Ha! Bullets Can't Hurt ME

Negative SEO vs Sabotage

Just about any independent SEO worth their weight who publishes a number of websites has at least once hit a snag & been filtered or penalized. A person can say "not me" but how do they operate optimally in both the short term and long term if they never operate near limits or thresholds? But now that Google has begun actively penalizing sites for unnatural link profiles & tightening these thresholds, competitors have been giving one another shoves. Some of the most widely highlighted examples of crappy SEO were not attempts at SEO, but intentional competitive sabotage.

Why Many SEO Thought Leaders Remain Ignorant About SEO

Recently there have been numerous claims that negative SEO doesn't work made by people who should know better.

Many of them don't know any better though, due to a combination of being naive, trusting public relations messaging as being the truth, and a general lack of recent experience on smaller sites.

If someone only...

  • does consulting for large corporate clients
  • works in house at a big company
  • publishes a site about SEO and doesn't build & market sites in competitive areas

... it is easy to bleat on about how negative SEO isn't generally possible except for weak sites. Sites that (allegedly) deserve to be hit & must (obviously) lack quality to be so weak.

The Risk of Labeling "Spam"

As highlighted above, some of the most frequently & widely cited spam examples were not examples of spam, but examples of competitive sabotage. Thus anyone who recommends highlighting "spam" can potentially hose businesses that did nothing wrong.

Why Many SEO Consultants Pretend Success & Cheer Brand

Most sites focused on search typically write a syndication of Google fluff public relations and/or are doing cloaked sales pieces claiming that the death of spammers is great because they and their clients keep becoming more successful. Its all fake it until you make it / fake it until you too are driven out of the ecosystem & pretend things are always getting better even when signs point the other direction. This is done for a variety of reasons:

  • not wanting to lose access to Google
  • signaling you have experience working with big brands
  • wanting to signal that you are a safe play in the marketplace

Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.

Marketers Sell Whatever Google Promotes

It is far easier to get paid to do nothing than it is to get paid to fight against the waves of the ocean.

So long as Google keeps feeding macro-parasites trying to kill off smaller & independent players you can expect a lot of consultants to push themselves as being a good fit for the big brands that Google is explicitly designing their algorithms around promoting. However this trend won't last forever. Many of those bigger sites are becoming ad networks & at some point Google will see that competitive threat for what it is. They will then decide "the user" would like a bit more diversity in the results & to see more smaller sites rank.

Most Businesses Must be Small

Much like wealth, business distributions follow power laws & most businesses are small in scale. Sure "build brand" is a nice cure all, but building a strong brand requires scale. Not all businesses have the margins required to build brands. And businesses take time to grow.

Quality vs Scale

Scale & quality are not the same thing. Some businesses are intentionally kept small because their owners feel scale requires compromising on quality. Remember the Olive Garden review that went viral, or what the biggest banks did to the global economy a few years ago?

Most Big Companies Start Off Small

Since going public in 1987, Fastenal has been the fastest growing public company. The company was started by a guy who was sorting bolts and nuts in his basement. Now that they are worth $13 billion they are virtually untouchable, but if 30 years ago online was a big sales channel & someone negative SEOed him his business could have been toast.

Big businesses come from small businesses, as does most innovation. However, if the underlying market is absurdly unstable that retards investment in growth and innovation in companies like Fastenal:

The Fastenal story began in November 1967 when company founder Bob Kierlin opened the very first Fastenal store in his hometown of Winona, MN. The front counter was a salvaged door, about a dozen people attended the "grand opening" weekend, and the first month's sales totaled $157.

One of the biggest failures of modern societies is the self-serving myth of too big to fail.

If SEOs believe that size of a business is the primary legitimate proxy for quality, they should either hire thousands of employees or go get a job at Wal-Mart.

Published: May 8, 2012 by Aaron Wall in marketing


May 8, 2012 - 4:54pm

I think you underestimate the "cleverness" of the public figures in SEO. The money (for them) shifted from small, high-profile SEO "advising" to publishing or tool selling years ago. In 20010 they saw the last of their "$5000 per day to tell you what you're doing wrong, and what might work for you" opportunities.

Now they either sell tools via rebilling (e.g. seomoz, $150+ per month until the customer quits, that business becomes all-about-new-customer-acquisition) or they sell advertising and persuasion (e.g. Search Engine Land/Marketing Land, where you can get a few months of coverage for $6-$10k, peppered with mentions, and your content carries advertisements).

Both of those business models *require* a voluntary blindness to realities of SEO. In order to stay successful (and grow), SEO must be increasingly important, "official" changes are good, and anything that polarizes or otherwise stirs discussion, debate, and "fear uncertainty and doubt" or FUD is good for business.

So your comments about naive, ignorant, unaware... I think there's plenty of awareness. Just as those same high-profile figureheads didn't know specific SEO years ago (I saw that ignorance in their keynotes, over and over again) they don't know it now. But they need a base of newbie followers to also "not know", so they can publish "might be this or that" content and get continue to get paid.

I love the comic... "super hero" pride results in the deaths of everyone around them (bullets ricochet), while they remain blind to the fact that their posturing would hurt anyone. Also nice that those around them are portrayed as the villains... haha nice irony.

May 8, 2012 - 10:16pm

That has to be the best article I've read on the Penguin / Panda updates so far. In contrast, the articles and comments on seomoz about the Penguin updates border on absurdity - there's never any mention of small to medium businesses and other vulnerable sites in regards to negative SEO. There's a bizarre assumption that all sites are "pundit" sites and all we have to do is keep blogging away writing "remarkable content". What about the small business that has a fantastic product or service but maybe their area of business isn't going to win them links so easily? They're caught between a rock and a hard place - they have to go near those margins you mention Aaron - just to get off the ground. I'm sure Rand or someone similar would condascend to suggest they create some cheesy viral video or whatnot to bait links, but really come on - asking companies to jump through arbitrary hoops (even you might say, prostitute themselves) just because Google's algorithm can't identify quality businesses is a ridiculous game that's gone on too long now - in fact, it's a deception.

Google are minting the words for these evangelicals - a site that is penalised is "webspam". "Remarkable content" is what Saves Us and makes us Clean. Never mind that a website for many REAL businesses is just a means to an end, as it is for their customers - it's just a meeting point between buyer and seller. The remarkable content is fluff if the service or product is crap. White hats denounce and ridicule any form of link building as begging for a penalty, then deny that a 3rd party can sabotage a site the same way. They want it both ways to suit their neat little theoretical, one-size-fits-all view of SEO.

I think a follow up post should focus on the strange results appearing in the SERPs too - e.g. search viagra; for over a week now you see half the results are hacked sites - both irrelevant and actually potentially dangerous to the searcher.

May 8, 2012 - 10:43pm

Build brands, guest post that's all I ever hear anymore. I've been in the trenches doing in-house SEO for small and big business for 8 years. That crap is for people that don't do a lick of real SEO, they just talk about it. Did I forget to mention quality content. Oh yeah that one too. Sorry I just had to rant Aaron SEO is not all about fluffy clouds it's about marketing. If they can't earn revenue by doing SEO on their own properties they'll take out their competition. I see it and any SEO that knows squat has too.

May 8, 2012 - 10:49pm

Aaron, your observation that "Most sites focused on search typically write a syndication of Google fluff public relations" pretty well sums it up. I'm not sure if these guys are telegraphing signals or just don't spend the time to see what works (and doesn't). Kind of ironic that these guys endlessly spin the webmaster guidelines as though they are writing something unique or revealing something new.

May 9, 2012 - 12:13am

Google was perhaps struggling, as I was, in seeing things as clearly black and white - no problem now. That is of course assuming that negative SEO and all it carries with it is not a problem. How many decent webmasters did they push over the edge? How many people who NEVER would have done anything questionable, are now considering it since they apparently have nothing to lose? Negative SEO is an EASY fix - if bad things have zero value, people are not going to spend time leveraging that at each other. As long as the algorithm is broken like this, the cesspool Google creates (by allowing it) is only going to grow exponentially on the hour. It is naive to think Google is not causing negative SEO...they inspire then allow it - how much more complicit is there?

May 9, 2012 - 11:31pm

Was a time when "Negative SEO" involved quite a bit of dark side savvy, technical skills, proprietary tools and the artist's feeling for quantitative and qualitative balance. Now, it seems that it's merely about ratting: on each other, your competition, even on yourself in preemptive (or anticipatory) submissiveness (ah, sweet forgiveness and redemption!)

Denunciation is the call of the day - nothing new about that even in terms of Google's comparatively short lifespan. Only they seem to be devoting ever more attention to it now. Which makes perfect sense as it's so much easier and cheaper to implement than fumbling around with an increasingly complex set of ranking algorithms - and sod any collateral damage it may cause. The big boys with the fat advertising budgets will bark loudly and expediently enough, so what's the worry? Make it attractive, reward some of your more ardent opportunist fans, make it indispensable.

And who knows? Come a time when every SEO will by definition simply be the one who triggers the Google-approved iSnitch app and that's all...

May 10, 2012 - 12:58am

SerpSleuth, you wrote: "Search Engine Land/Marketing Land, where you can get a few months of coverage for $6-$10k, peppered with mentions, and your content carries advertisements."

No, you can't do that. You can't buy coverage with us. If you think it works that way, please feel free to go spend whatever it is we charge for advertising (I literally don't know, because I don't deal with that), then sit back and see if you think that really helps.

In terms of negative SEO, I certainly haven't written that it's impossible. I've written that it's not that common, that it's not that huge of a problem. I'm happy to stand by that. The reason is exactly as I've explained recently. Negative SEO isn't some new problem that just emerged, nor are there widespread reports of sites being harmed by it. Sorry, there just aren't. But it sure seems the latest convenient excuse to lob back at Google as it cracks down on link networks.

We've had negative SEO vulnerabilities for ages. Anyone want to remember when Threadwatch a hub over redirect hijacking, for instance?

Yes, if you're in some competitive industry, and you haven't worked to make your site be an essential resource, something that has links and signals that help insulate you from negative SEO attempts, you could be in danger. But guess what? You're were probably in even more danger from Google going on some spam killing spree.

That's exactly what Penguin was. I've looked at report after report, and you don't have to be an SEO rocket scientist to see the bad backlinks to the sites hit, some of the same sites saying they did absolutely nothing wrong.

Seriously, go over to the Google support forums and spend an hour or two there. Investigate some of the sites. I wasn't finding false positives. I was finding people who, when you came back after doing some work, suddenly remembered they'd bought some links, or did some exchange or had something else that was clearly iffy.

The reality of SEO is that there's no one right solution for everyone. Many of the people I write to in my audience are established businesses, both big and small, but businesses that don't only exist online, that don't only exist to push affiliate sales, that don't depend on Google for 95% of their traffic.

