A Step-by-Step Guide to Protecting Yourself Against Negative SEO

negative seo

You’re checking the backlinks pointing to your site, as you do occasionally, when you see it:

huge spike in links.

At first, you’re not sure whether to be excited or scared, but when you look closer, your fears are confirmed—you’re being attacked.

Someone is bombarding your site with spam links (like the ones below) in the hopes that you will be penalized by Google.

image12

It’s likely a competitor, but it’s almost impossible to tell who.

While this type of scenario is most likely to happen in competitive niches, it can happen anywhere.

The term for it, as you may know, is negative SEO.

Will it hurt your rankings?

It can. There are many stories in forums of negative SEO causing organic search traffic to crash.

However, you should first understand whether there’s a real risk to your site.

In order to get penalized by Google, the number of spammy backlinks would have to be overwhelmingly huge compared to the number of good links.

For a site such as Quick Sprout, there’s almost no risk that a negative SEO attack would be successful because it has hundreds of thousands of quality links pointing to it.

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If your site has only a few hundred links, or even a few thousand, that’s when you need to be concerned.

I have some good news for you (among the bad): If you do get attacked, it sucks. It will cost you weeks or months of lost revenue. However, you can almost always recover from negative attacks.

Additionally, if you follow the four steps that I lay out in this post, you’ll be able to prevent negative SEO attacks from causing any real damage most of the time. 

Step #1 – Automate your data updates

The first thing you should do is get regular updates about your site’s health.

To do that, log in to your Google webmaster tools account and go to Preferences. Next, make sure that the “Enable email notifications” box is checked:

image04

While you can pick specific issues to be notified of, it’s best to set the type to “all issues.”

You’ll immediately get notified if there are any signs of foul play like getting hacked or having malware on your site.

Next, get email updates about new backlinks: The longer you wait to address a negative SEO attack, the more likely it is to be successful.

If you get a daily email that gives you a quick overview about new links pointing to your site, it will be obvious when someone spams your site.

If you see an abnormal quantity of links or tons of links with anchor text such as “pills,” “payday loans,” etc., you have an issue.

There are a few tools that can help you track your backlinks.

A free option is OpenLinkProfiler.

As a free option, it’s limited, but it’s still a decent solution for small sites.

Once you create an account, go to the Backlinks panel, click “Link Alerts,” and then input your website and email:

image03

You’ll then get a daily email that lets you know whether any new backlinks were detected.

Alternatively, Ahrefs (a paid tool) also has this feature, but it has a more reliable (and sizeable) database.

You can either look at new links manually by going to the “new links” page:

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Or you can also go to the “email notifications” section and change the status of new/lost backlink notifications to “Daily”:

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Again, you’ll get a nice email summary every day.

You don’t need to do anything big with these email summaries. Just take a 10-second scan of them for anything out of the ordinary.

Step #2 – Monitor your top backlinks

There’s one more type of negative SEO attack you should be aware of although it’s far less common than the ones I mentioned above.

Sometimes, someone doing negative SEO will create a new email account similar to yours (e.g., Neil.Patel38388@gmail.com) and then email sites that link to you asking them to take down the link to your site.

This is clearly unethical, but some people don’t care.

While you can’t monitor all of your links, you can keep track of the best ones.

You can find your best ones with any backlink database tool. On Ahrefs, you type in your site in the “site explorer” tool, and then click on “links” in the sidebar:

image05

This will bring up a list of links to your site, sorted by URL rank by default.

Get to know your top 20 or so links well because they’re likely the ones that will be targeted.

From here, do two things:

  • pay special attention to them in the “links lost” section of those emails we set up in step 1
  • check all of them manually once in awhile (maybe once or twice a month) just in case one slipped by. You could create a tool to do this for you if you’d like.

Finally, you may be able to prevent a negative SEO attack from being successful by doing all your outreach from an email address for your domain (e.g., Neil@QuickSprout.com).

Then, add a line to your signature that reads something like this:

This is the official email address I use for all matters regarding (site name).

That way, some of your contacts may notice something fishy when they get a removal request from a different email.

Step #3 (if applicable) – Monitor and report fake reviews and mentions

This next step applies mostly to local businesses although any website can implement it to be safe.

