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.

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.