SEO

Crafting An Evil Empire: Looting The Competition with Negative SEO – A Story

We have all been awakened to the hype. Negative SEO is real and it seems that the Panda and Penguin updates have potentially made it easier than ever to accomplish. Below, you will read a tale of greed, a tale that is all too possible in today’s digital world and a tale that should awaken your focus to your SEO surroundings. It is the tale of a man named Johan Bumbersnickle who felt enough pressure to make the first unethical decision of his professional life, and he was rewarded because of it.

Now the reason that this story is being told is because there is no doubt going to be some of this going on in whichever niche it may be that you reside. Marketers are always feeling the pressure to succeed, and some will make risky decisions in order to achieve their goals. It is my estimation that over the next couple of years we are going to be hearing a few stories of deception involving major brands attempting sneaky methods to bring each other down in the search rankings. Let the tale of Mr. Johan Bumbersnickle be a lesson to us all.

*****

It was a typical night in Johan’s small apartment building. The raindrops had become silent due to familiarity of the sound, and the lights flashing ten stories below carried on their role of being his trusty night light. Johan Bumbersnickle always stayed up late, and tonight was no exception. As a digital marketer working for a major software brand, he was constantly driven by his ability to brainstorm and craft creative tactics to gain his employer visibility online. In his budding career he had already increased traffic to the brands primary domain by 70%  and managed three annual social media promotions that had increased his brands social reach by over 300%.

He had only been working in digital for three years and already he had been promoted four times and given four pay raises. Slowly he was becoming a thought leader and a recognizable face in the industry he had worked so hard to please. Recently though, he had begun to feel a slight amount of pressure from his boss, who had been expressing concern over the rise of a major competitor in the software space.

Due Diligence

Johan had been doing his due diligence. His research revealed a number of red flags that his competition was using black hat tactics to gain search engine rankings, and they were doing a good job of it. There were blog networks that seemed impossible to track, forum signature links in irrelevant spaces, and what seemed to be a well managed campaign producing five star reviews on various software products every three to four days.

It was frustrating to Mr. Bumbersnickle that he had done everything in such an ethical manner and was being threatened by tactics widely regarded to be manipulative and deceitful. It was also frustrating to Mr. Bumbersnickle that he was about to partake in these methods for the first time in his career, with the goal of knocking his competitor backwards and away from the spot that he had worked so hard to make his. The spot was the number one ranking in Google, and the tactic was negative SEO.

In crafting the plan Johan had compared the situation to a riot in the streets. Having a view from above the city he had been imagining what role he would play in a full scale riot and how he could apply that to his first-time negative SEO campaign.

The first thing that came to mind was fear, a fear that would lead him to inform the authorities of what was going on. By comparing these visions to search engine optimization he had created his firs tactic. He was going to troll the Google Webmaster forums and let the world know just what his competition was doing. He was going to contact Google in every way possible and make sure that the powers that be were aware of what was going on.

After a moment of thinking, Johan realized that eventually the riot may become too powerful, and his building would be overtaken by the time the authorities were able to take any action. Now he had to devise ways to survive among the turmoil. In order to survive he decided, he was going to need some resources. In order to get said resources, he was going to have to break in to a place that had resources available. His next tactic had been decided.

Johan needed to learn how to break a lock, and when if the lock was on his competitor’s door he knew exactly how he would do it. In order to compromise the site, he would hire a hacker to install a small bug on his competitor’s site which would infect visitors with spyware and create deep pages on the web server as quietly as possible. Johan had used his riot theory to plan the next step of his negative SEO campaign and he knew that he was making progress. But what would happen he thought, if the lock was impenetrable and he had to come up with another method to infiltrate his competition? If he planted a bug, there is a good chance the competition would pick up on the tactic very quickly and any lasting affect would be quite temporary. He had to figure out a way to break a window.

Unethical?

This was the thought that had him start to think about scale. He knew that he had to metaphorically get in to the building, so the only question was, “How can I make a backup plan that is more effective than the last?” Although his mind began to really crack down and tell him he was beginning to make unethical decisions, he knew the next place he had to hit was links. There had been a lot going on in the industry as of late and finding a way to attack his competitor’s links would surely be a strong way bring the sites rankings down. So links it was, he ordered up hundreds of profane and inappropriate articles, added a spam heavy piece of anchor text (think pay day loans and prescriptions here), submitted them to a blog network he knew was unaffected by the recent Penguin update, and let the link storm begin.

He knew that at this point he had easily crossed the line, but he had become infatuated with creating one final tactic to being down his rival. In the scope of things, he wanted one last tactic to blow up the building if he had to, something that would make a lasting impact and take some time to repair. He had long been aware of the power afforded by online tools like Fiverr and Mechanical Turk, and had done a bit of worrying himself about just how they might be used to perform negative acts. This time, what was being put in place was an act of revenge. Mr. Bumbersnickle had been made aware of his rivals foray in to posting fake online reviews, and he knew the only thing that made them successful was the well thought out timing.