Many businesses get links from review sites such as Yelp:

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These links often carry a lot of weight since Yelp is an authoritative site in the eyes of Google.

However, the quality of the link you get from Yelp depends on how your business is weighed compared to other businesses in your industry.

For example, if someone searches for plumbers in Florida, they get a page like this:

image15

That’s the page that’s most authoritative to Google, not the individual profile pages for each business.

But the profile pages are the ones with links going back to the businesses’ sites.

Finally, the higher up on the page the link is within the search results, the more authority is transferred to the profile page, which is then transferred to the actual business website.

This is because links higher on a page are generally more important than those lower on the page.

A competitor involved in negative SEO has an opportunity to hurt you in a few ways here.

The plan will be to leave negative reviews on your profiles, which will lower your rankings on sites like Yelp. This in turn hurts you by:

  • lowering your search engine rankings
  • lowering the number of customers who hire you based on those reviews

If someone resorts to those dirty tactics, react quickly.

Since you should know all your customers, it should be easy to spot fake reviews right away even if they’re well written.

Dealing with them is pretty easy in most cases. Sites like Yelp usually have a “report this review” button available to the owner of the business profile:

image02

The tricky part is finding the fake reviews in the first place and doing it fast enough so that you can remove them before they cause any damage.

To find them, use some sort of a monitoring tool.

Google Alerts is an amazing free tool that is enough for most, but there are also advanced tools you can use if you feel that you need more.

Once you’re signed in, enter the term you want to create an alert for into the text box. Then, click the Options link below to expand your options:

image17

I recommend getting these alerts at least once a day.

You should set up alerts for all the names that could be used for your brand. For example:

  • Quick Sprout
  • QuickSprout
  • Neil Patel
  • Misspellings – e.g., Neal Patel, Quik Sprout

From the emails you get, you can quickly find reviews of your brand and its mentions in groups and forums.

This will help you not only protect yourself from negative SEO but also maintain a good brand image in general.

Finally, you also might want to manually monitor specific review sites that are really important to your business.

They could be Yelp, Amazon, Angie’s List, etc. If they send you customers on a regular basis, check in with them once every day or two.

Step #4 – Disavow bad links

The final step is a last resort.

In theory, the best plan is to just not make any enemies, but even that doesn’t always work.

Eventually, you may be faced with that huge spike of spammy links that threaten to destroy your Google rankings.

You need to make sure that Google doesn’t count those links when the algorithm is deciding where to rank your pages.

It’s a tool that can be dangerous because it can actually harm your rankings if used incorrectly:

image16

Basically, you create a text file that contains all the URLs that should be ignored, and Google will do that the next time it crawls any of those pages.

However, if you disavow a link that was actually helping one of your pages rank well, that page now has one less good link.

What this means is that you need to be careful, and I’ll show you how to do just that.

A possible shortcut: If you have an Ahrefs account with a standard plan or higher, you have access to a disavow feature.

You can turn it on beside the main search bar:

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In the link reports, you’ll see an option to disavow a URL or domain by clicking a link:

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At any point, you can go to your “disavow links” and export a file that could be uploaded into the disavow tool.

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This will save you time in the long run because you don’t need to worry about tracking old links that you’ve disavowed, but it’s not mandatory either if your account doesn’t support it.

Disavowing manually: This is the option that most use, and it works fine.

First, you’ll need to download as many backlinks pointing to your site as possible. It’s difficult to get all the links, but if you use multiple sources, you can get a good number of them.

Start with Google Search Console (former Webmaster Tools). If you go to the backlinks section, there’s an option to download sample links and “latest” links. Do both:

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Then download whatever links you can get from backlink databases such as Ahrefs, Majestic, Open Site Explorer, and Open Link Profiler.

Add them all to one giant spreadsheet. All you really need is the URL/domain name.

Here’s the scary part:

You need to determine whether each link is legitimate or not.

This involves a lot of manual tedious work for large sites.

You can use some shortcuts such as:

  • looking for spammy domain extensions (e.g., “.ru”)
  • looking for spammy anchor text (e.g., “viagra”)
  • looking for well-known domains that are obviously good links

That’s the bulk of the work. You’ll have to visit many URLs to check them. Consider dividing this work up if you have a team.