The advice for those people is much different than the advice for someone who want to run multiple sites, pushing people in and out quickly for affiliate or ad sales and doesn't mind if they have to churn and burn what they create.

Link building is hard. I'd like to see people at Google actually try it. I've heard Matt go on about how oh, such and such new site launch, it got a million new links, and wasn't that awesome. That's the exception, not the rule. Worse, links are creaky, outdated signals that have increasingly been harder and harder for the search engines to depend on.

And quality content, yeah, that's hard too. I write quality content. I know first-hand how sucky it is to put in the time to write a long explanation and sit back and watch Google (or Bing, for that matter), reward some other site with a big audience fart out two paragraphs of nothing and win.

But I haven't built a site based solely around SEO. I built it around pulling in social traffic, and direct traffic, and reaching out to those who find it already to ensure they keep returning through a variety of channels.

That's what you do as a real SEO. You learn that you do more than SEO. That you don't depend entirely on search engines, you don't depend entirely on Google, and then you're not sitting around reaching for excuses if an algorithm change hit you. And if you do actually get hit by negative SEO, then you're in a position to whine about how Google isn't doing its job -- and it becomes self-evident that Google isn't, and you get even further isolated from that.

May 10, 2012 - 3:43am

...in it I think you highlighted one of the biggest problems with the current search ecosystem though. Now a person has to not only invest in the quality of their site, the quality of their links, but also in building a huge circle of influence to defend themselves against competitive sabotage. Sort of like a form of forced insurance.

I don't think it is fair to suggest that all affiliates are comfortable with churn-n-burn sites, or intentionally desire to build that way. But at the same time if Google's internal rater documents tell raters to label hotel affiliate sites as spam even if they are helpful & call the format of typical affiliate links sneaky redirects, then isn't Google creating the problem?

Google inserting itself in the search results with their own local listings and hotel price ads makes that sort of discrimination even more tasteless (especially when they even show hotel price listings for car rental services!!!!!)

Yes other search engines might have hotel listings, but do any of the other search engines have leaked documents that state affiliates should be labeled as spam even if they are helpful? And, at the same time, Google funds eHow!

I would love to see you get a Google engineer on the record trying to explain such a bias.

Not every business can afford a strong defense, but it doesn't make them illegitimate businesses just because Google is acting in an offensively self-serving way. I mean...sure negative SEO has existed for years and years, but it was never so easy to tip someone off a cliff as it is today.

If Google decides to increase the ROI on negative SEO, does that mean a web publisher should lower their ROI to compensate for a lack of competency in the plex? (And don't you want to go in a savings mode and pull back investments when the ecosystem you operate in becomes unstable?)

Part of the problem right now is not just Google's approach to search, but that tied in with the combination of low cost tools that make it easy to develop a sketchy profile in bulk, fast, and on a low budget. I doubt a site like this one or SearchEngineLand.com are at risk of getting hosed, but some local offline businesses can't put 10 or 12 hours a day into editorial, as they have businesses to run & online publishing is only a small piece of it.

And it is not surprising that most sites that were hit had some gray areas stuff in their profile. If Google allows something for a long period of time, then for those who desire to compete, it becomes a requirement to compete (especially if you lack a billion Dollar brand and/or a decade of building up exposure).

Here is where the problem is though...now it is super easy to torch small businesses *super easy* and they have no way to legitimately defend themselves. Compare that to Google's approach when the NYT highlighted massive link buying from big businesses. In one case Google says they detected it and discounted it & in the other Google claims to detect it and penalizes for it.

If both modes of detection are automated & scalable, then why is one simply discounted while the other requires an immediate penalty followed by jumping through endless hoop and a long line of scrutiny?

If we don't flame Google repeatedly on the difference between the 2, then the mainstream media will remain ignorant, up until eventually the SERPs will be mostly big box stores, because we didn't mind Google's self-serving posture. If you are big you can do no wrong, if you are small you need to buy lots of insurance.

May 10, 2012 - 3:48am

If you really believe negative SEO is no more evident than it has always been, I will assert you are out of touch with reality. And I suppose that backs up my initial assertion about knowing seo vs. writing what readers want to read about seo.

No different than hacking/phreaking vs. security consulting. The talent goes to whichever side has the money, and whatever side is less risky for the rewards.

During periods of rapid innovation, hackers hack. During periods of stability (usually including increased regulation, surveillance, and prosecution) the hackers become "security experts".

It's no different for SEO... when Google's being sloppy and competitors are naive, hammer the tricks and win in lead gen, affiliate, traffic selling, consulting, etc. But when Google drops the hammer frequently and harshly, and mainstream SEO preaches "just make good content" effectively supporting of Google's wanton "enforcement", and the press covers it like it's just Google delivering fair justice, those same "winners" can make a killing playing the other side of the field.

A real journalist would dig and investigate and find the true story, and probably gain a helluvalot of respect for having done that work. But that doesn't pay as well as parrotting, patronizing, and relying on a "nobody had an idea at the time" excuse.

I went to a private dinner the other night, and attempting to bring a respected associate. I was pulled aside and advised to drop the associate or skip the dinner. Turns out he was once a journalist, and no one at the dinner wanted him at the table, because he couldn't be trusted. Why is that?

May 10, 2012 - 5:17am

I don't know. Of course, you're the one leaving comments without a verified name behind it. You're the one making allegations about coverage on my site that I know not to be true. Know dead aren't true. If I know you're that out of touch, why would I trust anything you say?

I said negative SEO isn't some major new problem that's hit tons of sites. Not from what I've seen, and from what I have actually investigated. I've done deep dives on probably 30 different cases so far. There are two of them that I'm still looking at that make me think hmm, now is this a case of negative SEO causing an unfair situation?

In most of these cases, it's pure and simple spam that's hit them. You want to worry people that negative SEO is the big problem, OK. But for me, from where I sit, I think the bigger problem is simply sites getting hit by spam they've done themselves.

Aaron, catch up with your comment in a bit. About to landing. No, didn't mean all affiliates are somehow spammy, not at all.

May 10, 2012 - 5:50am

I disagree with danny not seeing this as a big problem, simply because there are not lots of high profile reports... it is not the fact that a million or a hundred sites are hit by this type of stuff - it is that any CAN be affected negatively by the actions of someone else. It may have always been there, but with the algo suddenly ratcheded up to 11, it is now cheaper in some niches to take out a competitor than compete. That part, is new...and due to changes at Google. It may have been possible before, but it is cost-effective now. And if it coincides with you losing everything due to a critter update, your gloves may already be off. If you aren't seeing examples Danny, it is because sharing examples does not benefit anyone who shares them. It certainly does not mean they are not there.
This means also, it will roll on until stopped - maybe only by a high profile site getting whacked. But negative SEO is a big problem, because it will not stay contained in the more "seemly" SERPs for long.

May 10, 2012 - 6:58am

...a friend mentioned something to me just a few minutes ago. But it was also stated that it can't be mentioned publicly. That which is shared publicly can be tied back to the source.

The person who got smoked in the example that was shared with me is a lowlife con artist of a human being who scams people for a living, so I don't have any particular sympathy for them, but if that person could be hit so easily and cheaply (even on a keyword tied directly) then so can a lot of others.

In this case the real problem wasn't the person who applied the blow torch, but rather Google's algorithms. So long as they make it profitable to destroy others, some percent of the market will head down that path. Until that problem is fixed, there will eventually appear more and more public cases. Google decides what level of embarrassment they want on their end, because some people (certainly not me, but others who are dangerous because they are enraged because they just had their livelihood taken away) will keep escalating the issue until it causes a major public relations blunder. Each day that passes without the problem being fixed, the problem escalates. Eventually this will go from being non-public to being very public.

The System
May 12, 2012 - 7:54pm

@marty - you shared my sentiments exactly. The gloves are already off and have been for a long time for those SEO'r who got wacked early.
Penguin has just created a bunch of Ph'ds in how to do negative SEO. Just do to the competition what you did to yourself, except 10 times as much - It's much cheaper and risk free. If you didn't get hit, switch your budget and hit the competition. The blast services and blog networks are crying out for new members right now and it takes very little to find the tipping point, even for a PR6 megalith who has dabbled in the past!

May 10, 2012 - 6:58am

"I don't know. Of course, you're the one leaving comments without a verified name behind it. You're the one making allegations about coverage on my site that I know not to be true. Know dead aren't true. If I know you're that out of touch, why would I trust anything you say?"

SERPSleuth is John Andrews, make a note of it. SERPSleuth is something called a "handle" used on Internet forums. It hints at the idea that I spend a lot of time investigating the SERPs, like a detective, or "sleuth". Handles go back to the early days, before Google and journalists considered people's privacy a barrier to profits.

As for allegations, you quoted me:

"SerpSleuth, you wrote: "Search Engine Land/Marketing Land, where you can get a few months of coverage for $6-$10k, peppered with mentions, and your content carries advertisements."

which is accurate as of the date I was privvy to the cost of advertising on your network (conversations about what might be done, over what time period, for what price range). If you're getting your panties all in a bunch over defining "coverage" as not advertising take a chill pill.... if I pay and you write about me in front of your audience, I call that "coverage". Nobody claimed you tried to hide that it was sponsored or paid... no "allegations" being made. Protest much?

You should be able to address the issues without distracting comments about me and my integrity now. I may not try hard to play nicey-nicey with the talking heads of the SEO world, but I don't make up stuff either.

From a quick survey of the comments here, I'd say the majority think you're wrong on this one Danny... and there are very respectable seo practitioners up here. Maybe you can make a better case for your position.

May 10, 2012 - 7:21am

just posted elsewhere "The impact of negative SEO: the experts' view"

Kevin Gibbons (SEOOptimise) is pretty authoritative in the UK:

"we've seen a few sites take drops recently and the most obvious explantation is due to negative links"

also in there is Jennifer Dunphy (VayuMedia):

"I can’t name names, however, a client who has reached out to us to help his business with rankings was targeted by negative SEO...His doggie boutique store website started receiving links with bestiality and sexually oriented material. Based on the extent of the negative SEO campaign and the business owner's limited budget there wasn’t much that he could do to reverse the negative impact besides pleading with Google for a manual review. He ended up switching his domain and starting from scratch."

May 10, 2012 - 7:27am

I'm familiar with the concept of a handle, John. But your profile didn't list your name, so you were anonymous to me and the allegations you were making.

Again, it's not accurate that someone can buy ads and get news stories written about them on our site. That's what I would define as coverage. That's what I think most people would understand it to mean.

I did indeed address the issues. After correcting some allegation that wasn't true, briefly, the bulk of my response was about the negative SEO issue. It's pretty easy for anyone to scroll up and see that.

