Last year, during a chat with one of the @seoptimise twitter followers, they mentioned a post on SEJ about how it is a myth that bad links can get your site penalised (a position that the author later changed after feedback) and asked my opinion on it. The strange thing was that a few months earlier I had to sort out the exact issue for one of our clients. So I thought it would be an idea to write a post it.
We had been working with our client for about a year and, through a sensible link building campaign, had just managed to achieve decent rankings for some of the most competitive and highest converting terms in their industry. Then within a week their previously consistent bottom of page one/top of page two rankings (doesn’t sound great until you see their competitors) dropped to page three and four, at the same time as their link count experiencing a large and very unnatural spike.
Upon investigation of their back links we identified over 80 sites each linking back from ten different pages with exactly the same title tags (which were the same as some pages on our client site), random URLs and the same anchor text. They were remarkably easy to spot.
When we checked the sites it appeared some were adult or other spammy sites, but most of the sites were hacked WordPress sites. They had ten or so pages added that used the HTML code and content from our clients’ site. To make matters worse they had replaced some of the content with links to Viagra, casino and adult sites – not really neighbourhoods we wanted them to be associated with.
So the scale of our problem was 800+ pages linking multiple times to our client, as well as various low quality/spammy/malware sites, using large parts of our clients’ content, effectively creating duplicate content issues.
So if you have a similar problem here is what I suggest doing next…
Step 1 – Identify you have a problem
This is probably step minus one, and it is usually quite easy, but you have to be looking (if you don’t check your own backlinks regularly you should). You do not want your client to find out before you!
Just to show you how easy it can be sometimes, check out the anchor text report for one of our clients competitors – anyone would think they were an online pharmacy!
As a side note – if you have a forum or profile pages make sure they are moderated!!
So the things to look for are:
1. Your rankings take a dive but nobody else’s do
2. You have loads of extra links all of sudden
3. Analytics shows traffic to pages you never knew you had or traffic from odd sites
4. You have an identical number of links for lots of different anchor text variations, especially if you haven’t been link building with those terms
5. There are odd repeating patterns in anchor text and titles of sites linking in
6. Your linked to from sites which have random URLs
7. Probably the most obvious – you have a load of anchor text links for drugs/porn/fake watches but you’re a University
Step 2 – Gather intelligence
The next step is to gather all of the information you can on the links. Ideally you want to end up with a list of all the pages linking to you, at least two ways of contacting the site (email, contact form or telephone number) as well as the whois information for their hosting or domain registrar.
There are a few ways to do this, with the most basic being putting a block of text into Google and then visiting each site individually. But as always there are tools you can use, Open Site Explorer or other back link analysis tools are good to get a list of URLs. If you are feeling particularly techie you can build your own SERP scraper using Google Docs or the Excel SEO Tools extension.
At this point you can start to look for patterns – do they all run the same CMS (e.g. WordPress sites) or are they all owned by the same people. This should give you an indication of if the site owner is aware the links are there or not and if someone has done it deliberately or not.
Step 3 – Tell your client
Now is a good time to sit down with your client and talk about what you have found. This is best done in person or at least on the telephone. This is the time when you need to know your stuff. And by this I don’t just mean having it written down, but actually know the details off by hart to. Now is the time you are going to have to show that you are on top of the situation, and fumbling around for the answer to a question isn’t going to help that.
Try to avoid getting involved in the who’s and why’s and instead just focus on what you have found and what you are going to do – and make sure you have a plan in place before you go.
It is probably worth double checking at this point to see if your client has accidentally done something while trying to “help” with SEO. It is unlikely, but worth asking all the same.
Step 4 – Change your content
If you suffer a similar fate to us and someone has scraped your site and is using your content, I would strongly consider if you can change your on-site content (even just temporarily). This will help with the duplicate content in the short term and will also help you identify if it is an on-going issue (i.e. does the new content get scraped as well). If they are pages with no or few other links you could even consider changing the URLs and then 301 redirect the link target URLs to another domain completely.
Make sure you have screenshots of the old content and can restore it if you need to.
Step 5 – First contact
The next thing to do is to try and get the links removed completely. There will be different approaches to take depending on if the site owner is likely to be aware of the links or not.
As the sites that were linking to our client had obviously been hacked, I started with a polite email to the site owner (to both contact methods) informing them that they had been hacked and asking them to remove the pages as it would be doing neither site any good. I also provided a list of the URLs in question just to help them find them all. This method got about a 40% response rate and all of the site owners removed the pages (always go back and check).
For those who don’t respond to the first email, try again a couple of days later and keep a record of when you emailed. This will be important when you move on to some of the later steps. At this point you can be more insistent that they remove the link, especially if they have used your content as well (copyright is your friend and don’t be afraid to mention it). Again, give the site owner a couple of days to get back to you.
Step 6 – Take the matter further if you can
At this point you will be fairly sure you aren’t going to get a response, so the next step is to bypass the site owner and go higher up the chain.
Most hosts or registrars have terms and conditions and a procedure for reporting site owners who are breaking them. If a site is using your content without permission you can ask the hosting company to take down the site due to breach of copyright. They usually require you to fill in a form with proof and give them URLs to check (but you will have this information in your spreadsheet). It is always good to mention you have already tried to contact the site a couple of times already. They will contact the site and ask for an explanation, but failing good justification most will be taken down. In our case this was obvious as all the pages had our clients copyright information on the bottom.
Another good route to take if sites have obviously been hacked is to point this out to the hosting company. They will then try and contact the site owner and a lot of the time they suspend the site in the meantime.
The very least that will happen is that they will try and contact site owners on your behalf.
By this point hopefully you’ll have got rid of at least 80% of the links.
Step 7 – Contact Google
After exhausting all possible methods of contact, if the links are still there, it’s time to report them to Google via Web Master Tools. Most people think that these reports are ignored, and they very well could be, but it is more so if you have to submit a reconsideration request it shows you have tried to draw their attention to the issue.
Step 8 – Reconsideration Request
If removing the links hasn’t resulted in your rankings starting to move back up, the final step is to send a reconsideration request. There are plenty of resources about how to do this, so I will not go into detail here. But make sure that you draw to their attention that you identified the issue (and that it definitely had nothing to do with you), that you took steps to remove the links and that you reported the links yourself (a good way of showing that you were being completely up front).
So those are the steps that we went through with our client, which did repair some of the damage done, but we are still playing catch up to a certain extent.
It would be good to hear if others have gone through similar stuff and if anyone has any additional steps to add.