Next, you need to strip the trailing URL data so that all you have left is the domain name.

To do that in Excel or Google sheets, use this formula in a column next to the URLs:

=left(B1,find(“/”,B1,9)-1)

Drag the corner of that cell down so that the formula is applied to all the URLs in the column:

image10

In the example above, you’d start with column B and end up with the bare domains in column A.

Next, get rid of the “http://”, “https://”, and “www.”. You can do this with a simple “find and replace” function (replace each phrase with a blank space).

image07

Next, highlight all the domains and remove the duplicates.

Finally, you need to add the term “domain:” in front of all the sites so that the disavow tool knows to discount links from the entire site.

While you can disavow specific URLs, it’s usually best to remove all the links from the spammy domain.

Do this by using the formula:

=”domain:”&A1

Here is the resulting table:

image13

You should now have a list like the one in column B above.

Finally, copy and paste these into a simple text file:

image11

You can add comments using the “#” sign, but those are just for you. The disavow tool simply relays the information about the links to the search engine’s algorithm.

Finally, go into the disavow section of your Webmaster Tools account, and choose the domain that these links affect:

image00

After clicking that button, you can upload your disavow text file.

As long as you did everything right, you’ll get a success message like this:

image09

It’s a lot of tedious work, but it’s not too complicated.

Within a week or two, Google should remove most of those bad links from consideration.

Conclusion

Negative SEO is a terrible business practice, but some people still use it.

I’ve given you a 4-step process that will protect you against the bulk of potential negative SEO attacks or at least limit the damage they do.

I encourage you to employ these steps as soon as possible because they aren’t very useful if you use them long after the damage has been done.

Have you ever been affected by negative SEO? Share your experience in a comment below.

Comments

  1. Wow neil, needed this one, also pinged you on facebook if you remember !
    Seriously my site was getting screwed by some 404 backlinks, around 4-5 everyday, although I think disavowing will take time, but maybe it’s the only option, right?
    Anyway thanks, will update this comment with the results 🙂

    • Great, I’m glad this post was useful. I know how annoying it is to have your metrics messed up from spam.

  2. Rohan Singh :

    Recently, on my nutrition blog, I moved to 9th page of google from 1st page for 2-3 keyword, after checking link profile, i found there was 1 spammy link which caused this.
    That webmaster alert email option is good enough to get notification for spammy links. Very helpful to secure our Blogsite.
    T

    • Excellent! 1 apple that will spoil the bunch, so it’s important to monitor your link profile. I’m glad this was useful for you

  3. Garit Boothe :

    As usual, great article, Neil. I had to deal with this once before, and I went a little overboard on the disavowing. That being said, it was worth it. I hadn’t thought about negative SEO for reviews. That’s a great point!

    • It’s an annoying process I know, but you’ll be happy you invested in the time doing it in the long run.

  4. Md Shahzad Hassan :

    Hey Neil sir,
    Is Negative Seo is one of the reason for penality?
    Buying .gov .edu link from feverr will give my blog penality?
    Do footer & sidebar link from other sites harm?
    If i fill my footer with links with variation of keyword all pointing to my homepage is this harm?

    • Yes, negative SEO will hurt your site.

      Any .gov or .edu links for fiverr are more than likely spam.

      footer and sidebar links that have exact match keywords may spam.

      Most of what you said are strategies that will cause your site harm.

      Create good content and promote it. Do guest blogging in efforts to build up some quality links.

  5. Bruno B @ Geeky Explorer :

    Great info Neil, thanks!

    However can’t seem to find the option to download the links on Google Search Console.
    All I got to download is a table with “anchor texts”.

    Does anyone know where to go?

    • Check out this article https://www.quicksprout.com/2014/05/28/when-and-how-to-use-the-google-disavow-tool/

  6. Hey Neil, Good Post! I love the option of automate update through webmaster, till now I always use the webmaster option called “links to your site” to check from which website I am getting links as I think Google only show that data after crawling.

    Well thanks for this nice write up.

    • That’s great, glad I could help Deepak! If you have any other questions I can help you with, please don’ hesitate to ask!