When you responded, ending with a suggestion that I can't be trusted, because I'm a journalist, it seemed fair enough to ask the same question of why I should trust some anonymous person making false allegations about my site. And then I proceeded to spend the bulk of that further response further discussion the negative SEO stuff.

I'm happy to keep talking about the negative SEO stuff and skip the distractions. I don't always agree with your views, but you're a vet with keen and savvy observations.

May 10, 2012 - 7:30am

Danny,here's the situation from where I'm standing:-

The large majority of small to medium businesses online relied on cheap links just to compete. Now I say "cheap links" just in comparison to the kind of time and money-spend you would associate with online marketing. These links worked for a number of years and Google let this run unpunished. Small businesses got a slice of traffic, and STILL had to provide a good service / product to compete just as any business does - all fair in love and war.

Now such links have the diametric opposite effect they once had - they negatively impact on a site. OK, big deal - up to Google on that score, they can do what they like.

HOWEVER, this change means the smallest and poorest businesses have been hit with the latest updates because they could only afford this kind of marketing - I'm talking real businesses here that offer good services and products, but they were hit because they can't afford the hours in the day to write "remarkable content" and become some kind of austere authority, nor do I think their websites even warrant such arbitrary means-to-a-ranking content writing when it's their product or service that their market is interested in, not a bloated brochure. Now Google deem such businesses as "webspam", and I guess you do too. Does it not concern you that the smallest and poorest get hit the hardest with these updates, and that every update ushers in more passes to big business? Maybe that doesn't concern you - in which case, I understand your points a lot more now. There is an argument to say that pandering to big business is just an ugly component of capitalism, and unavoidable. You can take that neutral stance I guess.

As Aaron pointed out, these updates make running a small business online a very risky venture (because Google drive the majority of the traffic) and the latest penalties by Google are really inhibiting the SMB area right now. You won't see that Danny because of where you are - you always talk as if SEO is the same for everyone. It's not. You are not in the SMB trenches fighting for survival. You are becoming akin to the journalist who "snowjobs" an incumbent government and basically says everything's running OK, even when people on the ground see different. I hope you can eventually see it from where we are standing.

May 10, 2012 - 7:59am

Andrew, no one -- I'm sorry but no one -- can say that "the large majority of small and medium businesses relied on cheap links." There are literally millions of small and medium sized businesses out there. Do you think that most of those are doing any SEO at all? Whenever I see stats, there's still a long way to go for that adoption.

I think it's fair to say there's a substantial number of SMBs that one way or another thrived on poor links. Cheap implies some were bought. It's been no secret Google doesn't like paid links. The fact it's now cracking down on them, what's your solution? That should be reversed? Perhaps an amnesty? And the SMBs that didn't go that route now perhaps being rewarded. They get punished?

My concern first is that I get a good set of results. I actually have written several times that I think Google should give up the fight against paid links and figure out a better way to decide what links should carry weight regardless of paid/sponsored/friended whatever status. I'm hopefully, actually, that maybe social signals and personalization will help here. I don't see the link graph improving relevancy much. Too much patching.

But I talk about SEO being the same for everyone? Go back up to my first post here. I actually said the opposite. How you approach SEO will vary. There's no one size fits all solution. I do see plenty of SMBs thriving and surviving in my search results each day. So the question is, if you were hit, what do you do to be one of those. Which I'm trying to get to with my reply to Aaron.

May 10, 2012 - 8:24am

...wasn't that junk links should count, but that junk links built by someone else shouldn't be able to torch you. And currently Google tried fighting the splog networks (and other similar links) so hard that they turned them into an SEO weapon to use against competitors.

So yes the crappy links are ruling, but in a George Costanza "do the opposite" sort of way.

May 10, 2012 - 8:31am

Junk links others point at you shouldn't hurt you. I just don't agree that this has been the primary cause for why so many people got hurt in Penguin. Nor do I think for a lot of people that it's their primary concern going forward.

I think it's also complicated because we have site that were hit by Penguin and penalized, plus we have sites that were hit by Penguin indirectly, because the links they were getting credit from no longer count. That makes for a confused situation for anyone to know exactly what happened to them.

That's where the negative SEO concerns, I feel, throw people off. I'm afraid it distracts them from the bigger issues they need to deal with. Which leads to....

May 10, 2012 - 9:14am

There are literally millions of small and medium sized businesses out there. Do you think that most of those are doing any SEO at all? Whenever I see stats, there's still a long way to go for that adoption.

Well, if their backlink profiles are largely empty, they're sitting ducks for negative SEO (especially if they're ranking high).

I think it's fair to say there's a substantial number of SMBs that one way or another thrived on poor links. Cheap implies some were bought.

No implication necessary - I'm talking about paid links, of which the vast majority of links to SMB sites are paid for in some way - we all know Google doesn't like unnatural links whether they're paid in cash or bartering or favours. We also know these sites aren't going to get links in the quality and quantity it takes to rank naturally. And certainly prior to 2012, it very much took links to rank (still does in most cases). And so in that environment, it's understandable why many companies proactively link built the way they did.

By the way, you may as well include paid directories here when we talk of paid links - there's no real difference - in fact, check out Yahoo! directory listing for 10 minutes and see how many dead or irrelevant links are listed there! It's a terribly curated directory that your $299 is supposed to go toward high quality curation and human editorial skills. And so why shouldn't many of these paid directories be seen as paid links in Google's eyes? You're certainly not putting all that money to review costs, that's for sure. So when we remove all those services, what's an SMB left with? Remarkable content?

It's been no secret Google doesn't like paid links. The fact it's now cracking down on them, what's your solution? That should be reversed? Perhaps an amnesty? And the SMBs that didn't go that route now perhaps being rewarded. They get punished?

Yes, NOW they are rewarded, but are sitting ducks to negative SEO without armouring themselves with big authority links - of which many of these SMBs aren't going to know the first thing on how to get, and it's just another form of link building if they bother isn't it? Buying directory links and whatnot (largely the ONLY way for SMBs to get authority links) is still buying links. Who's to say Google won't simply flick a switch and kill BOTW / business.com / Yahoo! directory overnight - especially if these authority links help blur the line between big brands ("over here"), and everything else ("over there"). We've seen Google's hand this year, and they're not pulling punches.

The scary thing is how automated negative SEO will become if Google continue to allow links to be a negative ranking factor. I'm not even talking about forum blasts and all that nonsense (which would work on new / weak link profile sites) - I'm talking about hacked WordPress networks all pointing links toward a list of targeted sites and such scenarios. There's going to be a lot of money to be made in bad links.

May 10, 2012 - 8:32am

So Aaron, you provided a laundry-list of problems with Google that go well beyond negative SEO concerns. Some of them are actually bigger issues of negative SEO, but negative SEO is the hot topic of the day, so sadly, those get ignored.

I mean last week, I wrote about how Google's now doing paid inclusion in three major vertical search engines. That's actually far more important for me to dig into right now (and I am digging).

Is this the future? If flight, hotel and financial product searches are now pay-to-play, are more verticals from Google going to go this way? Remember, this was all from Google, the company that was never ever going to do paid inclusion. The company that listed paid inclusion as one of the "Don't Be Evil" things.

But let's assume that everything everyone believes is wrong or fears is wrong with Google is true. It wants to push out all small businesses. It wants to make big businesses pay even for brand traffic. It wants to kill affiliates. Negative SEO isn't just real but a wide-spread problem that's out-of-control.

What do you want to do with that? What should anyone do with that. Chatter away about the great unfairness of Google, in hopes that it's all suddenly going to change for the better? Think that if enough people complain, or there's enough signatures on some online petition, some magical search fairy is going to swoop in with a magic want to make Google "fair?"

Heck, who’s even going to define what fair is? If you’ve got 11 hotel affiliates, then one of them is going to believe that the other 10 above them are SPAM of the classic sense, Someone Positioned Above Me.

Maybe various governments will swoop in with a search neutrality truth commission to ferret out whatever the exact rankings for a particular search are supposed to be.

These aren’t practical things to hope for. These aren’t practical things that will happen. At best, I suspect –as I’ve written – you may see some very specific Google competitors manage to somehow win better placement. Yelp might ensure that it keeps having visibility in local search, so that it can continue getting that 75% of free traffic that Google’s been unfairly sending it.

The small businesses that so many in forums are worrying that Google is screwing them over with the Penguin Update? There’s no magic search fairy coming for them. That’s not going to happen. These types of discussions aren’t going to help them.

No, what those businesses need are practical, realistic advice about the sad situation some of them find themselves in now. And that advice isn’t that so many just tanked because of negative SEO, so that’s a problem that needs to be fixed. The advice, I’m arguing, is that the bulk of what I’ve seen so far has been people hit because they’ve been spamming, spamming in the traditional sense – crappy link networks, paid links, etc. Or if they weren’t hit by spam, links they depended on don’t carry as much weight now.

Sure, Google’s been sloppy on spam. Sure, stuff still gets through. But for those hit, the very first thing they need to ask themselves is whether they’ve been spamming, not whether they think they were unfairly hit by negative SEO. That’s my view, if they want to decide what to do next. That’s the realistic, practical starting place.

Because seriously, do you really think most of the people complaining right now are victims of negative SEO? The vast majority? Anyone believe that, honestly believe that?

I’m not saying that negative SEO doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that it’s not a problem. Maybe it’s even a growing problem. But in the wake of Penguin, and all those concerns over lost traffic, what’s the primary cause. A crackdown on spam or negative SEO gone out of control?

I think it really was spam that was hit, just like it always gets hit. And if it was spam that hit you, then it’s self-help time, tough love time. What do you want to do going forward? Keep playing the spam game, anything goes, what can I get away with, what do I believe everyone else is doing and getting away with?

That can work. It’s worked for years. Maybe in some industries, that’s all that will work. But the real pros don’t complain when they get hit for spam, because they know exactly why they were hit.

The people I feel sorry for aren’t the pros going that route. It’s the people who for whatever reason assumed that was the route they should take, without really planning for or thinking about what would happen in the algo went against them. Who prepared them for that reality? How on earth do we end up exactly back with the same complaints from some we heard during Florida nearly 10 years ago?

That brings me back to my “what do you want to do” question. If not the spam route, another route is to be special, unique, something that makes your site one of those that Google must have.

Yeah, I can hear the groans. Content, blah. It’s impossible, try doing it for real, whatever. OK, let’s say that’s all true, that you totally believe there’s no way to win with a good site. Then at least you know. So move on. Figure out some other way to get traffic, if the view is that pessimistic, and you don’t want to try again with the spam route. Because again, the magic search fairy isn’t going to fix things. There’s no New York Times article coming that’s going to restore the non-unique sites back t the results.

