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Busting the Black Hats

Negative SEO: Three Strategies for Surviving High-Tech Attacks

A law firm guide to recognizing and protecting against SEO dirty work.

By Darryl Isaacs

Law is definitely one of the most competitive industries for search engine rankings, especially when targeting local SEO. And if you practice in the most competitive practice areas — personal injury, DWI, family law — it’s fairly safe to predict that someone out there will try using negative SEO to take down your firm. Fortunately, spotting negative SEO tactics isn’t too difficult.

Recognizing the Tactics of a Negative SEO Attack

I regularly hear from my marketing team that someone has launched a negative SEO attack campaign, trying to hurt our law firm’s rankings. I’m competitive and can appreciate the need to be an aggressive marketer, but it absolutely drives me crazy when I hear reports like these during our marketing meetings:

  • Competitors creating fictitious directory listings for our firm with the wrong business information, such as my practice areas. More than once, I’ve seen incorrect and misleading listings that were created by others associating our firm with divorce law and other practice areas we don’t handle.
  • Spammy random comments on online forums. Usually, the comments have absolutely nothing to do with the topic being discussed. But guess what? They always remember to link to our website.
  • Someone using explicit anchor text and externally linking with it to pages on our website. Back in the day, it was easy — choose targeted keywords, then use those exact words to anchor the links back to your site. But now pages using that method can be penalized because Google may see it as an attempt to manipulate rankings. So, when I see someone using and linking text like “Louisville Personal Injury Attorney” in our case, instead of linking a natural brand mention or simply “website” or the URL, it’s a sign of a potential negative SEO attack.

Bottom line with these negative SEO tactics and attackers? They are trying to mislead Google and its users, pointing them in the wrong direction, and it can really pack a punch.

Negative SEO Services Done Dirt Cheap

Negative SEO is a real threat. And I’m hearing from more and more peers in different states or practice areas who are forced to build a strategy against these types of attacks. Unfortunately, whoever wants to start doing negative SEO can jump right in, or very easily find people to do this type of work (really cheap, by the way) on websites live Fiverr, sometimes for under $10.

If you entertain your own search for “negative SEO,” you will find black-hat forums that are full of stories from people who have succeeded with this technique, right alongside companies bragging about their methods with language like “hire the very best.”

Building a Strategy to Deal With Negative SEO

The good news is there are ways to protect yourself from this type of dirty work.

1. Ask your marketing team to create a list of the backlinks you should remove. My team typically uses software like Ahrefs and SEMRush to create a list of all backlinks (URLs) pointing to our website. After downloading or exporting the spreadsheet with all backlinks, sort by anchor text. This will allow you to go after the backlinks with explicit and offensive anchors first.

Then, sort by Domain Authority and investigate, one by one, by visiting each URL and verifying whether or not it’s toxic. Then, you will have a complete list of toxic links to confront.

Continue to monitor any new backlinks that come in, starting the day after you first download the full spreadsheet of backlinks.

The next step is to try to remove these backlinks because they are, in fact, toxic to the health of your website.

2. Try to remove the toxic links. There is only one way to remove links: You must contact the offending website. Sometimes this task isn’t so tough, as certain websites may offer several ways to get in touch with them or offer good customer support. But all too often with toxic links, the offending sites have minimal or nonexistent contact information.

In that case, you have to try contacting the website owner with the minimal information offered. When no information is offered, you’ll need to research the author (if it’s a blog post) or use GoDaddy’s WHOIS domain lookup tool to find out about who has registered the domain and attempt contact that way.* If none of these tactics work, read on.

3. Disavow toxic links. This is the last option and should be done with great care. With a “disavow,” you are basically letting Google know which domains or URLs you don’t want to be considered when their algorithm calculates rankings. To notify Google, you upload a .txt file through the Disavow links tool. The Disavow tool was invented to send a message to people taking the less-than-ethical SEO path. Former Googler Matt Cutts talks about Google’s Disavow tool here.

We should note that not everything that looks like negative SEO always is negative SEO — sometimes it’s just annoying. And just because it’s a dirty trick, that doesn’t mean Google will use it against you. (This in-depth series on Search Englineland explains more.)

In the most competitive practice areas, however, negative SEO isn’t just annoying — you can take a significant financial hit if your search rankings begin to tank.

Stay in the Game and Win the Negative SEO Battle

Your competition may be using negative SEO tactics in an attempt to take you down, but there are ways to make sure none of those dirty efforts negatively affect your SEO. Make sure you understand the basics of your website analytics and check your Google analytics dashboard regularly. Then, if you notice anything unusual, you can take steps to deal with it.

Bottom line: Defending against negative SEO as an important investment in your firm and its continued growth.

Related Posts on Attorney at Work

*If you’ve ever hired an SEO agency or someone to build links for you, you might want to ask whether they’ve registered additional sites in your name.

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Darryl Isaacs

Darryl Isaacs, known as “The Hammer,” is an auto and truck accident lawyer with Isaacs & Isaacs, the Louisville, KY, firm he founded with his father, the late Sheldon Isaacs. Darryl, who recently celebrated 25 years in practice, is licensed to practice in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, and earned his J.D. from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. Follow him @IsaacsandIsaacs.

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