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Backstory...

Today I received an email from the Google Search Console reporting a huge increase of 404 pages on my site. Upon investigating I found hundreds of sites linking to my pages that simply don't exist, apart from the large number this didn't surprise.

Upon investigating further I found these pages to be linking to my site using canonical links in the <head>, for example: <link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/tag/grup-h/">, the worrying part is that I'm only aware of this situation because those canonical pages are linking to pages that do not exist, the ones that do exist will not be reported by Google or Bing.

I've done some research and found some conflicting views and unable to find anything with evidence such as a statement from Google or Bing on the issue.

This brings me to my question(s):

  • Does negative SEO via canonical links work?
  • How can it be detected for working urls?
  • How to prevent it?
  • How to recover?

It is my understanding that relevance transfers from one site to the other using canonical, all these sites are drugs, gambling and porn, obviously a malicious attack most likely someone testing some software or one of my local competitors. If this is untrue considering that canonicals have been out for over a decade why would people use this method if it didn't work? confusing.

  • 1
    Dang good question! Canonical should only be a suggestion and this sounds like there is more to the eye as far as how Google or Bing might use them. Canonicals are not as straight forward as people think they should be, still, when they are as far apart as you state they are, porn and the like, you and I would consider this a no brainier. But we all know that Google has made collosal mistakes before. So who really knows? I would assume that some level of content analysis must exist before a canonical is taken as gospel. It would make sense. In theory. Cheers!! – closetnoc Jul 2 '18 at 23:46
  • I'm not sure if it works, but even if it currently works, it probably won't work for long once Google catches on to it. – Stephen Ostermiller Oct 23 '18 at 17:05
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Looks like a Negative SEO attack and ive been dealing with one recently for me tracking weekly or monthly backlinks works fine. On your situation i would suggest to disavow the external pages (toxic backlinks) pointing to your site, connect your Google console with ahrefs, semrush or any other available service, they will ping you every time you get a backlink.

Get screaming frog and do a quick audit on your pages.

Searchenginejournal recently posted about this issue and noted:

So far, Google is remaining silent on how they intend to proceed to close this exploit in how Google ranks and de-ranks web pages.

I did some additional investigation on this since my first answer didn't really answer your question, the main point is still the same, there isnt a guarantee way to get rid of this like you would with a normal negative SEO attack.

Bill Hartzer has some points on how to get around this issue. First on detecting this issue Majestic has a new feature where you can detect backlinks if a canonical is involved in the backlinks, otherwise if the attacker blocked majestic from grabbing the links Google Console is the next solution.

How to get around this issue: Change domain name File spam report to Google File a DCMA if attacker scrape your content Swap from to HTPPS:// or vice versa

Bill Hartzer Post

You can read more about it here

I will be following this topic and if something comes up i will update my answer, this most be really frustrating for webmasters especially if happens to a client of yours.

Good Luck.

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