreds of thousands of backlink filled comments against their target websites, in the hope that just a fraction get published.

Tracing backlinks using tools

Again using CognitiveSEO, we were then able to identify that content related to SEO training was the spammers' prime target – see graph below.

 

Backlink target search terms

The graph below also confirmed that the spammers used exact match anchor text in relation to SEO training:

Exact match anchor text on SEO training

The combination of existing and completely legitimate on-page optimisation, and the very high volume (and sudden appearance) of referring anchor texts to the page strongly signaled to Google that the page had been over-optimised for 'SEO training" keyword groups.

(If you don't have a supplier using CognitiveSEO there are other tools we'd recommend for site and web crawling. From free tools like Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools, to more sophisticated paid tools; Moz (Opensite Explorer), Ahrefs and Majestic SEO.)

Removing backlinks

To remove these spammy / low quality links we used several different site and web crawling tools to increase the likelihood that all indexes are covered, and to minimise the risk of failing to locate hidden links.

Removal was then a process of contacting the website webmasters directly and requesting removal of links (which as you can imagine is very time consuming where thousands of links are used), and uploading the remaining bad links to Google Disavow.

Negative SEO recovery

At Jellyfish, we caught our attack early through regular monitoring of our backlink profile. However, the timing of the attack was interesting, one month after the October Penguin update - therefore full recovery will be dependent on the next Penguin update.

Recovery, in some cases, can even take years. For example, Expedia’s widely reported negative SEO attack is still affecting this major online brand’s business, as echoed in the wider sense by Forbes reporter Joshua Steimle when the Expedia news broke:
 

“Negative SEO can get companies penalised or entirely banned from Google. It can affect share price. It can even put companies out of business.”
 

Final thoughts…..a negative SEO attack is disruptive, malicious, annoying, all that stuff, but can be dealt with, with swift and decisive action. Get in touch if you need to know more, and thanks for reading.

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