Negative SEO: Competition in Law Firm Marketing Just Got A Lot Uglier
In the day-to-day world of SEO, it is not always that you get to play detective. But when we saw a suspicious and alarming spike in harmful backlinks to our client’s site, we began to dig deeper. What we uncovered — a negative SEO campaign — is a cautionary tale that should strike fear in the heart of every law firm.
As you probably know, relevant incoming links can have a positive effect on search engine rankings. Low quality incoming links, on the other hand, can hurt a law firm’s rankings. About two months ago, my law firm marketing company started seeing new, damaging links pop into the Web Master Tools > Latest Links, for a client of ours in New Jersey. Historically, each time we have noticed this type of activity, upon further digging, we have found that the client (or their SEO vendor) was the culprit. The reason was either a push by their vendor to retain a contract or the client getting duped by an e-mail solicitation for quick rankings.
I asked our friend Conrad Saam for his thoughts and he had a similar answer: “Lawyers frequently jump to the conclusion that the issues their site is experiencing are due to nefarious negative SEO tactics of the firm across the street. I’ve heard this refrain frequently, yet time and time again, it is the law firm (or their agency) that has made major errors with regards to their search strategy.”
This time it was different. Not only was our client affected, but also several of their ranking peers. We decided to dig in, and use the data available to see if we could find the culprit.
The TL;DR Overview
There is definitely a law firm (or their vendor) doing negative SEO in New Jersey and Philadelphia. The infections are isolated to sites that have historically ranked very well, and they reach across SEO vendors. We have identified a couple of potential culprits (one of them the most likely) and have forwarded the data to Google for further examination.
The negative SEO tends to be based around rankings for these terms: New Jersey Personal Injury Lawyer, New Jersey Birth Injury Lawyer, and Philadelphia Personal Injury Lawyer.
What is Negative SEO?
So just what is negative SEO? Bernie Clark, of Majux Marketing defined it well:
“The term ‘negative SEO’ refers to a practice in which a competitor impacts the Internet footprint of your website by engaging in tactics that are likely to trigger a red flag in Google’s algorithm, and thus negatively impact your ranking or even cause Google to drop pages or your site entirely from its search index.”
To see what it looks like, I took a screenshot from an export of a Web Master Tools > Latest Links export. Notice how all the URLs seem to have nothing to do with an attorney’s website? This is a clear signature of negative SEO (as long as you know that this is not from you or your Web vendor).
Here is what one of the links from the above spreadsheet looks like. Notice the term “Lawyer” in the comment. This is the link pointing to our client’s site. This is the type of link that is easy to have placed using automated tools like Scrapebox, or by spending $5 on fiverr.com
One more way to spot negative SEO is to use a tool like ahrefs.com to look at new referring domains to your site. In the screenshot below, you can see nearly 1,000 new domains appear at the end of May onward. This spike should immediately send you running to Web Master Tools to dig into the new links.
What Is Going On In New Jersey?
Apparently a lot. We decided to dig into the data to see what we could find. I asked my coworker Nick Lees, an Analyst at Consultwebs, to pull together some data to see if we could pinpoint a few possible culprits. See below for his methodology.
We analyzed multiple factors of the top 50 sites in the search results for the lawyer-related search terms in New Jersey and Philadelphia (e.g., Philadelphia Personal Injury Lawyer, Personal Injury Attorney NJ, NJ Personal Injury Attorney). Those factors included backlinks, anchor text, SEO provider and on-site content, among others.
Using Ahrefs, we found that a large portion of the highest ranking sites had seen a surge in low-quality backlinks over the same three-month period. Many of these low-quality backlinks overlapped, indicating that someone was using the same harmful backlink campaign against those same clients.
Where possible, we determined the site’s SEO provider. We were hoping to find a pattern in which a certain Web provider’s sites were unaffected. We reasoned that would help us identify the person or vendor behind the campaign. However, there was no clear-cut indication that a specific vendor was using this method against competing sites. Since it seemed unlikely that a vendor would purposely do negative SEO against their own sites, we ruled out the main SEO providers.
At the end of the analysis, two firms stood out.
Both firms were ranking highly for the various search terms.
Both firms were not targeted with a surge of low-quality backlinks over the same three-month period. Both firms had unimpressive homepage content — content that would hardly merit high rankings in such a competitive niche.
One of the sites was only a few months old (new sites are typically harder to rank than older sites) and the other site’s backlink profile consisted mainly of sites from overseas. Having non-U.S. sites in your backlink profile tends to be a signature of manipulative link building and might indicate a willingness to participate in other manipulative tactics.