The final tactic would be a massive product review bomb in to Google reviews. By ordering hundred of five star reviews at once for his competitor, Johan would be sending a strong signal of system manipulation directly to Google itself. In reaction to this kind of corruption, Google nearly always removes the capability for a product to be reviewed, which was the backbone of his competition’s online strength. While the demon inside of Johan chucked with glee, his conscious wept and pleaded for him to not follow through. It was too late; the negative SEO campaign was in place and was approved by upper management.

A month later, Johan was called in to his superior’s office for an impromptu meeting. Johan’s mind was racing, there was no doubt that the website they had targeted was now aware of the negative SEO campaign, and there was no doubt they were upset by it. His boss however, was ecstatic. For over two weeks there had been no sight of the competition on SERP’s for any of their top keywords. Johan was once again being given a raise. He had worked the system in a negative way, and was being lauded as a successful professional who just launched an innovative marketing campaign aimed at erasing a competitor from existence.

*****

So now that the story has been told, it is kind of freaky is it not?

The world of negative SEO is something that is gaining awareness, and therefore is gaining in probability as well.

Now, in the interest of having some constructive discussion I need to ask you all a couple of questions:

  1. If you were told by your employer to conduct a malicious SEO campaign would you do it and why?
  2. What do you think the legal implications would be for Johan and the company that he worked for?
  3. Do you foresee the competitor reacting by conducting a similar attack, and how do we prevent these kinds of situations from turning in to a fully fledged war?

I am looking forward to hearing all of your answers, and talking about this on a little bit deeper level. Remember to follow me on Twitter and don’t be afraid to hit me up with any comments, questions, or whatever else you may have on your mind!

 Crafting An Evil Empire: Looting The Competition with Negative SEO – A Story

Jeff Bedford

Analytics & Optimization Specialist at The New Group
Jeff Bedford is an Optimization & Analytics Specialist at The New Group, an integrated digital marketing agency in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Indiana University, Jeff has extensive industry experience and has worked on digital campaigns for enterprise clients around the world.
 Crafting An Evil Empire: Looting The Competition with Negative SEO – A Story

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23 thoughts on “Crafting An Evil Empire: Looting The Competition with Negative SEO – A Story

  1. Good you mentioned google places reviews, cause this has been a massive hole in google’s system. Way too many fake positive reviews and negative reviews around make the entire system a complete joke. Who takes it seriously? Negative seo is yet another industry in the rise. God knows why google didn’t think this through before penalizing sites for ‘unnatural links’.

    1. Interesting to note as well that we have seen some evidence that Google recently did a major sweep of duplicate listings in Google Places and a lot of reviews were compromised. From the sound of things, they are doing a better job of stopping fake reviews, but I agree with your concern.

  2. I can understand the need to produce and perform when it comes to SEO, but I feel like engaging in negative SEO tactics is a very slippery slope. I can’t imagine Google will let negative SEO do a work around on their system for a very long. The whole point of Panda and Penguin is to clean up the SERPs and make it harder for spam to work, not easier for people to take shortcuts.

    1. Hey Nick-

      The good thing is that a majority of people feel the same way you and I do. The bad news is that the world in general tells us that not everybody holds themselves to the same standards, and I am sure that you know just as well as I do that sometimes people will do anything to get their rankings (and traffic). If anything, I am just anxious to see the impact negative SEO has in the future, because we haven’t really seen too much at this point…

  3. If you were told by your employer to conduct a malicious SEO campaign would you do it and why?

    No, because my ethics are important to me, and because I genuinely think it would harm my clients.

    What do you think the legal implications would be for Johan and the company that he worked for?

    The malicious hacking could get them sued. Everything else is pretty hard to prove.

    Do you foresee the competitor reacting by conducting a similar attack, and how do we prevent these kinds of situations from turning in to a fully fledged war?

    By review sites, fiverr and other places tightening their regs and by ensuring our sites have top notch security and failsafes.

    1. Let’s hope that everybody can hang on tight these these types of morals Helen, otherwise we may be in trouble down the road. We must not forget that in the big scheme of things as well, the computing age may be very very young. Kind of scary.

      1. I don’t mean to come across holier than thou – as I say, I think it’s just best all round.

        Black hat tactics are short term, expensive and cost the client in the long run.

  4. As a long-time observer of Fiverr, I think they’re in a bind. I don’t believe they truly intend to facilitate negative SEO, but SEO and fake review gigs are very profitable for them. These backlink builders who promise 10,000 links use spamming software to do it, of course, and the orders pour in. Each takes only a few minutes to complete. Orders aren’t just from people seeking to exact revenge, but also from entrepreneurs who don’t understand 10,000 spammy links are going to hurt. Fiverr gets $1 off the top of each gig in any case.

    At what point does Google, Amazon, Yelp and every other major site affected by fraudulent activity stand up and take on Fiverr? Or do they ever?

