At the end of 2016, Google began rolling out the Penguin 4.0 update to their algorithm. The news was huge — they would now be updating link data in real time and on a per-page basis, rather than per-site. This was a significant improvement from previous Penguin versions which were updating only about once a year.
Ever since Penguin had been released in 2012 and Google began assigning weights (both positive and negative) to different types of links, SEO experts began to wonder how to protect websites from being attacked and pushed out of rankings because of “negative SEO” or bad links. In the years between Penguin’s initial release and version 4.0, webmasters had to wait as long as a year to recover from bad links.
What is Negative SEO?
Negative SEO is when a competitor or ill-intended hacker tries to intentionally sabotage a site’s ranking on Google and reduce their chances of showing up on SERPs. A competitor can do this easily, simply by buying or creating bad or “spammy” links to the target website. Bad links might be ones from sites that have nothing to do with the topic of the target website or from sites that have a very low authority or a strange link environment. As a result of these bad links, websites can suddenly fall dramatically in their rankings or even be de-indexed.
A Few Bad Links Can Kill a Business
It’s hard to overstate the damage that negative SEO can do for business. If a business receives a significant portion of their traffic (and sales) through organic search but then suddenly disappears from SERPs, they may have trouble staying afloat. And since bad links are not that hard to build, it means that anyone can seriously damage a competitor using negative SEO.
How Can a Victim Recover from Negative SEO?
If an expert in SEO sees that someone is attacking their site by creating bad links, they can identify the bad links and then upload a disavow file through Google Search Console. They then have to wait for Google to reindex their site and hope their rankings recover. (Previous to Penguin 4.0, this process could take up to a year, but now it should work much faster.)
Problem is, most people aren’t SEO experts.
A regular guy (or gal) with a website might notice his website is no longer showing up on Google, but not have any clue why. The vast majority of people wouldn’t begin to be able to navigate the tech-laden process of looking for which sites link to them, identifying the spammy ones and disavowing them through GSC. Instead, they would be left defenseless and confused as to why they don’t rank.
The Hope of Penguin 4.0
For anyone who had ever been a victim of negative SEO and had to wait months to recover, Penguin 4.0 signaled a sign of hope! Recovery could now happen in real-time.
But there was more good news: when Google was confronted with questions about what the new algorithm would mean for sites suffering from link-related penalties, Gary Illyes (Chief of Sunshine and Happiness at Google) stated that with Penguin 4.0, Google would no longer demote whole sites with negative links; instead they would “devalue” the spam. What’s more, Illyes let us know that with the new Penguin update, webmasters should not have to use the disavow file as often as in the past since Google would automatically devalue the spam.
Well — it all sounded very nice in theory, but at least one thing has become abundantly clear from our SEO Hero contest: Even in the world of Penguin 4.0, negative SEO still works.
Back in September, Ilyes tweeted a request for examples of the effects of negative SEO, stating that Google had not seen them.
So for Gary, and the rest of the SEO community, we would like to share our own experience:.
The Ruthless Attack on Our SEO Hero Site!
As you may know, Wix is running an SEO competition. The prospect is simple: Create a website and try to rank first for the search term “SEO Hero.” If you outrank our own SEO Hero website on March 16, 2017, you get $50,000.
In the first few days of 2017, our homepage was gaining ground steadily, climbing positions on Google each day, ranking in the 80s and then in the 70s. Our blog, too, was ranking on Google for “SEO Hero,” but on much lower positions. Then, suddenly we checked our rankings one day and couldn’t find our homepage anywhere. Poof — it had disappeared from Google’s SERPs.
So as any smart SEO would do, we checked our links and discovered that overnight, more than 1000 links from 200 different domains were suddenly pointing to our website.
Now, of course, here at Wix we had not bought any links. It’s against the rules of the competition, it’s totally black hat and it’s just not cool. So where were these links coming from? Clearly an SEO villain was on the loose. We had to fight back!
Once we saw that our site was under attack, we began checking for bad links and disavowing them. And despite these negative SEO attacks (which are, by the way, completely against the SEO Hero contest rules), we are pushing forward with our entry and doing our best to create a site that is fun to read. It’s chock full of valuable SEO information, compelling stories from real Wix users, SEO tips, a video, an SEO quiz and some pretty sweet animation (if we do say so ourselves!) Thanks to all those daily disavow files, our rankings have begun to recover and we’re back to ranking in the 60s! Clearly, Penguin 4.0 is in fact updating in real time, but it would seem that they are not devaluing all bad links.
Why This Matters: The Scary Power of Negative SEO
Sure, we’re frustrated that our SEO Hero website has become a victim of a widespread negative SEO attack. We are disavowing negative links each day to win back our positions on Google SERPs. But the wider repercussions for businesses everywhere are much more important. For website owners who don’t know how to identify bad links or disavow them, they have no way to defend themselves against negative SEO. And as we’ve clearly seen, bad links can lead to a drop in ranking - swiftly and effectively - even in 2017.
Hope for A New World Order (Or Algorithm)
Google’s algorithms are constantly improving and we hope they will soon be able to fully identify and weed out link spamming schemes and bad links. In the meantime, we will fight the good fight, confident that the one, true SEO Hero will win and good will triumph over evil.
There’s more to come!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, coming soon. We’ll explain what to do if you find yourself the victim of a negative SEO attack!