Like most legitimate content marketing agencies, we put a lot of effort into our SEO strategy. We have maintained a first page ranking for Content Marketing Agency the past two years and even received an award for the most traffic growth from HubSpot last year. Our entire business is built on leads that come in from our website. So much so, that we hired a business development person last year to help us manage the inquiries.
Then… this happened:
In less than one month, our visitor count dropped more than 80%. It went from an average of 13,000 to 2,500.What the…?
We pulled out all the stops to figure out what the heck (not the word I want to use) was going on. Could it be a weird leftover Panda penalty that was just hitting us? Could it be a new rule from Google? One suggestion was that the drop was due to a decrease in popularity from a specific blog post, but as the second month of significant change occurred, we noticed that post actually got more views while our traffic continued to increase. And let’s be honest, none of our blog posts get 9,000 views in one month to account for such drastic changes.
Finally, as we were out of ideas and very near to tears, our very helpful HubSpot account manager Jessica McKenzie finally found the first small clue that finally got us digging down the right hole. She said, “Are you perhaps working with a new SEO person? I ask because your portal shows a significant jump (193 to 944) of links in a very short timeframe. Most people gain a link or two every month, while Sprout gained 600. The jump in the linking directly correlates to when your traffic drops as well.”
Of course, we weren’t working with an SEO person and have always managed our SEO strategy in-house. We had never even taken out a Google Ad in five years of business, owing any and all of our success to organic efforts. So, clearly something was very wrong.
Sure enough, the last "normal" week of traffic we had was May 11th and a large quantity of spammy backlinks started appearing on May 14th, which is a definite connection. From Google's perspective, it looked like we were trying to spam their search engines and get a ton of external link juice and they penalized us - hard. Typically, a website gets 3-5 backlinks a month and we were getting 2,000 to 4,000!
Mission on! We reached out to every agency partner we knew to help us figure out where to turn next. And what we found were enough bits and pieces from others to put together a game plan, which is what I want to share with you here. Looking back, I feel very fortunate to know experienced SEO people like our good friend Nick with Engineered Inbound and our Chris Hawkins who worked with me all weekend to stop the bleed. But, not everyone has these resources. I’m hoping the steps provided here will help any other company or agency that faces this type of attack.
Step 1. Find the Culprit
Armed with the knowledge that we were being penalized because of external links, the next step was to find the culprit publishing these links. We purchased a monthly subscription to ahrefs, which lets you investigate all of the backlinks to your site. It creates a nice excel document that lists all links going to your site, the page title, anchor text, when it was placed, etc.
It didn’t take us long to see that one company referenced SPROUT Content and linked to one of our blog posts in 4,000 of their articles. All of these links were "follow" so they affect SEO--negatively in this case, because of the time period.
It was a company that makes websites for youth sports teams, which really didn’t make sense. Upon further digging, it turns out that the company had actually hired a “content marketing agency” to develop content for them. In the articles developed by this agency, the writer referenced information from one of our blog posts about how to write an About Us page and included a link to the post. The company then distributed this content to more than 6,000 websites that it owns.
There are so many bad practices in what we discovered that we have another blog post coming out about how SEO is still the Wild Wild West. But for now, I’ll stick to the story of how they put our rankings into a tailspin.
Step 2. Get Rid of the Garbage
We knew traffic would only get worse the longer we waited to take action because there was a chance that Google hadn’t yet picked up on some of the links that were already published. After many hours of research, it became apparent that the next step to take was disavow these links as soon as possible.
You can definitely Google “how to get rid of backlinks” and you’ll find a lot of articles about disavowing links in Google. I’m telling you right now, none of the tutorials are very easy to follow, but you can get through it and you have to take this action to begin making any progress.
You will need to set up Google Webmaster Tools to disavow the links. Then, it walks you through the steps to take. If you are reading this post and happen to be experiencing a similar issue, give us a call, and we’ll help you out if you get stuck. You’ll know when everything goes through when you get a message similar to the one below.
Step 3. Contact the Source
Now, it was time to reach out to the culprit. In this case, we don’t believe this other content agency was acting maliciously. We’d like to believe that a malicious attack would have been more diversified both in terms of the target URLs and the anchor text (which would have focused on target keywords).
Instead, we think a writer for this company, which we won't name, happened to find one of our blog posts useful to the content he/she was creating and tried to give us credit. Still, we had to let the culprit know they were damaging our business and our reputation with the search engines.
After several phone calls and emails (this was a Saturday so I was grateful that someone responded at all) the company responsible for the distribution assured me that they killed the article. They also said their IT team was working on preventing the pages from getting indexed in the future.
We may never know whether the content marketing agency that delivered the post knew that they were working with a client who distributes duplicate content to over 6,000 sites. It appeared that the main purpose of that article was to build backlinks for their client, through the page headers and footers, but neither the client nor the content marketing agency were going about this the right way. That approach was not helping their client, and it certainly wasn’t helping us.
Step 4. Hope for Change
We believe we’ve taken all the appropriate action to get back in Google’s good graces, but such a huge drop in traffic (15k to 1.5k/month) is very serious to our brand recognition, rankings, leads and sales. We are watching our traffic very closely and happy to report that, while it isn’t back to where it was, it hasn’t gone down anymore. Our hope is that Google will stop penalizing us ASAP and that we start to see improvement again soon.
We also hope to do a follow-up post in a few months explaining steps you can take to get your rankings back up, too. If you have any suggestions along these lines, we’d love to hear from you.
Building link spam is actually a common tactic to reduce a competitor's SEO standing. They trick Google into thinking that you did some black hat link building, and Google penalizes you. Fortunately, there are steps you take to stop the bleed:
- Subscribe to a tool like ahrefs.
- Find the culprit.
- Save all the links as a text file.
- Upload it to Google to disavow.
- Contact the culprit.
- Ask them to remove the article.
- If they don’t report them to Google and/or contact an attorney.
- Continually monitor your backlinks on a regular basis.
The good news is we are still in business, stronger, more alert and ready to keep truckin' on the content marketing bandwagon.