How to recover from a negative SEO attack – Part 5

As our series continues, we look at the cleanup process and show how to recover content, links and user signals after being hit by negative SEO.

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Negative Seo Part Five

Welcome to the next-to-the-last article in our six-part series on negative SEO. If you’ve been following along, you understand what negative SEO is. You’ve audited your situation to know whether or not you were hit, and you know how to reduce your likelihood of being a target in the future. You even know how to try and defend yourself from an ongoing negative SEO campaign. Now, it is time to clean up the mess.

This article is meant to serve as a companion piece to the previous articles in the series. As such, we will once again segment the recovery process into three main areas: links, content and user signals. The good news is that you can recover from attacks in any of those areas; the bad news is that, depending on what type of negative activity you’re attempting to recover from, it could be a lengthy process.

Inbound links

The first step is to build a disavow file of the most toxic links you have identified in your analysis of the attack. You can find more about how to structure the actual file here. While the article is informative, I believe, for psychological reasons, a bigger file looks better, so I recommend listing complete URLs rather than root domains.

Next, you’ll want to craft a reconsideration request if the negative SEO attack resulted in a manual action. Be honest and explain how you found out about the attack; provide any proof you can provide in terms of screen shots that show it was a third party placing these links and not you; and explain what you’ve done to try and clean up the situation, including disavowing.

Should you get resistance from Google denying your reconsideration requests, you’ll need to show multiple attempts to contact the webmasters hosting the “bad” links pointing to your web pages. In the proof submitted to these webmasters (which you will also submit to Google), explain that the links are hurting your reputation and you did not request them.

If the penalty you’ve been assessed is algorithmic in nature, you may simply need to wait until Google processes the disavow file and decides to fold the data back into its calculations. To speed things up, once you have disavowed the URLs, you may choose to accelerate Google’s crawl of those URLs. While there are multiple ways to do this, my favorite involves creating an RSS file with the undesired URLs and submitting the file to multiple RSS aggregation sites.

Negative SEO

Injected content and links

Before you read on, I encourage you to refer back to our article on proactive prevention, as the cleanup of most hacks involves updating security via patching your server and/or moving to a dedicated host.

Similarly, update your robots.txt to ensure you index only the sections of your site you want to be indexed. I also strongly recommend turning off comments if you don’t absolutely need comments on your site.

If you were hacked — which shows up as either a manual action in the form of a link penalty (see above) or a security issue — you’ll need to notify Google of your efforts to fix the hack. Thankfully, Google is responsive when it comes to resolving hacked site notifications and usually will reset the penalty flag.

Unfortunately, being labeled a hacked result means you’ll have more cleanup to do since it will have negatively impacted your user signals. Most sites hacked for search purposes also end up acting as parasitic landing pages for the hackers, so you will need to treat the situation as a link penalty issue as well.

User signals

Cleaning up user signal issues once an attack has stopped is a relatively easy process to conceptualize. To fix artificially poor click-through rates (CTRs) and bounce rates, you need to attract more clicks with a longer dwell time.

How do you do this?

  1. Consider running a contest on your social channels. Require entrants of the contest to perform some nominal actions like navigating to your site and filling out a form. This equates to a brand query in Google, followed by a click, then followed by a form completion.
  2. Go on a positive public relations campaign for something unrelated to the attack. Give to your favorite charities, announce a new product, promote an employee — anything positive you can offer influencers and local media who will help promote the cause. These efforts provide some positive value back to your site.
  3. Fix poor user signals and improve your site. Granted, this will take longer, but it will help improve your overall content and linking strategy.

No matter the specific type of attack used against a site, what I like to recommend post-cleanup is to push forward with an updated content marketing strategy. As you might recall from one of my earlier articles, which recommended making changes to your site to reduce attack vectors, the stronger and more authoritative a site is, the more difficult it is to damage it from a search perspective.

Then why deploy a new content marketing strategy at this point? A winning content marketing plan results in the creation of value-added content which is designed to build a brand and attract users and links. A post-cleanup content marketing strategy will also mitigate risk from future attacks by improving a site’s inbound link profile, indexable content and user signals.

A negative SEO content strategy method

Here is the process we use at Digital Heretix (my company) to mitigate risk and our recovery process.

  • Identify the top three to 10  competitors for your website. We’ll call this group of sites, (including your own) “competitors.”
  • Pull ranking data to determine which search phrases your competitors rank for.
  • Pull your competitors’ search phrases and calculate value from a PPC perspective using Google Ads tools to determine potential user worth.
  • Look at the backlinks for each page of your competitor’s site that ranks in the top 100 in Google.
  • Group the competitor’s keywords and phrases logically, so you can create your own authoritative content comprised of the same/similar phrases.
  • Rank the content development priorities by determining the highest value keywords/phrases and lowest competition. Use data from Google Ads to help determine keyword value. Even if you don’t participate in pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns, you can benefit from PPC data, as it allows you to determine the highest commercial value of a phrase.

After conducting competitive research and performing your analytics, if you determine some content on your site is out of date or not converting, you can update the link references to a better page and modify the content to satisfy your content initiative.  You can also consolidate all content from the non-converting pages to a single authoritative page and permanently 301 redirect the non-converting pages to a new, authoritative page.

If you feel you have content that’s not worth saving, and there are no inbound links to it, use a 410 error code to show the page has been permanently closed and remove all internal navigation.

One last scenario to consider: If the content on your site is relevant and the topics are being used by your competitors, expand the content on your site. Set up a content calendar for the creation of new content assets and stick to a publishing schedule.

If this strategy seems too laborious or confusing, you can skip all of the aforementioned steps by using  It is the only tool I’m aware of that automates the entire negative SEO content strategy method outlined in this section.

Keyword Juicer

Content cannot live in a vacuum; acquiring links and social mentions are needed to promote and give credibility to content.

In our next and final installment of the Negative SEO series, we’ll look into the future of negative SEO and what you might expect to encounter with Google’s ever-evolving algorithms.

Did you miss the first four installments? Here they are:

Part 1: What negative SEO is and is not
Part 2: How to determine if you’ve been hit by negative SEO
Part 3: How to be proactive and prevent a negative SEO campaign
Part 4: How to defend yourself against an ongoing negative SEO campaign

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Joe Sinkwitz
Involved in the search industry since 1997, I've been fortunate enough to place in most facets of online marketing, managing many thousands of domains and clients. Currently, I am Principal of boutique search agency Digital Heretix and CEO of influencer marketing platform Intellifluence.

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