If you can’t be must-have to Google, then at least aim, I’d say, toward being one that it looks embarrassing for Google not to include versus some of the others it has. If you really want to see Google jump, you push on relevancy. You demonstrate what your site is – you’re not afraid to show it – what it ranked for, and it should be self-evident that Google would be better including it.

That’s what you do. That’s what you need to be thinking about if you were hit by Penguin. Did it make sense for you to be hit, because you had crappy links, were spamming or whatever. If so, make your decision on how you want to go forward, rather than assuming some anti-negative SEO solution will soon be trotted out to solve what probably isn’t what caused you to drop.

As for the broader issues, yeah, if I were a hotel affiliate, looking at what Google’s doing, I’d be rethinking my business. I’d be figuring out if there’s a way for me to be the absolute best hotel affiliate out there, something with substantial value, ideally so good that if the FTC calls me up to testify about Google, I’m going to play well on the sympathy front.

That’s my advice, my take from looking at the landscape from where I sit. That also doesn’t mean I’m saying people shouldn’t complain about problems with Google. I’m still looking at negative SEO cases myself. I’ve got one in my inbox, someone with a teaching site that doesn’t seem like it should have been hit by Penguin. I’m digging into it more, because it would sure be nice to find a clean, specific example of something everyone can point at to say “that’s wrong” so that it could be fixed.

If Google (or Bing) sucks at something, they should be taken to task. And I do take them to task. But in meantime, publishers need to know how they best go forward. I think that means sure, fight for changes but don’t plan on them happening immediately. So if you believe negative SEO is a big issue, keep raising the alarm – I’ve heard it and mentioned it several time myself – but also plan that you’re going to be in that climate you believe is out there for some time and figure out what you can do to best survive it.

May 10, 2012 - 10:39am

I mean last week, I wrote about how Google's now doing paid inclusion in three major vertical search engines.

Certainly a big deal...and something we both have railed on in the past too (I think you with seeing product search include affiliated listings & then me when they folded Boutiques.com into product search and then never mentioned what happened to all those paid inclusion relationships they had on Boutiques.com.)

What do you want to do with that? What should anyone do with that. Chatter away about the great unfairness of Google, in hopes that it's all suddenly going to change for the better? Think that if enough people complain, or there's enough signatures on some online petition, some magical search fairy is going to swoop in with a magic want to make Google "fair?"

First one needs awareness before solutions can be hashed out. ;)

These aren’t practical things to hope for. These aren’t practical things that will happen. At best, I suspect –as I’ve written – you may see some very specific Google competitors manage to somehow win better placement.

Agreed. I suspect they will do some cross promotional deals with some of the loudest and strongest competitors at some point.

And that advice isn’t that so many just tanked because of negative SEO, so that’s a problem that needs to be fixed. The advice, I’m arguing, is that the bulk of what I’ve seen so far has been people hit because they’ve been spamming, spamming in the traditional sense – crappy link networks, paid links, etc. Or if they weren’t hit by spam, links they depended on don’t carry as much weight now.

I agree that most people who were hit were hit by the algorithm updates that discounted bad links or sent bad karma on with those bad links. And that is largely what the public complaints consist of. I have also seen private complaints where the techniques were overt/obvious & clearly not done by the webmaster themselves. However most of these people who are in the know & are super reliable sources & can show such examples do not want their sites showcased on websites about SEO.

So publicly the people yelling the loudest about their sites getting hit often had a self-administered flesh wound. But the people who complain privately have much more real cases. The problem here is incentive structures. Once you get Google digging around looking for something with your site & in you neck of the woods you are more likely to cause yourself more harm than find a resolution.

As an example here (and this is just an absurd example for sake of purpose & not a real one). Let's say you had a penis pill website that ranked for years. It never did anything overtly black hat, but is about a ridiculous topic. Then someone spam blasts you and you get torched. Your rankings don't fall on the day of Penguin, but another day. Let's say that was your main editorial site, but then there is a second site devoted to collecting real consumer reviews. Now with Google torching your main site & cutting your income to where you can just get by (based on seeing a huge influx of spam links that you know you did not create) are you willing to gamble that remaining site & your livelihood to challenge Google in a game of public relations? Most people would say no.

But for those hit, the very first thing they need to ask themselves is whether they’ve been spamming, not whether they think they were unfairly hit by negative SEO.
do you really think most of the people complaining right now are victims of negative SEO? The vast majority? Anyone believe that, honestly believe that?

I agree with this on the public cases. In fact a couple people who I know wanted me to look and I was all ... well look at this over here, and that over there doesn't look so good. In fact, I even turned down running a story because of this. I mean it was clear that someone else added loads of spam over the top, but he was already in a dark enough shade of gray that Google would say best of luck to him.

The people I feel sorry for aren’t the pros going that route. It’s the people who for whatever reason assumed that was the route they should take, without really planning for or thinking about what would happen in the algo went against them. Who prepared them for that reality? How on earth do we end up exactly back with the same complaints from some we heard during Florida nearly 10 years ago?

Human nature changes much slower than technology does. ;)

That brings me back to my “what do you want to do” question. If not the spam route, another route is to be special, unique, something that makes your site one of those that Google must have.

I should disclose here that I didn't write this post because I got hit...seobook is about as strong as ever & our other stuff is fine...I wrote this post because a couple of my friends got torched. And they didn't get torched from their own doing, but from an "assist" from a competitor.

However on the "one of those that Google must have" front, one needs look no further than Groupon. When they refused to sell to Google the following happened

  • Google created a competing product
  • Google offered higher payout percentages and faster payouts to merchants
  • Google promoted that competing product directly in their SERPs and across the content network (32%
  • lower cost on content ads & free search inventory)
  • Google partnered with over a dozen companies in the space to further drive down margins
  • just this week Google launched the ability to create free offers

So if you are a site Google can't live without & refuse to sell to them you can expect to be cloned and commoditized by big G. Didn't TechCrunch also run a post about Google shagging Yelp content without attribution on the phone & another on running Google product ads against competing trademarks in the serps?

As for the broader issues, yeah, if I were a hotel affiliate, looking at what Google’s doing, I’d be rethinking my business. I’d be figuring out if there’s a way for me to be the absolute best hotel affiliate out there, something with substantial value, ideally so good that if the FTC calls me up to testify about Google, I’m going to play well on the sympathy front.

If you can do interviews of them (pretty sure I am blackballed on that front :D) wouldn't it be awesome to get them on the record explaining how helpful sites should be labeled as spam based on nothing other than their business model, while Google funds eHow at the same time?

I’ve got one in my inbox, someone with a teaching site that doesn’t seem like it should have been hit by Penguin. I’m digging into it more, because it would sure be nice to find a clean, specific example of something everyone can point at to say “that’s wrong” so that it could be fixed.

Am hoping you can line up a couple or even a half-dozen such examples. I was just informed of another one, but the cases I have been told about where the sites were clean the owner has been afraid to share their site for fear of Google napolming the entire category & leaving behind nothing but sites like Yelp & listings from Google Places and such.

Thanks for the in-depth comment :)

May 12, 2012 - 6:33am

Pain inclusion has been existing for quite some time, Danny.

Basically, any time Google is profiting from a placement of an organic result it is paid placement. That's right: product results, youtube videos, flightsearch, etc.

They're earning from these placements. Do you think there's a bias in those rankings? Do you think it's an accident that Youtube, the biggest content farm out there, escaped from Panda?

If you're OK with this, then you shouldn't write about this new form of paid inclusion. It's just a continuation of the organic results squeeze that Google has been doing with many bloggers turning a blind eye to it.

This is why a judge needs to recuse himself if there's a suspicion of possible bias.

May 10, 2012 - 8:34am

Thank you Aaron for being brave enough to write the truth.

The fact is that it is now possible to torch a site for less than $50 by sending a few fiverr link acquisitions to make its link profile look spammy.

The fact that some "white-hat" bloggers aren't talking about this (I won't mention names) is that Google's actions have made their businesses have lower worth. Now all their conferences, tools, and "superiority" driven writing are worth little more than the products sold by IM scam gurus.

They have to maintain the facade that SEO is still stable (if done right, according to them). If they admit that it's risky, unpredictable, and that Google is actually the judge and a competitor at the same time, than the ROI of SEO is much lower and so is their ability to charge for it.

The point is that Google cannot know who pointed the links to a site. Danny, would you like it if someone left stupid comments under your name on spammy blogs and have them counted as your own words with little recourse? Google has created a system in which they punish websites for things they may or may not have done. They're guilty by default. Now they have to prove their innocent which may be impossible.

This is simply cruel.

May 10, 2012 - 9:01am

I've mentioned negative SEO in stories I wrote on April 25 and April 26. I gave my own perspective on it, but it's not like I didn't acknowledge it. I even linked over to SEO Book in the April 25 story. I'm also coming back to it, just as I said I would in my April 26 story.

We also mentioned it back in 2007, when Forbes did a big story about it. Look it up, "The Saboteurs Of Search." You tell me -- if it was a big enough problem for Forbes to feature in 2007, how is it that now, five years later, it's suddenly a big problem? Did it go away?

That's part of what I've been saying. We've had negative SEO for years. Read the Forbes article. Google was acknowledging it even then. And yet despite this, clearly SMBs somehow survived that, otherwise how could they now be harmed by it?

The answer, if you buy into it being a big new threat, is that Google's cracking down in a new way on particular link networks, making negative SEO much more viable, because it's cheap to buy all those backlinks. But the problem with that assumption is that a lot of it seems to be made on the back of ranking drops from Google taking action against link networks just before Penguin and then drop after Penguin.

Some of that, as I explained above, might be not that the sites were torched but that the link that were working don't work any longer.

The other point is that while Google can't know who point links at a site, it can see a whole lot of signals. A site with thousands of bad links that suddenly get pointed at it also looks different if Google can see there's a lot of direct traffic (you know, by using its toolbar or DNS service) or that it has historically good performance in search results (by looking at bounce rate from SERPS) or that lately, it's got +1s from authority accounts.

As for SEO being risky and unpredictable, please go read, "Penguin’s Reminder: Google Doesn’t Owe You A Living, So Don’t Depend On It,"which I wrote last week. It explains exactly how I've advise people not to depend solely on search engines since I first started writing about them.

Has a link to SEO Book in there, as well -- to the Goldilocks SEO infographic. Anyone hit by Penguin should take a very close read of that. It's some of the best work Aaron's ever done.

May 10, 2012 - 9:34am

We also mentioned it back in 2007, when Forbes did a big story about it. Look it up, "The Saboteurs Of Search." You tell me -- if it was a big enough problem for Forbes to feature in 2007, how is it that now, five years later, it's suddenly a big problem? Did it go away?

Well you seem to overlook the million or so websites that got unnatural link penalties in the last few months. That's why we're talking about negative SEO in 2012.