    1. I can say with confidence that the big players are at least aware of Fiverr – I’m trying to think of any reasons why they might actually want something like this to exist…

    2. It reminds me a little of the Etsy situation – their ethos is purportedly handmade, individual sellers, but they tolerate Chinese resellers / factories because those sellers generate a lot of commission and revenue for them. It’s deeply unfair on buyers and ethical sellers, but if it’s profitable for them, what incentive do they have to stop?

      1. Money is king, and no matter OUR perspective on morals it is hard to imagine any site getting Etsy-big without having at least a few loopholes to get a few extra dollars in their pocket.

  5. PS: No offense to anyone, these are just my personal views. :)

    Question1: If you were told by your employer to conduct a malicious SEO campaign would you do it and why?

    Answer1: Personally I would say I will try to be ethical everytime possible. It actually depends on the situation. Yes or No isn’t the answer here. If the competitor is using black hat ways to increase the visibility, you will have to do negative SEO. As this this case the competitor was using black hack techniques, so no matter how much we say we will be ethical and all, a point will come when you will have no other option other left than performing negative SEO in order to survive. SEO industry is like a jungle now, and its the survival of the fittest.

    Queston2: What do you think the legal implications would be for Johan and the company that he worked for?

    Answer2: As mentioned by “Helen Gallagher” in above comments, only hacking is the problem, traces of everything else is next to impossible to find out.

    Question3: Do you foresee the competitor reacting by conducting a similar attack, and how do we prevent these kinds of situations from turning in to a fully fledged war?

    Answer3: War will start only if the competitor gets to know whose behind the negative SEO. That is really hard to find out. Also you will not be performing negative SEO on a regular basis, these may be time to time attacks. So the competitor will only have Hit and Trial methods challenging every site ranking on the 1st page of Google. I will call them Street Fights for domination not a War.

    1. Nitesh-

      Love your answers here, and as the author of the article you help me further my knowledge of the situation and how different people may react. I appreciate the constructive answers.

  6. Negative SEO is away from business ethics. If it does not matter to you – then not only negative SEO , you are bound to commit lot of other offences against fair play of business.

  7. I wouldn’t do it because to date, not a single person has proven that negative SEO is a reality. In every single case that has been used as “definitive proof,” the websites where negative SEO has been deployed have already done enough bad things, themselves, to have suffered the wrath of the mighty Google Penguin. I’m still waiting for someone to link bomb and relatively respected and established website and have their misdeeds make some sort of an impact.

    In the example above, for instance, you state, “Johan had been doing his due diligence. His research revealed a number of red flags that his competition was using black hat tactics to gain search engine rankings, and they were doing a good job of it. ” So what did the competitor in; the negative SEO efforts of Johan or the self destructive negative SEO his competitor had already done to himself?

    They say that it MIGHT work on the low hanging fruit – the websites with very sparse link profiles to begin with. Of course, if they are that weak, concentrating on building up your own website to overtake the weakling seems to be a far better use of time and money.

    1. I like you perspective Scotter -

      To say that there are variables when it comes to negative SEO is an understatement. I fully agree that to take out a weak site would be a waste of time, but I also think that as a site gains more authority that there is a higher chance of them having manipulative links whether they were intentional or not.

      For the welfare of all of us, I hope you are right. The real big picture of this article is that we are in a competitive landscape and I have no reason to believe that people won’t at least try.

  8. 1. If you were told by your employer to conduct a malicious SEO campaign would you do it and why?
    no, because if you were busted, things will be worst. Search engine like Google was doing their best to prevent black hat practices. Even it’s tempting to do there are more lots of ethical techniques available.

    2. What do you think the legal implications would be for Johan and the company that he worked for?

    if he’s busted, legal actions can be done by getting sued. Google is not that st*p*d not to let know black hat tactics. If it goes wrong, it will backfire and damage your name big time.

    3. Do you foresee the competitor reacting by conducting a similar attack, and how do we prevent these kinds of situations from turning in to a fully fledged war?

    yes, anyone can do it if they’re desperate. to prevent the competitor doing these tactics, we must be vigilant and have our website check from outside anomalies. Of course,a more tight security for our web datas.

  9. If you were told by your employer to conduct a malicious SEO campaign would you do it and why?
    -Hmm, not sure how that would work with the whole karma thing… or you could say slippery slope, life is short, more fun at least trying to do something that a bit more creative, which is why he got most of his bonuses in the first place. Plus, if that’s what really wins with a specific search engine, one would think the general quality would continually degrade, maybe start thinking of other longer term options, which might be small now, but have better growth potential with plain old higher quality. Probably a pretty weak argument in most cases, but maybe worth at least considering.

    What do you think the legal implications would be for Johan and the company that he worked for?
    -Hard to say, probably depends on the how much resources the victim has.

    Do you foresee the competitor reacting by conducting a similar attack, and how do we prevent these kinds of situations from turning in to a fully fledged war?
    -Absolutely, except they’ll be more fired up. As this is the tactic they chose to start with, why wouldn’t they go back to it? They may not be able to track you specifically, but I’m sure they’d have a good idea who caused it, follow the money, who benefits, is now showing up again with specific keywords, and maybe further verification if possible.