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Negative SEO sucks

Ever since the Google Penguin algorithm update, Negative SEO has been a fun little way to get ahead of the competition. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Penguin is a tweak in Google’s ranking algorithm that examines the quality of the links pointing to a website.

It’s a weird feeling for me because I’ve done countless link audits for some clients claiming to have been hit by negative SEO. Never came across a blatant case of Negative SEO until I met a woman so disappointed in her Caesar salad that she was willing to talk about web traffic.

Why the long face? Because the salad was disappointing. And maybe because her blog had taken a hit. I thought I had experienced a wide range of reactions for calling out bullshit. Turns out Negative SEO is one of the fall-outs I had not anticipated.

Ready for a good crunchy story?

Let’s start with the beginning. Never ever order a salad in a Montréal steakhouse. You will be disappointed like Stéphanie Walter was.

Now that the scene is set, here is some context.

Arm yourself with some popcorn if you want to read the real story on her badass design blog.

The TL;DR version:

  • Agency that shan’t be named used one of Stéphanie’s illustrations regarding content. You can find it on the Wikimedia Commons.
  • Problem was that they used the work as if it were their own without giving any credit.
  • Stéphanie gets informed by a friend and writes the agency to politely ask to be credited for the illustration.
  • Then it explodes in a stream of bad photomontage tweets from the agency. They try to bully her into silence.
  • Blog post gets written about it, without a backlink to the agency because Stéphanie knows some SEO (wink wink).
  • Few weeks later, she notices massive drops in traffic on her blog.
  • During that time, she is giving a conference in Montréal, Canada and eats a sad Caesar salad.
  • Turns the drop in traffic can be attributed to some suspiciously timed Negative SEO.

Here is a visual illustration of the fallout:

How an agency stole Stephanie Walter's work
This illustration is by Stéphanie Walter. Check out her other work!

A quick and dirty blueprint on how to detect NSEO

So how do you get started on detecting negative SEO? Well, it shouldn’t take you long if the work is done shoddily as it often is.

In Stephanie’s case it took 4 simple steps.

Step 1: Meet the proper people, at the proper time, doing the proper things

Step 2: Discuss your problems

Oftentimes, you’ll find someone that can help point you in the right direction. That direction may be friends, blog posts or a digital agency. Bottom line is: you may have a problem, seek the solution! In the case I’m writing about, all it took was a set of eyeballs and the right tools.

Step 3: Take out computer, go to and validate your site with the Google Search Console

Majestic lets you create a free report for any website you own. You prove that you own it through the Search Console. Don’t have one? You can set it up very fast thanks to Google.

Head on over to the basic overview, locate the anchor tag. Some people like to start with the link profile. That’s great but if you suspect something fishy, you’ll see it in the anchors. Why? because spam has a way with words.

I saw some funky anchors right away. Things like subaru, rolex, adapters don’t really belong on the top link anchors for a UX and web design website. So, here’s what the final tag cloud looked like:

Majestic link anchor tags

and if you look closer you will see these guys:

Negative SEO anchors

Step 4: clean that shit up (aka disavow)

You can find all the information in Google’s documentation. You basically create a file listing all the dirty dirty things that have been done to your website, upload it into your Google Search Console and wait.

Want a complete guide on how to go about that? Moz has you covered.

This is what it should look like in your inbox if the disavow is successful:
Google search console disavow confirmation


Let’s not get hasty and point the finger at the potential perpetrators.
“Correlation does not imply causation“. Remember that phrase? Correlation between two variables does not imply that one causes the other.

So let’s dig in…

Who, what, when, where, why

  • Who: not officially sure
  • What: Negative SEO
  • When: a few weeks after the incriminating blog post got traction and traffic
  • Where: surprisingly most of the links where pointing to the French version of the blog post that details the whole sordid affair
  • Why: correlation does not imply causation but I’m tempted to say that it’s because this type of action totally fits a digital agency that does not credit people for their work, bullies them on social media and then resorts to claiming an attempt at “bad buzz” marketing tactics.

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