Taking It a Step Further
Nick had analyzed 150 SERP positions, and we decided to do some digging through the data in Excel and see if we could take his data a bit farther. We pulled all of the Infecting Domains (low quality new domains that had anchor text commonality) into a sheet and then pulled two months worth of back links from Ahrefs of each domain he had analyzed and found with a suspicious increase in links. This allowed us to home in on the exact domains that were targeted by looking at the footprint of known manipulative domains across all the sites. We ended up with 10 domains that had the unique signatures of this attack.
From there we moved to SEMRush so we could see the exact keywords that were being targeted by comparing the common keywords across the hit domains. Those keywords are:
new jersey personal injury lawyer
new jersey birth injury lawyer
We also added Philadelphia Personal Injury Lawyer because while it did not line up with common ranking keywords of all the other domains that were targeted, it did have the highest number of the Infecting Domains pointing to it and it was shared with four of the sites.
So at least we are starting to paint a picture of the culprit – most likely a firm in NJ and Philadelphia that has an emphasis on Birth Injury as well as general PI.
From there we did an analysis of the SERPs from June 1, 2014. This was not prior to the start of the infection, but the closest we could get for all 3 keywords. We were not really at the point where we had high confidence in a specific culprit, so we tried another approach and began investigating what the SERPs looked like at that time.
We hid the local results (since Penguin has historically had little effect on local) and marked the infected sites in red. We then marked all directories in orange (negative SEO on a directory would have very little effect). That allowed us to see what the landscape looked like at roughly the time the attack would have started. Our hunch is that the culprit would be close to the top for these keywords. Why would you be performing negative SEO on the top 5 if you were on page 5? This view allowed us to see one firm that had a presence in Philadelphia and New Jersey, had close rankings to the other sites, and also was not affected like the other sites (light blue above). We now had our most likely suspect.
From there we dug in to the backlinks for the suspect and compared it to the domains that were involved in the negative SEO against the infected sites. Lo and behold, there were nine domains that had been used by the suspect in 2013, that were now involved in the negative SEO of the infected sites above.
With all this said, this is far from the smoking gun, but there is strong evidence that this is the culprit. There is a possibility that the suspect could have been hit in 2013 with some type of negative SEO, but this is doubtful, since the anchor texts were much more carefully chosen for their links.
It turned out that Russ Jones’s team at Virante was working in tandem on another law firm impacted by the negative SEO attack. A Google representative had responded the previous year that “The [search quality] team checked on a few of these [legal domains in NJ], and the recent links aren’t concerning to them.”
What Can Be Done About Negative SEO
For the time being, we are watching the latest links in Google’s Web Master Tools (as well as ahrefs) to include the new URLs in the disavow file for our client’s domain. We have also been in contact with other ethical Search Marketing vendors who have clients in New Jersey, to trade notes. Another option would be to reach out to the websites to try to get the links down, but this is often an exercise in futility due to the low-quality nature of the sites generating the links.
Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting wrote a call-to-arms (of sort) in a recent Search Engine Land article on Penguin. Penguin is the algorithm filter that negative SEO attempts to exploit. In the article, Enge implores Google to have more compassion and a sense of forgiveness instead of the heavy-handed retribution the company levels on people who try to game their algorithm. Says Enge: “Lots of webmasters have these links built for them by bad SEO agencies, and they have no idea what’s OK and what’s not.” He is right that website owners may be completely unaware of what is going on. All too often it is the SEO vendors pushing the limits and doing whatever it takes to get rankings — even going so far as to buy harmful back links to kill off the competition.
A Plea to Google for New Tools
What can be done about these kinds of negative campaigns? In my opinion, Google should include some type of tool in Web Master Tools that notifies you of new links that appear to be harmful, and that gives you the option of easily disavowing them. Most spammers are not going to add Web Master Tools (WMT) to their sites for fear that it will leave a footprint for Google to find. This leaves only the mostly respectable sites that care enough to add WMT to monitor their site’s health.
Until that happens, the short answer here is to immediately add to the disavow file new linking domains that you do not trust. Also, as mentioned above, Google is proactively looking for attacks like this, so hopefully they are on the case as well.
Overall, this was a very time intensive exercise, but a valuable one. As mentioned in the opening, this is the first time in two years that I have seen a real example of negative SEO. It is hard to say whether this is here to stay or not, but it will make our team more vigilant about checking links every month. If this is here to stay then this is just one more example of Google pushing the optimization of their results to individual site owners. It means that:
We have to review all links to make sure nothing harmful is happening.
We are responsible for including rich snippets, authorship, language tags, etc.
We are supposed to include SSL on all sites (even blogs) or risk devalued rankings.
We have to be very careful with guest posts, otherwise Google can subjectively take it as manipulative.
We have to be careful with low-value content, even though a default WordPress site can add hundreds of pages of category and tag content.
We have to be extremely careful who we link to, otherwise one mistake can devalue our rankings.
My hope is that this is just one bad apple and Google can take what we have put together and provide an example for others NOT to follow.