During the recent Majestic Workshop on backlinks held in Milan at SMXL, I presented a case where a website suddenly lost a significant amount of organic traffic, following a massive and impulsive surge in backlink spam.

In this post I’m going to describe:

  • what happened;
  • which recovery actions were implemented;
  • the results obtained.

By no means is this case history to be viewed as “hard evidence” that spam nofollow backlinks are a certain threat to your performance. I am a firm believer there is no general rule or set of guidelines when it comes to SEO and organic traffic. As the complexity of the algorithm(s) increases, there is more opportunity for complexity to get the upper hand and act in an unforeseen way.

Now to the case study…

The Facts

We are dealing with a very small website with content, mostly in Italian, on “Lega Serie A” – Italian Football.

The website:

  • is almost 6 years old;
  • has been constantly updated over the past 2 years;
  • has a focus on data and statistics on referees;
  • did not have any backlinks.

At the beginning of the season, the website was enjoying organic traffic for a select number of keywords when suddenly it “tanked”: that handful of referee-related keywords had lost traction in the SERPs.

In examining the situation the first thing that came to mind was a change of heart by Google… after all the algorithmic updates are on the agenda every other day… but I decided to take a closer look.

For this website, there had been no previous backlink checking with Majestic so I setup an account and to my surprise, I found this:

Majestic Backlink Checker - an impulsive build of SPAM NOFOLLOW backlinks
Impulsive surge in a backlink profile – Majestic Backlink Checker

Over night, the website had been at the centre of an automated backlink building activity. Links were in blogpost comments and therefore nofollowed. I studied the Topical Trust Flow of these backlinks:

Majestic Topical Trust Flow for a website hit by nofollow backlink spam
Majestic Topical Trust Flow

A vast array of subjects, from science to business to computers – all of topic.

I setup a Majestic campaign to follow the evolution of the spam, hoping build-up of spam backlinks would stop sooner than later.

In theory, these links were not supposed to have had any impact whatsoever on organic traffic and rankings – Google has made this public statement many times – for example here:

“…having links (even a large number of them) with rel=nofollow pointing to your site does not negatively affect your site. We take these links out of our PageRank calculations, and out of our algorithms when they use links.”

John Muller – Search Engine Journal, June 14, 2018, No Follow Links and Search Ranking
  • Was the drop in organic traffic algorithmic?
  • Did rankings for those keywords drop because of the backlink SPAM?

I didn’t know and I don’t know today. What I DID KNOW is those links felt like unwanted graffiti. The way I saw this: Let’s take a stand on these links and tell the search engines we have nothing to do with them and see what happens.

What I did next

I prepared for a disavow procedure.

Starting from the complete backlink profile, I downloaded all the links. With the new Link Context, I was able to analyse the links and establish their nature in a matter of minutes.

The backlink profile analysis identified hundreds of domains. My approach to disavowing is to disavow at domain level. I prepared and uploaded the disavow file. Instead of waiting for Google to make a move I try to “encourage” spidering of the source pages where the spam links are placed.

Google Search Console screenshot
Google Search Console Screenshot – Date of first disavow file upload

Majestic Campaigns delivered reports on new backlinks which were processed and new spam domains were added to the disavow file. The spam backlink building continued a few more weeks on a much lower level.

The performance began to pick up with average positions on the rise, especially for the clique of referee keywords and today still have a positive trend with better rankings but they haven’t recovered completely.

Some Considerations

Well let’s start from the facts:

  • Website was ranking
  • Website suddenly had more than 10.000 backlinks
  • Website lost rankings
  • Spam links (all nofollow) were identified
  • Disavow file was created, uploaded and constantly updated until backlink spam ceased to manifest itself
  • Rankings began to improve and are still on the rise towards recovery

Is there a direct correlation between the nofollow spam links and loss in rankings?

Who knows… too much going on out there. I trust my judgement, after all, I have been in the business for 25 years!

But this doesn’t mean I know it all – not in the least. In fact, I did some research and came across a post that says something very similar to what I witnessed and experienced, from a different point of view. Adam, the author of the post, tells us how a nofollow backlink significantly improved rankings for a specific keyword. So if we can assume this is true, then the contrary could also true:

If a nofollow backlink can help rankings it can also hurt them

Sante J. Achille – my 2 cents on nofollow backlinks

If we go down this rabbit hole, and look at the bigger picture, maybe what happened is something like this:

Website A (the subject of this post) was living a healthy and very low profile digital existence and Google decided that, although a microscopic, insignificant website, it deserved to be featured for some queries where Website A sat in the Google sunshine amongst the big players. But suddenly Website A, from one day to another, features a backlink profile that is clearly artificial and spam-related. Google then (algorithmically) thinks: “why did you do this? There was no need for this – it’s totally uncalled for” and frowns upon Website A.

Website A becomes aware of what’s happening and goes back to Google and says (with a disavow file):

“Hey Google I didn’t do this – I have nothing to do with this mess, please disregard these spam backlinks and give me that Google sunshine I was enjoying up until last August”

Conclusions?

The only general consideration I can see is: there is no general rule. In principle, I don’t think it’s worth any effort to fuss over funky links, however, every situation is different and requires a dedicated analysis.

Have you experienced a falloff in rankings following blog spam? Feedback from those with similar experiences is welcomed as are opinions and debate.

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Sante Achille

Search Marketing Specialist at ing. Sante J. Achille
Sante Lives and works in Italy out of L’Aquila, a small medieval town close to Rome.
He has an engineering degree, has worked for major aerospace organizations including the European Space Agency (Noordwijk - Netherlands), and has been working on the web since the very beginning of the commercial World Wide Web in 1994.
With 25 years of hands on experience, Sante has reviewed and optimized hundreds of websites and successfully cooperated with small local companies and large multi-national corporations, offering a wide spectrum of expertise essential to the success of a project.
Sante is a seasoned bi-lingual SEO & web marketing consultant offering services in organic placement, paid search, and content creation, in both English and Italian.
Sante regularly attends and speaks at search marketing conferences and teaches, and offers SEO related courses. Sante is the Majestic Brand Ambassador to Italy.
More information on Sante:
Twitter: @sjachille
Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sjachille/
Sante Achille
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Comments

  • Dirk Johnson

    Thanks for posting this. This is the kind of SEO analysis that I appreciate. No speculation, no posturing, just some facts regarding a situation. As you said, we can never know everything.

    The one obvious question is who initiated this backlink gambit and why?

    December 6, 2019 at 2:02 pm

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