You are quick to castigate websites for shady link building, but refuse to accept that those same links could be cheaply and trivially pointed at any site.

You look for examples of negative SEO but we're in the early days if Google continue with the same rules.

May 10, 2012 - 9:47am

There were 700,000 notices that Google sent out. Most of those, it has said, had nothing to do with bad linking. Our story, Google Sending Warnings About “Artificial” Or “Unnatural” Links, on Search Engine Land, has Google's statement on this.

About two weeks before that, Google also took out some link networks. Sites had ranking drops because of this, and before Penguin, and which had nothing to do with the current negative SEO concerns.

Rather, it was the opposite. It seems like after people saw that some link networks either hurt them or didn't give them credit, then there were fresh notices sent out, it sparked flames that negative SEO is not a bigger threat than ever before.

Maybe it is. Or maybe a lot of those sites dropped not because of negative SEO but because links no longer worked as well or because they were hit with penalties. And maybe links from those sites no longer will carry penalties for newcomers.

We don't know. What I do know is that when I look at sites that complain of drops, I see bad links -- and then they have explained ah yes, they got those links themselves in some way. That's what I've seen.

As for not accepting there's no negative SEO, I've repeatedly said that it is possible. In the reply above this, I even acknowledged that perhaps it more viable now because it's cheaper now. That's exactly the opposite or refusing to accept that links could be cheaply and trivially pointed at any site.

What remains unclear is how serious a threat it is to the vast majority of sites out there. What I'm fairly sure is that most people who suffered recently from the link networks being taken out, or from Penguin, where not victims of negative SEO.

May 10, 2012 - 10:45am

Danny - look at any site, and it has crappy links. Put up a site in any competitive niche and within weeks it will have a decent number of crappy backlinks, from scrapers and aggregators and seo splogs doing mass co-citation etc. That "small business" which did not build any links, will by your observation be "spammy" and deserving of a penalty? Now add in possible intentional "bad neighborhood" links... it's practically creating a marketplace for paid editorial links, as a requirement for survival. Author rank is doing something similar... all steps that help reinforce a register-with-Google world where unless you pay to play (in hoop jumping or cash) you are labeled as spammy and unworthy of inclusion.

You'll need more than a default aurgument of "I look at the back links and they're spammy" here. That's no better than Rand Fishkin saying he knows spam when he sees it in his analysis, and is therefore justified outing the sites by marking them as spammy in public. Only Google can do that, because only Google sets the bar for what is acceptable and what is not. Rand may be ignorant of the finer nuances of shades-of-grey in SEO, but I know you're not.

We used to know that we needed SOME good quality links, to balance the (naturally ocurring) spammy/crappy links, to compete in the ranks. Now we run risk from simply existing, both from Google and righteous evangelists who feel okay about publicly saying things like " I look at the links and they're spammy". As sites get punished, we also see that efforts to purposefully add crappy backlinks can incite punishment. If your public "that site's spammy" comments, or Rand's "directory of spammy sites deserving of punishment" actually had influence, bad actors would begin trying to influence you guys as well... whatever works will be done.

We've been waiting for the day it became clear that offsite actions could cause penalties. You correctly noted that Google used to say it was possible, but hinted at the threat being being less-than-nonexistent in the past. But I recall that "admission" was buried in a "but it's still not practically an issue, and never will be" language.

Here we have experienced SEOs acknowledging multiple, convincing sets of evidence it is happening, coupled with Google taking actions against networks and issuing hundred of thousands of warnings, while reports come in from hundreds of webmasters that have dropped radically. And the two people who are arguably the loudest voices in SEO -- Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin, are touting positions of "just make good content", "don't be spammy" and your "there's no proof, everything I've seen has spammy backlinks, etc" argument.


May 10, 2012 - 10:53am

Quite right.

Rand Fishkin says that Negative SEO is not a problem and then recommends to avoid using link tools to avoid being pentalized. If this is so then any competitor can do it.

He is exhibiting a lack of basic logic that any 8th grader should possess.

The System
May 12, 2012 - 9:08pm

with due respect i think you are missing the point with

"What remains unclear is how serious a threat it is to the vast majority of sites out there. What I'm fairly sure is that most people who suffered recently from the link networks being taken out, or from Penguin, where not victims of negative SEO."

These people were all the victims of negative SEO done to themselves or by their SEO company. Whatever they did to trip a penguin penalty IS Negative SEO.
Furthermore the link networks were not 'taken out'.
The links networks are now the main tool of the negative seo'r who can take any content or marketing campaign of the white hatters or anyone else for that matter, and ruin it by using it against them to destroy rankings.
Many sites were de-indexed but all the networks are full up with new people wanting to play negative SEO and members are putting up more new websites for links and more spam than ever.
Google has created a massive problem for itself now and in six months will not know what links to trust for ANY site and who or who is not buying links.
And as for control Google quality have totally lost it as demonstrated by the mountains of spam and 'help weve been negative seo'd' reports that will flood into your mate Cutt's office.

And as for relying on social signals - it's even easier and cheap to spam and has spawned the whole new industry of Social Media managers BS.

May 10, 2012 - 9:58am


You believe that most websites who suffered from Penguin were not hurt by Negative SEO, but if there is one business that was torched by it this is a problem and a moral sin by Google for letting it happen.

Maybe it should now be OK for courts to convict people on shady evidence becasue most of those people are really guilty?

The entire system of justice is based on the notion is that no one should be punished for something they didn't do. NO ONE. It's a problem if it happens to even a single person. Now it has become easy to do it to many.

Instead of making this cruel act by Google a PR nightmare for them, which you and other high-caliber bloggers have the power to do, you downplay it by saying that it's a problem of the few. Guess what? Those few people have employees, families, mortgages, bills, etc. They deserve a better system. If they don't get it, Google, and the people who work for them, should be criticized severely for it and shown for what they really are.

May 10, 2012 - 10:34am

I think Danny's point on people depending on Googles free traffic for their income is fair, if people are going to take their online properties seriously enough to earn a living from them and depend on them then they should be diversifying their traffic sources and trying to build brand strength even locally which can outlast Googles algo changes.

The crux of this issue is that Google has now took it upon itself to be judge, jury and executioner - and has started to penalise sites that have a specific type of link. It has been said 100 times before but I will repeat it, the easiest way for Google to punish webspam is to ignore it.

Whatever 'Google engineer' thought up the idea of creating a mathematical formula to judge whether a link is spam or not and then dish out an appropriate punishment must have been looking for something to justify his inordinate ego and salary, and instead of playing around on Googles green lawn thought it was time to do some 'real work'. Bravo.

May 10, 2012 - 10:52am

The US society has granted Google many variances in exchange for innovating. Many forms of copyright infringement were overlooked, for the good of the advancing of the Internet and search. Many privacy violations were overlooked, and Google even helped US government (via NASA et al) on issues of National Security... all good will exchanges, for which Google has benefited.

It's not simply "Google's search engine, so Google can do what it wants". On the contrary it's been "an algorithm" not held accountable for business interference. Bold moves that disrupted businesses were "necessary" and permitted for the greater common good. Look at the how regulators stayed away from interfering with things like Google operating on both publisher and advertiser sides, with adsense and adwords. I'm convinced it was because the bigger picture included necessary advances...I'd have done the same if I were a regulator or politician.

If Google wants to change things to be "our way or the highway" it has to acknowledge the changes or we have to highlight them.

May 10, 2012 - 11:02am

...thus if a competitor knows you are hurt, they know they have more margins to play with.

While you are knocked out of the organics (and they are not, perhaps because they were the one who knocked you out!) they also increase their AdWords budget & run a sale. They have no intent on profits over the month as their goal is to drive you under. They have saved up for this moment. You just offloaded a big truck of inventory & have another equally large shipment coming in 10 days from now - all this is pre-paid.

2/3 of your business is search (& has been for the past decade). In your country Google represents over 90% of the search market. Due to the type of product you sell, people typically only buy it once & there aren't many recurring sales to be made.

You are all stocked up for the strong holiday season, and someone tells you not to be dependent on the ecosystem you relied on for the past decade because one company in that ecosystem made it easy for a competitor to destroy your business.

Good bit of advice, but a tad late for them. They are bankrupt.

The System
May 12, 2012 - 9:23pm

His name was Amit Singhal, at least he is in charge of a whole team of them including the PANDA guy.

Many people, including myself wrote quite wrongly on the 24th April that he had put his homeland out of work.

Nice move Amit.

You've got to wait a day now to get a good directory blast!

Still its good that everything is moving over to social - India can outspam the USA by a factor of 4-1!

and whats more - they are real people!

May 10, 2012 - 10:55am

That's a very valid approach. I think Infojohn isn't being reasonable that any single false positive is a moral sin. I don't know how Google could achieve that type of perfection. It's an even bigger issue if you concern that there are plenty of searches where it might not rank the very best site for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with penalties. Are those sins, too?

But if you ignore or discount link, rather than penalize for them, that avoid much of the negative SEO concerns.

However, this also raises another point. Many of the sites hit might have dropped not because they got a penalty but because the links themselves just no longer work.

Even sites that got notices, possibly they weren't hit but rather, that's a handy way for Google to build up some fear about using the link networks in the way it doesn't want.

That's again why I find the concern on negative SEO to be so uncertain. We know it can happen. We know there are link penalties. But we don't really seem to know how many sites plunged because of this or if other sites are necessarily in more danger going forward.

But that's a practical argument to make, a solution well worth pushing for -- just don't count the bad links, rather than issue penalties against sites receiving links.

May 10, 2012 - 11:22am


It's easy to do: discount links. Simple.

Let's look at a theoretical case: a site ranked no. 5 for 2 years for a keyword. No the owner decided to cut corners and got links from a network. He rose to no. 1.

Came Penguin he's on page 5, or 10, or nowhere.

It's quite obvious that the network links weren't devalued but he was penalized. He is no where close to where he was in previous years. Other pages on his site promoted with the same measures (but no link networks) are holding strong. I've read account such as this. They're not uncommon.

If you can do this to yourself, competitors can do it to you. Very cheaply.

Rankings are not a metric alone. They represent real people with real businesses.

It's not a sin to rank unworthy sites. It happens. It is a sin to punish someone for something he or she may not have done. This causes real pain and suffering. By the way, the real spammers will simply build another site. The real small business won't.

May 10, 2012 - 12:07pm

However, this also raises another point. Many of the sites hit might have dropped not because they got a penalty but because the links themselves just no longer work.

I had a couple of sites hit myself - they dropped far further than they should have - discounting links would still have kept these sites in the top 10 (where they've been for years). My theory is that the penalty is commensurate to the "crime" e.g. if link A is worth 10 "points", Google penalise you -20 points for the anchor text of that link, if link B is worth 20 points, Google penalise you -40 (a magnitude of the value of the link). There's a lot of corroboration of this across a lof of SEO forums - many others are reporting similar penalties where for certain keywords they've completely disappeared when they were ranking fairly high before.