  7. Pankaj Dhawan :

    Hi Neil,

    This is a perfect guide, thanks for this info. People often talk about SEO but nobody talks about negative SEO. You have created a very informative piece of content here, thanks again!

    • You’re welcome Pankaj! Now more than ever, spammy tactics are becoming incredibly popular, so this should help bring some light from the darkness

  8. Aleric Stone :

    Thank you so much for this article. My website has recently been attacked and have been searching on things that I can do. This has helped me so much, I had no idea you could disavow.

  9. Nice meaningful Article Neil , i learned a lot thanks again. Im building a niche amazon site hope to get a guide from you next times

    • Sounds like fun Aziz. Since we started the 100k challenge, I’ve been becoming much more familiar with Amazon, so perhaps in the near future.

  10. Very interesting, i get garbage back links all the time. I understand this better and it will help me.

  11. Rachael E Stout :

    Neil,

    I didn’t even know that people did negative SEO until now. I don’t think my sites are big enough to worry about it now, but it’s good to know about it.

    I will definitely be downloading openlink

    Thank you!

    • I think it’s going to be an increasingly popular topic as more people start creating websites, but luckily we have ways to protect ourselves.

  12. Gaurav Singh :

    Hi..! This article is really helpful for me … can you tell me how i can identify bad backlink of my websites.

    • I would suggest you manually visit the sites that are linking to you and check to see if it’s quality, relevant website. You can even use tools like ahrefs.com to help you discover bad and spammy back links.

  13. Great article Neil. I went through a disavow about a year ago and it was a pain in the neck. Your article covers the details well. Thanks for sharing.

    • I hear you, it’s not a fun process, but it’s all part of journey. You’re welcome, let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.

  14. Once again, you never stop learning. I’d never heard of negative SEO before, so thank you for education me and for the tools you shared with us. 🙂

    • You’re welcome Pedro. I hope this post helps you better understand the landscape and allow you to make effective decisions.

  15. Hector Ramos :

    Great article. I’ve notice that my website has been getting thousands of links in the last two weeks from one single website that I don’t know nothing about. I’ve been building natural backlinks myself, but the difference of links is tremendous from my natural link building and this one website. Should I get rid of the links from that one website?

    • Take a look a look at those websites and judge the quality and relevancy. If it looks totally fake, spammy, or just not a site that should be linking to you, I would remove it.

  16. Dustin Mahurin :

    This was a fantastic article, Neil. We had a client recently who was targeted with malicious SEO practices, and though we used many of the steps you covered here, it was nice to see them in an easy to read, detailed format.

    • Great, well I’m glad you were able to get some reassurance from this. If you have any questions though, please don’t hesitate to ask. Good luck with your client’s site!

  17. Thank you ! Neil i was in great need of this post. Actually one of my project is facing this type of negative SEO attack. Thanks again for mentioning these nice steps. I would love to read if you can ever provide us something, which can permanently block these attacks?

    God bless you!

    • I’m sorry to here that Usman. I haven’t figured out how to block them permanently, but will write a blog about it if I do 🙂

  18. Raja Koppula :

    Nice guide, as me may not aware of it. thank for sharing it.

    Regards,
    Raja Koppula.

  19. Good article. I’m glad you have reminded me about google alerts!
    Scrapebox will do url trimming for you in no time.

  20. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for this article, I sometimes worry about this as I have a new site, it actually makes me wary when commenting on blogs as you never know but then you need to get out there too. Thanks for the tips I have set up my alerts, so hopefully I can avoid…

    Thanks
    Joe

    • You’re most likely in the clear Joe, since you’re aware of it now. If it ever becomes an issue, take care of it asap and you’ll be fine. You’re also more than welcome to ask me any questions.

  21. Bhuboy de Leon :

    Is webmaster tools preferences same as Search Console Preferences? because that what I can see only, and it says one message a month and in your photo its says once a day, wondering maybe I am looking at different page.

    Thanks for Open Link profiler its really a helpful tool, and I never thought of using google alert that way , will try to use to monitor my site

  22. Robin Khokhar :

    Hi Neil,
    I think you have stated some good tips to overcome negative SEO. Thanks for the amazing share.

