9 SEO Nightmares – Real Scary Disasters to Avoid

9 SEO Nightmares – Real Scary Disasters to Avoid

SEO nightmares can keep any website owner awake at night. Here are the scary SEO disasters – Halloween style – that I have seen or heard about over the last 19 years. Most can be avoided. A few may actually make you cringe.

The Internet can be a scary place. 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

  1. Pirates – This scary SEO disaster is caused by having a 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 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.

  2. 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 It took a very long time for the search engine giant to drop these hacked pages that were no longer valid pages from the system.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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 outranks the real 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.

  7. 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 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 prevent or correct.

Your Turn

Do you have or know of any SEO nightmares to add to this list? Please let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear your story.

Fascinated with the growing potential and power of the Internet, Robin founded R & R Web Design LLC in the Chicago area in 2000. As creative director, she is passionate about helping others reach their Internet objectives through a strategic online presence with results driven custom web design, ethical SEO, and social media marketing.

28 comments on “9 SEO Nightmares – Real Scary Disasters to Avoid
  1. Tina says:

    Doesn’t seem like a very Happy Halloween for these people! It’s a good thing the Good Witch was able to come by and make those fixes before Santa Claus comes to town!

  2. Tommy Long says:

    Great post! I really enjoyed reading this post, I like how you tied the Halloween theme into it. You give valuable advice to anyone that wants to avoid an SEO disaster.

    • Hi Tommy,

      I’m so glad to hear that you like this post. I had fun writing it, even though I was covering some very serious SEO disasters. Thank you for stopping by!

      ~ Robin

  3. Hi Robin,

    I love the way you have written this timely post! There is a lot of scary stuff to watch out for. Thank you for bringing these monsters to light.

    I only had a run in with those twins a while back. Yes, they scared the heck out of me at first, but I retaliated. Got down to the problem and poof they were gone as I waved my magic wand.

    I will keep my eye out for the rest. Thanks so much for all this information.


    • Hi Donna,
      Thank you! There is a lot of scary stuff out there to watch out for. I’m glad to hear that your battle with the evil twins worked out so well.
      Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend~
      ~ Robin

  4. Adrienne says:

    Definitely appropriate verbiage for Halloween Robin but I bet none of your clients were very happy to learn when they were being deceived. I’ve heard about some of those practices but I’m so thankful I’ve never fallen victim to them.

    The only issue I’ve ever run into is someone stealing my content and placing it on their own. So maybe you can verify this for me.

    In the past I know they could copy our content and put it on their site legally “if” they gave us full credit and all the links remained in tact. Now I’ve heard that they are only allowed to share parts of the post with a link pointing back to the original post. Is that the case? What can you do about videos where they steal not only the videos but all the tags as well? Remember those days when we had a lot in there? I’m still having a lot of my older ones stolen and of course put on sites with no information and the hosting services have no information. I spent almost an entire day hunting one of those culprits down and I failed miserably. It’s so upsetting.

    Thanks for sharing this one Robin.


    • Hi Adrienne,
      You are right. There were some unhappy moments when the website owners learned that they were being deceived.

      You’ve brought up a great question! The Internet does seem to be the wild west out there, doesn’t it?

      I have no legal training in copyright infringement, but according to my research, it is never all right to copy someone’s work, even if one attributes the author with a link to the original. There are two ways that others can protect themselves against copyright infringement: 1. To contact the copyright owner and ask for permission. 2. To use the copyrighted information if it complies with fair use, however, this can be tricky as the definition of “fair use” may be interpreted differently.

      I know of a number of other bloggers who have republication policies that spell out exactly what their policy is about how others may or may not use their work. For example, Peg Fitzpatrick’s policy states, “You may publish a quote of 100 words or less from the original article with a link to the original article.” For anything over 100 words, one must contact Peg for permission.

      As for someone stealing videos and tags, this is definitely upsetting. I’m sorry to hear that so many of your older ones have been stolen. If all else fails when trying to hunt down the thieves, you can file a take down notice with Google.

      I’ve battled plagiarism as well. Years ago, a web design company in Africa copied our entire website. They replaced our logo and company name with their logo/name throughout the website. I found it through a service we have with Copysentry that alerts us to scraped content. Like you, I spent a lot of time hunting down the culprit. In the end, they did take the website down.

      I do hope that you are able to stop the thieves who have stolen your videos. Thank you for bringing this up, Adrienne.

      ~ Robin

  5. Deb Nelson says:

    Yikes – scary for sure – do not turn your back=> Great post, Robin, reminding us to make sure we’ve got people on the ready to take the scary away.

  6. Scary monsters, Robin! I regularly do my checks on my website and consult my IT guy if something looks peculiar. More often than not, a simple Cpanel tweak solves it but I have experienced not one but about 4 Evil Twins this year which meant going through the hoop of Copyright infringement notices, DMCA filings and even contacting Google who did not quite understand the problem but that particular website must have received a lot of complaints because I’ve noticed it has more or less disappeared (unless it has changed its name).