Danny, if you really think these ranking drops are based on link loss alone, no wonder you think negative SEO is a hard-to-do edge case scenario.

May 10, 2012 - 11:01am

Hi Aaron, Danny, Andrew.

I need to reply to this one as this conversation is really interesting from both professional SEO point of view, marketing agency point of view and SMB point of view. I've been a SEO practicioner for almost 8 years now, mainly in Europe.

In the last 2 years I've marketed a lot of small and medium websites and I have to say that with recent Google changes it's been very hard to see the threshold where you can go with "spammy".

Example1: I have a client with a small budget who can only afford low-level link building and he is in very competitive niche (travel) - point for Andrew and Aaron - I try to do my best with the budget he gives, write quality content and (I must admit) accept only quality link exchanges with topical websites (I am not proud, because this is something Rand would say "no, no"). But still, I have to build at least decent link profile. Result: conversions from organic are 0.5%, while AdWords is 5.6% ---> Google forces me to use AdWords for best keywords as I cannot invest that amount of money/energy for this client in top-level link building. Google wins.

Example2: I've been building my startup in very competitive niche - online tool, CPC is quite high and I rely on "white-hat-only" technique. The site is remarkable in both content, quality of links I receive, anchor text in press coverage I got etc, but still no ranking (after 2 months of careful building, writing unique content, getting press coverage, getting great links), Google keeps me out of SERPs, the growth is very slow. Now I have to decide if I would invest into more aggressive link building and risk it all (I have great domain name, did everything "by the book" and still, results are slow). Again, I have to agree with Aaron and Andrew. Google forces me out of the marketplace and I will have to throw some money back to AdWords.

I am a big fan of Danny's writing and whole SearchEngineLand, but the problems that Aaron is pointing out are the ones that SEO community need to push in front of Google because Google closes the ecosystem in favor of big brands, regardless of the quality they swore to bring to end users.


p.s. went to one AdWords session from Google (Engage for agencies) and this is such a crap, it's just PR pitch for noobs that come to marketplace.

May 10, 2012 - 11:31am

Your client wants to compete in the competitive space of travel, but your client also doesn't want to pay. Because, I suppose, SEO is all free and just naturally happens?

Your time is worth more than that. Get a new client, either a small client willing to invest more or do something unique to justify why they should be among the top ten in the travel space. Because if you can rank someone in that space, they shouldn't actually be small. They should be big, given the amount of traffic you're going to drive.

Alternatively, what's wrong with doing AdWords? Pick up some free traffic, but if they're paying for the ads and still earning more off the sales than the advertising, that's a win.

Hard to say more, of course, without seeing the site.

On the second site, hang in there. Two month is nothing. Want to swap stories on all the search traffic Marketing Land is getting after four months? Hey, it's got plenty of great links pointing at it. But it's going to sit in the Google no authority sandbox for some time, pulling in traffic for its own name and some select long tail terms.

The good news is social is your alternative jump start. If you're not working that, do work it. Over time, your social and other direct traffic should start to generate your own weather -- and the search traffic should also ramp up. But that's my take.

May 10, 2012 - 11:32am

Google is well aware of Negative SEO and they know it works. They don't plan on fixing it at all either from my understanding.

Here is a reply I received from them:

"Hi Pawel,

Thanks for your request.

Regardless of who created the links, in order to protect the quality of our search results, we have taken action to reduce the trust of inorganic links to your site."

I mean can't this be any more obvious? Regardless of who points the links to your site you are the one responsible and you need to clean it up. Total joke to be honest.

May 10, 2012 - 12:00pm

That doesn't sound like a penalty against your site. That sounds like they're discounting the links.

May 10, 2012 - 1:45pm

They don't just discount the links Danny.

They wouldn't include that then

"We know that perhaps not every link can be cleaned up, but in order to deem a reconsideration request as successful, we need to see a substantial good-faith effort to remove the links, and this effort should result in a significant decrease in the number of bad links that we see."

They are not ranking me properly. If they discounted the bad links it wouldn't be as bad as it is now. They indeed said in previous messages that they took action against it and in order to reinstate my authority I need to basically remove the links. But the thing is even though I removed over 500 of them for the past 2 weeks (sending out DMCA complaints for hours) it's not good enough.

So basically if you have a competitor who is dedicated to take you out you might be removing links while he is building more.

May 10, 2012 - 2:29pm

they spend $10 and 10 minutes and you have another 100 hours of work. You finally catch up & then round 2. You basically take on a second full time job to make up for incompetency inside the plex. Pretty crappy stuff. :(

May 11, 2012 - 11:06pm

To be honest it's more like this: They spend $10 and 10 minutes while I paid so far $2,000 to get people to remove this crap for me. I have better things to do than sending out worthless DMCA complaints all day. But that wasn't sufficient enough I guess judging by their last reply.

"In order for your site to have a successful reconsideration request, we will need to see a substantial, good-faith effort to remove the links, and this effort should result in a significant decrease in the number of bad links that we see. We do not recommend that you submit another reconsideration request until you have been able to make a good amount of progress. Once you’ve been able to get the links removed, please reply to this email with the details of your clean-up effort."

Oh well...

May 11, 2012 - 11:55pm

Sending out DMCA complaints might in fact do more harm than good and result in thousands of more links.

Aaron read this thread on WF (towards the end - the third comment from the bottom of the thread or even the last one) http://www.warriorforum.com/main-internet-marketing-discussion-forum/561...

Google tells you to remove them without any proof that you did it so you send out a DMCA complaint to some blackhatter who will simply ask for money in order to remove it, or build more links simply because you made him mad lol

May 12, 2012 - 12:58am

...that official Google communications tell webmasters to lie to one in other (bogus DMCA complaints and so on) to better fit the flaws in their algorithms.

When a system is built off analyzing relationships & to make its analysis work you need people to crap on said relationships, things are headed down the wrong path indeed!

June 6, 2012 - 6:38am

The update was not created to penalize but to devalue/downgrade the value of any site that violating Google’s guidelines in SERP. The update was intended to deal with low-quality content. Normally your website ranking will fall down if you don’t take action after you get one of those Google’s warnings.

May 10, 2012 - 12:03pm

Someone...either here...or maybe trafficplanet.com mentioned duckduckgo. So I checked them out. They show only one ad...sometimes no ads on SERPS! Clean layout, too. I have posted about them on my personal facebook page, and 2 of my commercial FB pages.

Only reason I'm mentioning it here is I think it was a commenter on your blog that prompted me to check them out. I think I found my Google replacement.

May 10, 2012 - 12:17pm

Danny: Get your point there. But this site is not like competing with Expedia or Booking.com, but a smaller niche related to local places. This client is growing (and we grew their organic traffic by double). The thing I am pointing is: I know the competitors in this space and they have worse content, only their "brand" signal is better. I am outperforming them in AdWords (which is a quick start, no problem there). The big problem with SMBs that want to work in the broader space than local is that they cannot compete without investing a lot. Let's face it, sometimes you cannot make something unique without budget. The brand signal should be lowered.

As for the other site, 50% of the traffic for now comes from social. And yes, I would agree that I need more time to grow it bigger. But again, the problem we are all pointing at is that now a small company that just wants to start doing business online is having more trouble getting exposure than before, especially with the brand bias. And it is tempting to go "dark side" :)

To talk about other side of the medal, I got quite good results with one website in scientific publishing space, where top competitors have hidden their content behind a paywall and did really lousy job in onsite - this one was easy to dominate even within a year, little link building, a lot of link baiting and really good content (UGC).

As for Marketing Land, I remember it was called sphinn before? with UGC? And I believe you have a good advantage of advertising it on SEL :) I don't have that sort of marketing channel in my arsenal :)

May 10, 2012 - 12:31pm

If they're new going up against established brands, that's tough. I suppose the good news is that in the real world, it's even harder, right? However tough it is in Google, getting a new brand going outside of search is even more expensive and harder, I'd say.

I don't think it's going to get easier online, though. I think that's the new reality. Going to the dark side can be tempting, but then if you get burned, well....

Marketing Land was called Sphinn. We changed it from UGC to being all editorial content. It definitely helps that we can tie into SEL, and that we had some social media channels already started from Sphinn. But it's still been very much from square one in other ways.

All good ways, however. Starting afresh, the social channels have risen much more than with the old site, as has the traffic. But the things about starting the new site up, well, I went through that with Search Engine Land as well. It takes time.

May 10, 2012 - 1:27pm

For all the comments I've been ignoring negative SEO concerns, it's actually one of the key questions I put to Google for a story I was finishing tonight.

It's over on Search Engine Land now, called "Two Weeks In, Google Talks Penguin Update, Ways To Recover & Negative SEO." Aaron, you can add a link if you want. Not sure if I'll get caught in a spam filter, if I do.

Of course, the answers from Google aren't going to make everyone happy. But I said when Penguin first came out that I'd noted the issue, hadn't forgotten it and would be raising it.

One nice thing from this discussion is the suggestion that penalties get dropped for incoming links. I added that into the story, and that's something I'll follow-up on further.

May 10, 2012 - 2:44pm

Good one Danny - we rely on guys like you to put our side of things to Google even if you don't do it as stridently as we'd like :)

One last thing on negative SEO Danny - it's very early days. All those unnatural links notices flurried out in February, March and April - that was the "awakening" when we realised off-page factors can send a websites hurtling into limbo. We're only into early May here - it's too early to say negative SEO is a side issue when we only recently discovered Google are really making off-page factors a chance to kill a site. Give it a few more months and let's see what happens to all those sites who are ranking high but have no strong link profile. If Google flip again and decide to not be so harsh on off-page factors, then they're back to square one with dealing with cheap links. If they keep on the path they're on, then negative SEO is going to be a looming reality - it's up to Google to decide which is the lesser of the two evils.

May 10, 2012 - 3:08pm

Danny, in your article you wrote "Cutts stressed again that negative SEO is rare and hard." I can tell you with 100% certainty that it is not hard at all as long as the target site is not a big brand or very high authority site. Many small to mid-sized businesses fall into this category. I know of someone who has done it multiple times SINCE Penguin. I've seen the before and after. For a few thousand dollars you can create your own network to take out sites with low to mid levels of authority.

I agree with you that most sites hit by Penguin were not hit because they were negative SEO targets. But it's also true that negative SEO is blowing up right now. The vast majority of small businesses that get hit don't know what Google WMT is, how to check their backlinks for signs of bulk spammy links, bulk 301's into their domain, etc. They lose out, and they don't have recourse. They don't know who you are, or how to contact you with their examples.