  23. Great blog. I know about the negative seo but i know how to protect my site also. thanks for sharing

  24. shiva subba :

    Great piece of stuff. While reading out I found it as a strategy of content marketing to promote your product ahrefs.com . It would have been more useful if you had mention more and other free tool to help in negative SEO.

    Last, Overall nice try.

    • Ahrefs isn’t my product, but it’s a very powerful and highly recommended software solution. I will think of some free one, though none come to mind right now.

  25. Prashant Sharma :

    Amazing post Neil. I just recently started Disavowing bad links using the moz tools. I don’t really know that kind of boost it will bring to my website though. Great tips in there

    • Good for you to get that take care of. Let me know if you notice any changes over the next couple of weeks.

  26. Prashant Sharma :

    Amazing post Neil. I just recently started Disavowing bad links using the moz tools. I don’t really know that kind of boost it will bring to my website though. Great tips in there.

  27. Hi Neil Sir, Really Nice Guide. Before the post, I just wanted to backlinks but I don’t care reputed backlinks. Google always keep it in mind while raking any blog.
    A Question for you —
    A blog (same niche) has 3000 alexa rank and offer to show your text link ad here. I check it gives do-follow backlink. Is it safe to show text link on the blog ??

  28. Vimlesh Maurya :

    Neil, once again you have proved that why you are best. One of the best SEO post of the year.

    Thanks a lot for sharing and keeping us updated.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed reading it Vimlesh. If you get stuck or have any questions I can help with, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  29. mariage caftan :

    Hi Neil, great post as expected, i would like to add that there is another type of negative SEO ; using proxies and automatic surfing for a specific keyword in huge numbers to higher bounce rate.

  30. I have added my site’s link in footer of several sites as ‘Powered By” and few of the sites have more than 10k and 20k pages. Is it safe to add links in footer or will it impact in ranking ?

  31. Chung Phang :

    Hi Neil,
    You just provided one of the best solutions for lots of internet marketers at the right time including myself. It’s been quite long since Indian bloggers are searching for this solution due to some Negative SEO work. However, you have come up with the most important and best solution to this problem.
    Thank you so much for such informative guide.
    Best Regards

    • You’re welcome Chung, I’m happy to help! This should help you out a lot, but if you have questions, feel free to reach out.

  32. I agree Neil, it is somewhat easy to sabotage a competitor, however it is becoming much harder nowadays with all the updates Google is making to its algorithm. A sudden spike in links pointing to you will most likely be ignored by Google. For this to actually work, you need to try to replicate someone trying to trick Google to rank for some given keywords, by over optimizing for some keywords, building side bar, blogroll links etc

    • True, it’s getting better for us. At the end of the day that one’s who will survive are going to be the ones who adapt to the constantly changing environment.

  33. Yeah! Cool article Neil, I will use your tip to protect my site.

  34. Hai Neil,

    Earlier most of SEO Analyst were talking only about White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO but after several Google Updates, the Negative SEO term become familiar. Still i see many SEO Analyst are not aware about the term Negative SEO, this post definitely help them to understand the term.

    An effective article with very very practical information. Good work.. Neil..!!

    • As the SEO landscape grows in size and quality, we must upgrade the way we think and make decisions into the future. Glad this was helpful.

  35. Hi Neil,
    Great post i read each and every point its relay nice post i,m doing a real state business last 4 year in the benign i don’t know about seo a heir a seo freelancer but after 2 year work i did not get any result but now i know abot seo so how can i analysis my old link there is any way to analysis those back-link which is build by my privies seo freelancer?

    • I would use a tool like ahrefs.com to look at the links that were built, and then use google’s disvow tool to get rid of anything spammy.

  36. Debadeep Biswas :

    Hello Neil,

    Thanks for the informative step by step guide. Negative SEO does hurt a site and I always prefer to stay safe from any Penalty causes by them.

    • It’s better to take the time to understand so you can make much more effective decisions going forward.

  37. Shashank Gangari :

    Wow, that was a pretty awesome article, after reading this article I got to know all the mistakes I have been doing. Thanks a ton bro, this helped me a lot 🙂

  38. Totally a new thing to know. Thanks Neil for sharing this informative post.

    • You’re welcome Bharat. Let me know if you have any questions about what you read, I’m here to help 🙂

  39. I would say that I have learnt a hell lot more now about keeping stuffs within the guards. Thanks Niel! You are a awesome guide!