    The end result was my reviewing my Policies and adding an additional line to state that we aggressively pursue copyright infringements. 🙂

    • Hi Vatsala,
      Thank you for sharing your story about the 4 Evil Twins. I’m sorry to hear that this has happened to you. It can be a long process trying to track down the people who plagiarize, can’t it?

      Again, I appreciate you sharing your story.
      ~ Robin

  7. Timely post of course. Great to read about the terrors that can happen and the fixes. So far, been lucky or too small to be caught.

  8. Hey Robin,

    This fits well with this time of the year. Halloween is right around the corner, and it’s good to give us a little scare of what to look out for and what not to do.

    The only thing I’ve had to do with my blog were 301 Redirects. I had changed the permalink structure last year, but didn’t know what negative effect it would bring. I pissed off a couple of bloggers, but I finally found a plugin that took care of at least 80% of the links.

    It wasn’t a big SEO nightmare, but I like the situations here which gives us an opener of what could happen if we’re not careful.

    Thanks for sharing Robin! Have a great rest of the week!

    • Hi Sherman,

      I’m happy to hear that you found the subject of SEO nightmares helpful. I thought it would fit well for this time of year, too.

      Thank you for sharing your story with 301 redirects. Changing the permalink structure of one’s site can bring some negative effects if the 301s are not in place. I’m glad that you were able to find a plugin that took care of most of the links.

      I appreciate you stopping by, Sherman, and for all your shares! Have a wonderful rest of your week, too.

      ~ Robin

  9. Great post with wonderful analogies that are oh so timely. It is a “scary” world online and seems there is much deception going on when it comes to websites. I keep having people try to gain access to my site and boy are some of them persistent. We are tracking all the false attempts and from your post, it sounds like there is always something to be looking out for. Thanks for the great info as always, Robin.

    • Hi Beverley,

      You are so welcome! It is great to hear that you like the analogies. The Internet can be a scary place. I’m sorry to hear that you are experiencing the attempts by someone – or something to break into your site. There does seem to be something lurking around every corner, doesn’t it? 🙂

      I appreciate you stopping by and for sharing your story.

      ~ Robin

  10. Very creative post! I like how you tied the Halloween theme in. One of my nightmares is not having a back up!

  11. I never knew about Ghosts Robin. Scary indeed, and neat in its own way. Never taking that path of course as I am SEO resistant as is. I focus on creating and connecting but could get my SEO game tight to make a bigger impact and to snag a bit more of search traffic vs the 1 or 2 posts I rank for. Either way, it really helps to know what to avoid to allow things to happen organically on the SEO front. Thanks so much for sharing with us Robin.

    Signing off from Nicaragua.


    • Hi Ryan,

      Welcome to our blog! Focusing and connecting is a stellar plan. I’m happy to hear that you found this helpful and what to avoid on the SEO front. Thank you for stopping by – all the way from Nicaragua!

      ~ Robin

  12. Tamara MacDuff says:

    Hi Robin,
    Love how you tied in the Halloween theme and provided solutions. I do try to talk to some of my web designer partners about security and updates, etc. that they should offer; and I have received the response, “I haven’t had any hacking attempts, etc.” so they don’t use ANY security – they design and code the site and then do SEO set it and leave it – no follow ups. I will be using this as a resource for my reasoning. Thank you for being a great 3rd party source for me!


    • Hi Tamara,

      I’m thrilled to hear that you liked the Halloween theme and the solutions to these SEO nightmares. I have seen one too many hacking attempts, and am a firm believer in regular website/database backups. I appreciate you considering me for a 3rd party source and for stopping by!

      ~ Robin

  13. Mallory says:

    I have one I’d like to call “The Creature from The Black Lagoon of Spun Content.”

    We have a client at my day job that has been paying a copywriter to publish thin, “spun” content for years and he’s been posting this content on article directories like it’s still 2010. Better yet, the company is based in Atlanta, GA but the writer is based in the UK and most of the directories he’s posted to for link-building purposes are also based in the UK.

    Meanwhile, the company also has a ton of this poorly written, low-value content on their own website (literally hundreds of pages of it) and they are still refusing to remove it. We’ve been trying to convince them that this is an issue for months, but because they haven’t seen a rankings penalty yet, they’re convinced that it’s not a problem.

    • Hi Mallory,

      Wow! Thank you for sharing your tale of “The Creature from The Black Lagoon of Spun Content.” It doesn’t look like it will have a happy ending unless the content is changed.

      I appreciate you sharing this story, Mallorie. Thanks again!

      ~ Robin

  14. Crystal says:

    I think I am having an issue right now with “theives”
    when I search site:mysiteaddress my site comes up with different names that don’t relate to my website at all but still link to my site.