I wish I could show you proof, but as Aaron and others have said, proof would expose the doers. Most people doing this now are not looking for exposure, for obvious reasons. And, many people who have been hit have less than stellar link profiles and fear public exposure.

Trying not to go all over the place here... In commercially valuable niches, it takes buying links or being a big brand to rank. I've seen VERY few exceptions. Among others, I run a high quality e-commerce site connected to a physical store. I monitor the landscape very closely. You don't buy links, you don't rank. Google knows this. Everyone who plays the game knows it. When there are 10 results on the first page and literally hundreds of people who want to be there...and few people willing to link to many commercial niches...you do what you have to do or you give up. So you've got some % of low quality or paid links. It's what you had to do in Google's system.

Now there are two problems:

First, Google is hammering businesses that only did what was necessary to do in order to rank. I'm not talking about affiliate sites, Adsense sites, etc. (although lots of quality sites monetized by affiliate/Adsense were taken out, of course). It's one thing to discount those links, but another all together to completely burn such sites. Businesses go under, people get fired, and high quality sites are no longer found. I'm not talking about losing rank due to links being discounted, but going from #1 to nowhere in the top 200.

Second: The main issue we're talking about here...you've already got some low quality/paid links BECAUSE YOU NEEDED THEM, and someone decides to pour on a bunch more. You weren't hit, but now you are. What are you going to do? You can't out your site publicly because you did go against the guidelines. But everyone did. Most of the sites that are still ranking, still are!

So in addition to Google burning plenty of legitimate businesses who dug their own graves (again, because that's what they needed to do in Google's ecosystem), there are two more sets who are extraordinarily vulnerable...both those that got just a few low quality or paid links, and those who got none but also aren't really high authority.

The solution is for Google simply to discount the links, as others have said. It's the only moral thing to do. But you know they're not going to do that.

May 10, 2012 - 3:58pm

I'd like to add two more bits:

This statement in your post Danny, "If you’ve cleaned and still don’t recover, ultimately, you might need to start all over with a fresh site, Cutts said." is one of the most irresponsible, immoral, and arrogant things I've ever read. So if you've cleaned up any bad links your site may have (whether you got them or not) and Google STILL keeps you Penguinized, too bad for you. Start over. Does Matt realize what's involved in starting over? Either he's clueless or he doesn't care. I assume it's the latter.

And, when business owners (like myself) see how easy it is for a site to be taken out forever, especially in the earlier stages of development/promotion, we're far more likely to create a larger number of low quality/cost projects than a smaller number of high quality/cost projects.

Google needs to get massive bad press over all this. It's the only way they'd even consider changing their ways.

May 10, 2012 - 4:30pm

You're right. This is where Danny and Rand and others like them need to show some guts and tell it like it is. This needs to be covered on Businessweek, the NY Times, and other big media to make Google act responsibly again. They have lost all sense of decency.

May 11, 2012 - 2:50pm

@maxmorritz: I can feel your pain. Google does not. They don't care if they burn thousands of small sites due to negative SEO, as long as their AdWords profits remain intact. I think that this is the main argument Aaron puts in his "fight" against double moral of Google.

May 12, 2012 - 8:50pm

Your spot on, about a lot of these big SEOs not getting the simple fact that not everyone is a huge corporation with masses of good links.

May 13, 2012 - 8:48pm

I suppose if negative SEO isn't a likely issue, yet if you build spammy links to your own site then you deserve everything you get (according to Danny Sullivan), then just get SOMEONE ELSE to build those links to your site - because Google have the "spidey sense" to know it wasn't you but someone else who built those links, and since Danny Sullivan says negative SEO is not a concern, you'll be OK :)

May 14, 2012 - 1:05am

...that is one of the things I pointed out in my post about Dan Thies getting hit. All you have to do is piss somebody off (anybody with web savvy really - biz partners, consultants, customers, contractors, competitors, etc.) and they can throw you in the frying pan.

Hard to hit you if you have a rock solid profile, but if you have a weak profile and/or were flying too close to the sun it is very easy to give you a push over the edge.

May 14, 2012 - 8:14am

Absolutely Aaron. As to weak link profiles? That'll be 99+% of websites out there. According to whitehats, a site is created, and if it has great content, it gains authority backlinks fairly quickly, then then it's safe. This is neat little theory, but it rarely occurs, especially if you are an SMB where it's your service or product that people want, not "remarkable content". And so, you either buy authority links (running along the margins of what is safe link building and dangerous) which may end up penalising your site in some future Badger or Zebra update (lol), or you do nothing. And since Penguin, doing nothing is what we're told to do - don't do SEO, focus on content, wait patiently for months and years for your site to be rewarded with authority links (only if your content is remarkable though, not your service or product which is much harder for people to judge), and at the same time run the risk of being sabotaged by a couple of cheap "blasts" over those months or years by anyone annoyed at you who has $10 to spare for a few fiverr gigs.

May 15, 2012 - 8:47pm

Just catching up here on all these comments....

I own an niche eCommerce store and I was hit. This is the first time I've posted about my penguin-ization, mainly bc what the hell is me posting going to do.

I learned SEO working for a big brand eCommerce network and learned all the in's and out's of SEO, drop-shipping, eCommerce, etc. After months of building and careful white hat SEO... including guest posts, contests, giveaways, I was ranking #1 for all my major terms, including category pages and their associated keywords. I held down these ranks for the past 2 years until April 24th when my traffic plummeted. In maintaining those ranks over the years, I barely built links, as my ranks were stable and the niche was small. I did build links sporadically, but not like I did early on.

I even created my own brand, technically, I think. My store's name has its own Google auto-fill in a few different variations.

On the morning of April 24th, I noticed that my homepage lists below the Wikipedia definition of my product keyword, as well as 3 other eBay URLs. And category pages are just gone. Not in top 10 pages.

Not much I can do, Google owes me nothing, but it's pretty fucking shitty to have this happen and all your work go down the drain. Especially when I was outranking my supplier for 2 years, who absolutely sucked at SEO, has dupe content across multiple domains, no unique product descriptions, and he now outranks me.

PM, email, if anyone wants the niche, URL, keywords, etc. Be happy to share more.

Web Wonks
May 16, 2012 - 11:58pm

For all those Penguin affected people -
Several of our clients immediately felt the effects of a drop in search rankings.
We found that removing the excessive keywords and swapping them with keyphrases, our clients page rank return within a few days.
Check us out here – [edited: no thanks]
Feel free to contact us to trade seo advice.

May 18, 2012 - 5:41pm

Thanks for the great article. I do believe that we will see more of these negative tactics used in SEO to undermine legitimate businesses. It's really a sad day in marketing when SEO and brand managers have to stoop to these kinds of methods in order to garner more business. Hope that Google will come to their collective senses and put an end to this kind of behavior permanently.

December 6, 2012 - 9:09pm

6th Dec 2012

Nice to read all your remarks guys finally opinions matter, and they should matter to Google....
It would seem that Google now have there own agenda, and that is to the detriment of all Internet users, not just engineers, SEO's & web designers.
We all have a place in Google's organization, finally it was small web design companies & organizations who helped to create the modern Google, we helped pay their salaries...
Sadly Google have forgotten this, they led their users in to a dark alley and drowned them.

90% of web designers followed "Google’s webmasters guidelines" and designed websites according to those guidelines.
The next week Google decides that these websites are SPAM & that all quality web designers & SEO's are now “Spammers”.
What happened to Google we all ask ?
Sure, there are people out there that want to ridicule Google, but its not the true professionals like engineers & SEO's.
We don't create reasons to insult them, we are just being objective, and we ask them to listen.....
Sadly, the only thing that I see is Google creating more enemies in the professional world.

If it was pressure from the shareholders to make more money "Google should be forced by regulators to become a "Public Company". You will note Google are now asking for our support to help keep the Internet free from Government regulators, when in actuality it is they themselves that are the most controlling.

I was reading an article the other day about a young girl who spent sixteen months creating a quality Blog do assist people suffering from drug addiction, she explained how successful the her Blog had become, and how much it helped addicts.
Google’s recent Penguin update took her website to the “NetherRealms” of the Google index, she said "I hate Google."
If a young girl is forced to be so emotional, you can imagine how many other engineers, webmasters, SEO's & small business owners now feel.
The modern Google alogrhythm has become the "Largest software conflict ever known".

As far as I am concerned Google have damaged their reputation irrevocably with their recent Panda & Penguin updates.
Every month webmasters are forced to re-adapt their websites as a direct result of some destructive Google update.
Often months, if not years of work can be destroyed in an instant…
The base of Google’s alogrhythm has always been based upon links & linking structure. Therein lays Google’s Achilles heel, they have no control over linking structures and they never will !

Time for Google to modify, judging a website on the merit of back links still remains, and is being exploited as we speak, by people who create their own “Link Farms” and sell them as services. Take a look at a cross section of websites on any of Google’s new page one results if you don’t believe me !
Links are 1980’s stuff, time to redesign the alogrhythm from the base up, the only problem Google has is finding the engineers capable of taking on this challenge…
As an engineer I have had several prominent websites attacked by Negative SEO. I can therefore confirm that Negative SEO works, and we can all thank Google for their recent Penguin Updates.

Are we to assume that they were not aware of the possible consequences of their actions ? Their recent Penguin updates actually assist Spammers, "Now there's Irony".
Google are even advertising websites in their index that sell "Negative SEO Services". Is this a joke !
As engineers we all now have enough data to confirm that the actual "Predator" was Google’s own alogrhythm…
Websites were punished for what ? On what grounds ? Competitors spamming your website, with your main key words in the link anchor….
Are we to beg for "Reconsideration" when our websites were all designed within Google quality guidelines ?
Lots of well used, prominent websites have suffered as a direct result of the recent “Penguin Updates” and they may not ever recover.
I have been a systems engineer for over 15 years, if I can be of any assistance to you guys in your battle to bring Google to their senses please contact me....
(Systems Engineer B.Sc)

December 12, 2012 - 7:24am

...nice to see people who come toward analyzing the field with your sort of background come to many of the same conclusions we do. No doubt having a background in systems engineering really gives you a broader perspective.

December 10, 2012 - 12:52am

Firstly let me say thanks for the link to George doing the opposite! Started my day with a laugh.

OK Danny Sullivan..

Danny Sullivan is a "SEO Journalist" and not a SEO (there is a big difference). He has not done any real SEO in a long time. I know I am going to get flamed for that one but it is true. Quite frankly if he had to start fresh today, without his contacts, without his friends and without Matt Cutt's personal Cell phone number, he wouldn't be able to SEO his way out of a WET Paper bag. He has not had to think that way in a long time. He didn't even have to think that way when starting searchengine land. As much as he likes to prattle on that he did.