    Love your posts.

    • You want to know about everything that goes within your domain… your environment. Protect your site from predators and allow it to flourish.

  40. Hi Neil,

    Thank you for providing reader-friendly information about SEO. It has certainly helped answer some queries I had.
    I do have another query which I’m hoping you can answer.
    I have just started a new job, one of my tasks is to coordinate a new website.
    The corporation I work for has a domain name which is the acronym of the name. We have an affiliated board which has it’s own website. The domain name for the board uses the first two distinct words of our corporation name. Consequently the board rates higher because our customers cannot remember the acronym and therefore search for the two distinct names. The board website receives customer queries that are meant for us.
    Anyway, we are now building a new website (long story which involves being black-hatted) and I have the option to use the two distinct names as our domain name. Our only difference to the board domain name will be ‘org’ not ‘com.au’.

    Will we be able to rank above ‘com.au’? The board website will be one of our backlinks and vice-versa.
    We are also thinking of keeping the acronym domain name and also the ‘org.au’ version of the two name.
    I hope I haven’t confused you!
    Any advice would be appreciated 🙂

  41. Matthew Warren :

    Wow, it really is tough to come back from a negative SEO attack. There’s some really great information here about what to be aware of, and how to protect your site.

    Google’s solution would be so simple if they would just discount the garbage.

  42. Imtiaz Ahmed Shuvo :

    Hi Neil, thanks for the nice guide on Negative SEO. I know how bad it feels when your money site is attacked by haters with the negative SEO. Can you please write a brief article of Disavowing unnatural/bad links. Thanks again.

  43. Neil, you are deleting comments? What is your criteria for deleting a comment? I see nearly everything is positive and praising you. I’m assuming if it isn’t praising you, you delete it?

    Seems to be the case for my comments anyway.

  44. Hey Neil great post as usual. What criteria do you use in disawowing a link? Any specific domain or page authority or smth else? Like you said before accidentially disavow a good link would mean one good link less. Imagine if you disavow many good links the performance could go down a lot.

    • Take a look at this post Johan https://www.quicksprout.com/2014/05/28/when-and-how-to-use-the-google-disavow-tool/ and let me know if that helps

  45. Devendra Meena :

    HI neil,
    good post to read in the morning.

    I’m curiouos about Ahref’s Disavow option — How this is relateed to google search index .

    PS – you care for you visitors/subscribers more than google/ (This post’s title on G Index is ‘A Step-by-Step Guide to Protecting Yourself Against…’)

  46. Hello Neil, I am confuse about different between bad links or not.. I think many backlinks are spam (from comment).

  47. Hemang Rindani :

    Online credibility depends on how good you are at SEO. The recent changes in search engine algorithm made SEO more sophisticated where there are defined set of Do’s and Don’ts. To make it simple, SEO revolves around three words, Quality, Relevancy and Quantity. There are certain crucial areas (like URL structure, Meta Tag, Content and Images) of a website that are now very important from SEO perspective. Formulate a strategy to determine the loopholes in them and address them asap. It the website is working on any of the enterprise web content management systems like WordPress, Sitefinity CMS etc. then this task becomes lot easier.

    Thanks for the insightful article Neil.

    • It’s becoming more difficult for people without credibility to be seen, and easier for people with credibility to get rankings

  48. Really useful article thanks. I was under the impression that Google Search Console would tell you about any links that it considers to be negative so that you only need to use the Disavow tool if you see warnings in your Search Console. Is this correct?

  49. Hi Neil,

    I think all big brands must be doing it. If they are not doing it already it is a big market for SEO companies to reach out to them and tell them about the negative SEO and its impact on their business. Interesting guide through.

  50. sena sofia :

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all people you really understand what you’re speaking approximately!

    Bookmarked. Please additionally discuss with my web site =).
    We may have a hyperlink alternate agreement
    among us

  51. Emilee C Hatch :

    Many people do negative to get others site penalised.. Even I am scared of these stuffs.. But again thanks to Neil! You have saved many website owners by sharing such important piece of information..

  52. Sue J. Maselli :

    Great post ever

  53. Another great article!!!

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