One Blog Post Almost Puts Leading Content Marketing Agency Out of Business - How to Avoid a Spammy Situation

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SPROUT Content gives advice for businesses after being penalized by Google for unsolicited backlinks.

Website Traffic Drops

Sprout Content Website Traffic

Typically, a website gets 3-5 backlinks a month and we were getting 2,000 to 4,000!

Content marketing agencies like SPROUT Content located in Denver, Colorado and Pensacola, Florida build business around organic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy. It’s their job to have their clients’ and their own website rank highly with search engines like Google by creating useful, valuable content that search engines and people crave.

Typically, getting someone to link to their website results in a boost in SEO, but a recent backlink issue almost put SPROUT Content out of business. Now, they are sharing their story to help other businesses prevent the same type of attack.     

SPROUT Content typically receives an average of 13,000 visitors a month to its website. In less than one month, that count dropped more than 80% to just 2,500 visits. After a lengthy investigation into why this happened, it was determined that the number of backlinks, or incoming links from an external website to Sprout’s site, jumped from 193 to 944. The jump in backlinks directly correlated to the traffic drop.

“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!” said SPROUT Content Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Dechay Watts.

The head of Google's Webspam team, Matt Cutts, discussed backlinks earlier this year when he confirmed that Google’s algorithm is still hugely dependent on links. “It turns out that backlinks, even though there’s some noise and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really big win in terms of quality search results… at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that we return the best, most relevant, most topical search results,” said Cutts.

Unless the backlinks come in by the thousands in a spammy way. Since backlinks are here to stay for now, it’s important to monitor who is linking to websites to fight backlink spam. SPROUT Content suggests the following steps to a company whose rankings are in a tailspin from an external link campaign out of their control.

Step 1. Find the Culprit

Armed with the knowledge that they were being penalized because of external links, the first step for the team at SPROUT Content was to find the culprit publishing these links. They purchased a monthly subscription to ahrefs, which investigates all of the backlinks to a website. It creates an Excel document that lists all links going to the site, the page title, anchor text, when it was placed, etc.

It didn’t take them long to see that one company, who makes websites for youth sports teams, referenced SPROUT Content and linked to one of their 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.

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 SPROUT Content’s blog posts about how to write an “About Us” webpage and included a link to the post. The company then distributed this content to more than 6,000 websites that it owns.

Step 2. Get Rid of the Garbage

The next step SPROUT Content took was to disavow these links and quickly. Their team found that online tutorials were somewhat easy to follow combined the directions in Google Webmaster Tools, which walks through the process of disavowing links.

Step 3. Contact the Source

It’s necessary to contact the culprit, whether the attack looks malicious or not. “In this case, we don’t believe this other content agency was acting maliciously,” said Watts. “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 I 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.”

The company responsible for the distribution killed the article after being notified of the issue. However, the damage was already done to SPROUT Content’s reputation as far as Google was concerned.

Step 4. Hope for Change

SPROUT Content is now waiting for Google to stop penalizing it and monitoring its website traffic closely. While traffic isn’t back to the level it was before the backlink issue, SPROUT Content reports it hasn’t decreased again. “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,” said SPROUT Content Co-founder and Chief Content Officer Debbie Williams.

Building link spam is actually a common tactic to reduce a competitor's SEO standing. They trick Google into thinking that there is some black hat link building, and Google penalizes the site. Fortunately, there are steps to take to stop the bleed:

1.    Subscribe to a tool like ahrefs.
2.    Find the culprit.
3.    Save all the links as a text file.
4.    Upload it to Google to disavow.
5.    Contact the culprit.
6.    Ask them to remove the article.
7.    If they don’t report them to Google and/or contact an attorney.
8.    Continually monitor your backlinks on a regular basis.

About SPROUT Content

Dechay Watts is Chief Strategy Officer and Debbie Williams is Chief Content Officer, at SPROUT Content, a content marketing agency with locations in Pensacola, FL and Denver, CO. Watts and Williams are co-authors of the book Brands in Glass Houses: How to Embrace Transparency and Grow your Business through Content Marketing available for purchase at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Content marketing agency SPROUT Content is a certified HubSpot Silver Level Agency Partner and winner of the 2013 HubSpot Partner award for annual website traffic growth.

Andrea Miller
Content Marketing Manager
SPROUT Content
[email protected]
850-607-6981 ext 105

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