Having, said that this isn't actually a bad thing. In the past Danny has been a really good journalist, he has highlighted some important issues in our industry and in many ways furthered the industry as a whole.

The problem with Danny and yes there is a problem with Danny now is that he really can't be trusted anymore. He has built a strong business based on towing the Google line and Getting Matt Cutts to turn up at SMX. Actually Matt Cutts will pretty much turn up anywhere that Danny suggests.

For example, Danny walked out on Search Engine Watch and SES (for good reasons, I believe) but lo and behold Matt Cutts walks out on SES also. Danny starts a rival "SMX" and Matt Cutts turns up at SMX. Wow Danny what a draw card! Finally Danny goes back to SES and guess what so does Matt! Matt Cutts and Danny's ability to leverage his relationship with Matt built Danny's new brand. Danny owes to much to Matt to actually go hardcore on what Google is doing or on what Mattis doing. Danny will always have that part of his brain that feels grateful to Matt and by association Google, after the Search Engine Watch debacle.

Once upon a time, as an SEO, I liked that Danny had access to the batphone, it felt like one of us little guys had a finger on the pulse and was willing to go to bat for our industry. However, eventually I came to realize that Danny was not part of the solution. His closeness to Matt Cutts which I once saw as a benefit, I now realize is actually part of the problem. I congratulate him forbuilding a strong business and do not begrudge him of that. The problem lies in his bias. He can’t see it and never will, but he is biased towards Google and mostly for the reasons above.

Danny is now not only a journalist but an internet marketer (In the A team/B team and salty droid should crack down on you soon kind of way) and his job is to fill the venues that SMX hires. It is not his problem if those people leave and go on to fail. He wouldn’t believe this of himself and none the great marketers do. They are happily floating along through life encapsulated in their delusions. As I, would be, if I was in his position.

Danny is happy to give out his patronizing and arrogant advice knowing that it will never rebound on him. Constantly waggling his finger at the small business owners and webmasters, that come to his site for advice. Saying things like it’s your fault, you did it to yourself and never really giving any real advice other than “build it and they will come type hyperbole”. I bet his tune would change if Google decided SEO was a vertical they should compete in and start ranking their own properties above his but that isn’t ever going to happen is it Danny?

In my mind we are back at school and those close to teacher and the headmaster get all the attention and the ones who are out the back of the gardeners shed smoking ciggies are the ones thinking of the innovations that will truly drive the future.

Aaron I completely understand if you don’t publish this.

December 12, 2012 - 7:57am

... there are loads of things to like about Danny. From a few personal examples...

  • When I was new to SEO he was one of the few people who was willing to give me any exposure. He also let me speak at his conferences.
  • When I got bogusly sued Danny also helped spread that story.

Those are the sorts of personal examples of "doing great things for others without expecting anything in return" that Danny has done. I also know of friends who got jobs because Danny recommended them to their future employers. And up and down the industry there are hundreds or maybe even thousands of people with stories of how Danny really helped them in a way that almost nobody else in the industry has. In many cases those stories are of that 1:1 variety (in addition to the broader coverage).


  • Danny continues to write a must-read newsletter that I read daily.
  • When many established PPC pumpers tried to brand all SEO as spam (because PPC is easier to scale selling at decent margins) Danny also promoted the value of SEO.
  • When others called SEO dead, or branded it as "a scam" of some sort, Danny has frequently countered that narrative.

Over time has Danny given Google the benefit of the doubt? I think so. But at the same time, if he were as critical of Google as you or I might desire they would likely cut him off. I mean...

  • I just read a Fortune interview of Larry Page where the questions were all softball questions, the answers were straight public relations / propaganda (in some cases he answered other questions rather than the question that was asked), and there were no probing follow ups ... it was just PR fluff. You could literally highlight misinformation in nearly every single answer right down the list.
  • Years back Eric Schmidt had his quote justifying authoritarianism and the destruction of privacy. cNet called him out on his "ideals" by publishing some of his personal information, and then was blackballed by Google for something like a year and a half.

The point I am trying to make there is that you can claim there is some bias & might not like it, but the reality is that the same bias is almost in every form of media & those that lack it are cut off. In most cases* we are in a better position having a known bias than not having any information at all.

I also disagree with the thesis that Danny couldn't do SEO. He knows enough about the engines to know a lot of what they like & he knows loads about journalism (timing, getting sources, framing a story, owning a story, following up on the issues, etc.) and could succeed in just about any niche where he was really interested based on his combination of that SEO knowledge and decades of experience in running a complex organization (putting on conferences, daily newsletters, writing news articles, attending press events) and dealing with the news cycle. He understands the economics of news in a way that very few journalists do. That doesn't mean that it would be easy for him to compete against hacked sites in the pharma area to rank commercial pages, but if he had a news site in the pharma niche I bet it would rank great sustainably within a year or 2 of being launched.

* the only exception here would be as Google continues to ramp up on monopolistic abuses & if such 3rd party analysis influenced regulation. Then again, Google already sponsors loads of coin operated legal "research" to justify their ongoing & expanding abuses. They work with over a dozen lobbying firms & influence legislation more directly than any sort of blog postings or public articles about search do. Google could just as easily skip one source and add another as they wish through selective filtering of what is noted in such legal "research." It isn't an accident that our blog (& others like it) have gone unmentioned. :D

December 14, 2013 - 2:21am

It's been a year since the last post and a similar discussion pops up on WebmasterWorld main page. The situation is getting worse, and it's just a start. I'm seeing a lot of thin affiliate websites (mostly blogs) that dropped from Google's previous good rankings and have become zombie websites used by attackers to add bad back links to attacked websites.

I've been going through some posts on Google's official forum and the replies of their employers are pretty much pathetic - "Your competitor killed your rankings? Just build more quality links." It's like asking a drug addict to take more drugs.

It feels like emperor is without clothes. There is a very basic and fundamental flaw in Google's search algoritms that cannot be fixed without starting from scratch.

December 14, 2013 - 3:00am

Btw. One of the most frequent "advice" in dealing with negative SEO is to: contact the webmaster and "ask" them to remove the link. Really, is this the best piece of advice? It's like suggesting a rape victim to ask the rapist to "un-rape" you (ie. to apologize you?) before contacting police. IMO, it is easy for Google to notice the victim (through their historic link profile, for example); asking the victim to "work hard to show Google you tried to remove the bad links" is a disgrace in case of negative SEO attack.

December 16, 2013 - 11:53am

read the remote rater guidelines that leaked earlier this year. They make it quite clear that some sorts of sites (those tied to powerful & rich companies, those with ears of market regulators, those tied to old large social institutions) deserve the benefit of the doubt while other sites (the ones lacking in lawyers & political influence) deserve endless doubt & they have raters evoke the broken window theory on them.

There was a podcast where Matt specifically stated that Google aims to defund spammers, but he said that their ultimate goal was to frustrate and demoralize them & to "break their spirits." On that same podcast he basically stated that just about everything outside of dealing with architecture, duplicate content & clean URLs was some form of cheating or scamming. No wonder that the people who labeled themselves as white hat SEOs ran for the hills and are now using other terms like content marketing or inbound marketing. Don't look for Google water carriers like Greg Sterling to highlight how reasonable it is for them to publicly brag about trying to break people's spirits while they exercise their monopoly power. And there was another bit Matt shared in front of some SEOs where he stated that the lawyers didn't like the word penalty (perhaps because there are some false positives (something else Matt readily stated that same day) & linguistically the term penalty isn't too hard to connect to the concept of monetary damages?), but that they should be called manual actions.

If you make good money from search & lack lawyers and political influence, you are a spammer and your days are numbered. That's the underlying message. Abuses will continue until some market regulator pieces things together & figures they will do better by enforcing existing rules against monopoly abuses than by leveraging them for various trade offs (see all the recent spying scandal stuff & the exemptions for telecom companies). However many entities will die before anything with Google's approach to smaller companies gets fixed. If you look back at history of other media channels, the dominant monopolies often were able to defund, stall, and/or regulate out of existence upstart competition until the monopoly was able to extend its influence over the new channel (RCA on both FM & TV, loads of stuff with film & movies, AT&T hiring goons to destroy competing network gear, etc.). An excellent book on this front is Tim Wu's The Master Switch.

I was reading an economics forum today where there were a couple excellent enlightened posts. One mentioned that America's original sins was making people property, and said that we've basically repeated the problem by claiming that property has the rights of people (corporations are people, etc.). The founder of the forum then went on to write about the issue of "the concentration of wealth & power without an equal concentration of personal accountability" & wondering if we could correct that fundamental design flaw "before it leads to another calamity as great as the American Civil War."

The power without accountability stuff really attracts certain types who enjoy predating on the rest of society.

Interestingly, Matt Cutts is alarmed by these sorts of issues, but I think since he has done so much for/with Google, it would be impossible for him to view Google through that same lens.

It's very hard to give a huge chunk of your life to something and not really believe in it - something I first realized when I was in the military & saw the difference in opinions and approaches among people who had re-enlisted a few times versus those who had not. When you have to live with people night and day in a small confined area, you get to know some of them far more intimately well than you may want to. ;)

December 19, 2013 - 3:26am

When I think more about that -- it's INSANITY what Google is doing. Imagine an email provider (Gmail?) telling its users:

"Our system has noticed that in the last week you received 240 spam emails. In result, your email account was temporarily suspended. Please contact the spammers and once you have a proof they unsuscribed you from their spam databases, we will reconsider reopening your email account."

Will I be surprised to receive such a message from Google mail?

IntelliGiants Ltd
June 5, 2014 - 1:21pm

Great post, very interesting.

Negative SEO is a real risk! In such an unstable economic climate it’s not unheard of for the less ethical people to try this type of practice out on their competitors – it’s cheaper than doing anything to their own site, sad fact… and one of the many catalysts for these underhanded individuals!

Sadly many SEOs get calls every week about these types of attacks... many of our incoming enquiries have admitted to suffering the attack for over a year, but as they hadn’t received the correct advice from the SEOs they contacted, it never went away.

SMEs and blue chips are at risk here and it is a real risk. Negative SEO is cheap, available and it works solely because Google let it work.

I recently wrote two articles for TFMA Insights on this topic:-


Feel free to check them out and offer any support.

October 27, 2017 - 8:43pm

Negative SEO is definitely a hot topic at the moment. No-one seems to have come up with any real concrete evidence at the moment (unless someone can point me in the direction of some) that proves that Negative SEO is possible. I think that any site that has an already dubious link profile could be a fairly easy target. The fact that Google is going full out on this and with sites dropping from the index not long after the warning shows that they aren’t messing around.

If Negative SEO is possible at the moment Google needs to be addressing it fast before we become polluted with companies that offer to get you to number one by blasting spammy links at the competitors above your site. I have read another amazing article about Negative SEO here.

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