SEO nightmares can keep any website owner awake at night. I thought I would share some of the scary SEO disasters – Halloween style – that I have seen or heard about over the last 18 years. Most can be avoided, but a few may actually make you cringe.
The Internet can be a scary place and some of these bumps in the night can cause your site to be knocked out of the search engines entirely.
Real SEO Nightmares That Will Keep You Up at Night
- Pirates – This scary SEO disaster is caused by having WordPress site hacked with pirates stealing the booty or search engine traffic. This real case of deception was discovered when a new client asked for an SEO evaluation. The site had no analytics to evaluate traffic.
The next step was to search for a few of the top keyword phrases in Google. That is when the pirate’s trickery was discovered. When the website came up in the search engine results, the links looked fine. However, when a link was clicked, the visitor was taken to an entirely different website.
The WordPress driven website had been hacked without the knowledge of the site owner. The pirate’s antics were foiled when the theme’s files were examined, and the “last modified” date showed changes to the theme’s header file.
The Solution: A back up of the theme’s files replaced the hacked files, WordPress was updated to the latest and most secure version, and security was enhanced.
- Thieves – A second SEO tragedy was discovered on two other new clients’ WordPress driven websites. Both sites had been up for years, and the programming had never been upgraded. A simple Google search of “allinurl:domainname” showed hundreds of results for the sites with various forms of pharmaceutically related pages – all on the clients’ websites. This was the result of thieves hacking the WordPress files. In both cases, the thieves had modified a number of theme files.
The Solution: Both sites had no backups of the theme files and had to be replaced by clean themes. WordPress was upgraded for both and security enhancements were made to thwart future attacks.
Later when Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) was set up on each site, the pharmaceutical pages showed as part of each website. It took a very long time for the search engine giant to drop these hacked pages that were no longer valid pages from the system. The 404 – “page not found” counts soared in Google Search Console, and the site owners received alert messages.
- Ghosts – The ghostly SEO disaster of keyword stuffing using white text on a white background was once a common trick to try to gain better search engine placements. This “ghost” was discovered on another website that had been “organically search engine optimized” by an unknown party.
The search engines have gotten very sophisticated, and Google especially will not tolerate such ghostly deceptive practices. The search engine ghostbusters may give a site the boot if this type of phantom practice is discovered.
The Solution: All the white text on the white background was removed.
- Spiders – The next story involves spiders. I’m not talking about the enormous black hairy kinds of spiders that make your hair stand on end. What I am referring to are the search engine spiders.
Several years ago, I was asked to evaluate a WordPress driven website for a potential client who stated that the site was not placing at all in the search engines. Even Googling the company name did not bring up the site in the search results.
It was then discovered that a site-wide “User-agent: *Disallow:” was in the robots.txt in the root folder of the WordPress installation. This “disallow” kept the search engine spiders from indexing the website and kept it out of the results causing this SEO disaster.
The Solution: The disallow directive was removed from the robots.txt.
- Mummies – This is the tale of the mummies that executed “mum’s the word.” Okay, I might be stretching here, but what I am referring to is not creating 301 redirects when moving a website to new a programming language. In other words, they kept quiet and did not tell the search engines that the old pages were now new pages.
This case involved a client that had an established website that had ranked decently for various search terms. They had switched from a static HTML site to a WordPress site on another server.
Unfortunately, they did not implement 301 redirects from the old pages to the new pages after the domain name was pointed to the new server. All of the search engine placements were lost creating a huge SEO catastrophe.
The Solution: This nightmare could have been avoided if the 301 redirects had been in place.
- The Evil Twins – The saga of the evil twins involves duplicate content due to a Content Management System’s pagination or publishing multiple articles across different platforms.
The other side of the evil twin’s sword is plagiarized content that is stolen by others and used on their sites. Google is getting very good at determining the actual creator of the content. However, there have been circumstances where the scraped content actually outranks the actual author.
The evil twins hit our company website somewhere in Africa when a website owner stole our entire website years ago. They replaced our logo and company name with their own. Luckily, we discovered this thievery with the service, Copyscape, and the evil twins were foiled. This SEO tragedy was averted.
The Solution: After contacting the website owner several times over a month, the website was removed.
- Skeletons – Skeleton sites are those with little or shallow content on each page. Recently, I was asked to review the organic search engine optimization of a website.
The first thing I noticed that there was very little text on each page. Google has been clear about how it feels about skeleton sites stating the sites with shallow content. In addition, Google may reduce the ranking of low-quality shallow pages. Not having sufficient text on each page has devastating SEO effects.
The Solution: Pages with shallow content were worked on to add unique and high-quality content.
- Goblins – The account of the goblins involves other sites that demand payment for having a link removed from their site. A few years back, I talked to a very unhappy website owner whose site was plummeting in the search engine results. He mentioned that someone in the company had hired a foreign SEO firm many years ago. That company had purchased backlinks on their behalf for the sole purpose of increasing rankings in the search engines. Hundreds of links to the site had been placed on low quality and unrelated websites.
Although it appeared to work initially, the purchased backlinks ended up causing their site’s placements to nose-dive. Simply put, buying links is an SEO horror story. The solution to rectify this is costly and time-consuming. Each website webmaster must be contacted and asked to remove the link.
It has been reported that some of these website owners are requiring a fee for link removals.
If all else fails, Google’s disavow links tool can be used in situations like this, but it should be used wisely and only if it is absolutely necessary.
The Solution: A spreadsheet was created to identify the websites with links that needed to be removed. Contact information was added, and each one was contacted requesting the removal of the questionable links. It was a long process. However, most links were removed.
- Black Hats – This is the chronicle of the black hat negative SEO practice that may take your breath away. It may be the scariest of all. Competitors or disgruntled employees have been reported as using negative backlink building to “bad neighborhoods” with the sole purpose of causing negative SEO to hurt a website’s rankings. This one is difficult to discover and hard to fix.
The Solution: A thorough backlink audit should be made to determine possible “bad neighborhoods.” The questionable websites should be contacted and asked to remove the links. Again, this is a long process, but a necessary one to stop negative SEO.
These terrifying real-life SEO stories can send shivers down your spine. Similar to Dracula who cannot be seen in the mirror, scary SEO can make your site invisible to the search engines. Most disasters can be avoided, but others will take hard work, patience, and persistence to avoid or fix.
Do you have or know of any SEO nightmares to add to this list? Please let me know if the comments below. I would love to hear your story.