Negative SEO is real. It is possible to damage, if not destroy, a site through the use of malicious backlinks and aggressive backlink spamming. Negative SEO is a legitimate danger that can ruin a site’s revenue and cripple a business.
But it is also possible to defend against it. If you are a victim of negative SEO, suspect negative SEO on your site, or simply want to protect against a potential attack, this article is for you.
What is Negative SEO?
Negative SEO is the practice of implementing black hat SEO techniques on another site. Usually, an SEO attack is unleashed by a disgruntled competitor and his or her minions with the goal of reducing that site’s rankings.
SEO Roundtable defined it this way back in 2007 when the trend first began to appear:
Search engine optimizers force competitor websites down in the rankings so that the desired client’s website has more visibility.
Negative SEO…amounts to sabotaging a Web site’s ranking in search engine results. Sometimes negative SEO is performed for reputation management, tweaking online content so that it floats to the top of Google or Yahoo! results, thereby pushing a critic’s negative comments to a lower ranking. But in rare cases…negative SEO involves more nefarious means, convincing Google or Yahoo!’s search algorithms to bury a competitor’s site deep within search results, where its traffic practically evaporates.
Matt Cutts talks about negative SEO in this 2012 video, “What should I do if my competitors are using web spam techniques?”
Does Negative SEO Still Work?
Isn’t Google’s algorithm smart enough to identify negative SEO, and prevent its destructive intentions? After all, the remarks I shared above are from 2007. Surely it doesn’t work anymore…right?
Actually, it still works.
In 2007, Google’s Webmaster site had this statement: “There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”
Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.
I wish it didn’t work anymore. But it does. In fact, SEOs speculate that negative SEO is on the rise.
The algorithm has tightened the noose on webspam; that’s obvious. But the algorithm doesn’t know who’s turning on the webspam. It could be the site’s webmaster. Or it could be a malicious competitor. Either way, the spam will be noticed. The site will get penalized.
That’s negative SEO.
How Does Negative SEO Work?
I’m not going to teach you how to do negative SEO. But sometimes, in order to understand what you’re fighting against, you’ve got to understand how it works:
Maybe the best explanation comes from this nefarious webmaster, who admitted to Search Engine Roundtable his MO for negative SEO:
The first month, contract a couple $5 guest blog posts [make sure the posts are in broken English of course], then go back to what you were doing.
Second month, try a few more [4-8] $5 [broken English] guest blog posts and add some forum link drops to the mix. Go back to what you normally do—Nothing will happen.
Third month, add even more [broken-English] guest blog links [2x or 3x per week], increase the forum link drops and sign up for long-term [“undetectable”] directory additions.
If the site hasn’t tanked yet, in month four hit ’em with 20,000 inbound links all at once. Keep doing it and eventually the site you’re aiming at will tank and they won’t be able to figure out how to recover. It takes almost none of your time and costs very little to tank a site due to the “penalty mentality” Google has decided to run with.
More sophisticated techniques involve Googlebot crawl interruption. By monitoring Google’s cache entries of a victim’s site, SEO villains can DOS web servers with unclosed connections, blocking up the connection pool limit and creating 500 errors for Googlebot. When a site receives additional 500 errors from Googlebot, the page will be removed from the index.
Other times, negative SEOs will attempt to request removals for your strongest backlinks. Sometimes, they create tons of duplicate content, a technique with very limited success. Beyond the traditional shoot-’em-with-spam-links technique, some attackers use juvenile forms of threatening and intimidation to extort money or oust competitors.
So, People are Really Doing This?
I admire your innocence and honesty. But yes, people are doing this. This is real, folks.
Take, for example, the intelligent readership of Search Engine Roundtable. The site took a survey, and while the polling pool is small, the results are revealing: Webmasters are doing negative SEO.
If you are in a competitive niche, especially one familiar with SEO, there is a good chance that you will be the victim of a negative SEO tactic. I’m not trying to stir up unnecessary fear or panic. I simply want to warn you.
How Can I Defend Against Negative SEO?
Despite its potential devastation, there are very few quality instructions on how to defend against negative SEO. Some are painfully short. Others are just plain unhelpful. You can’t prevent negative SEO. You can only defend yourself and fight back. Here is how.
1. Set Up GWT Alerts
First, turn on Google Webmaster Tools email notifications. This may not signal the start of a spam attack, but it will at least keep your GWT information top of mind as you maintain a defensive posture against SEO bullies.
Go to Webmaster Tools → preferences, and turn on notifications for all issues.
If you do get the kibosh, you’ll know about it. Also, you’ll be pinged if Googlebot can’t access your site. Either of these notifications are a possible indication that you’ve been attacked. By that time, though, the damage will already have been done.
You need to be more proactive. On to step two…
2. Monitor Your Backlinks
The toughest part of defending against SEO is vigilance. I recommend creating a system that allows you to stay on top of all your site’s inbound links. I make it a practice to stay informed of the activity on my site, NeilPatel.com, and my business sites.
If you are a disciplined person with a highly streamlined schedule, then set up times each week to check your backlinks through services like Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer, Link Research Tools, or Google Webmaster Tools.
If you prefer to automate your approach and receive notifications, then use a service such as MonitorBacklinks.com or CognitiveSEO.com. These services can be configured to automatically send you a report about new backlinks. Other helpful backlink monitoring and link checker services are Majestic SEO and SEO spyglass.
You might have to spend a little bit of money for a good monitoring service. It is money well spent.
If you’re able to discover a nascent negative SEO campaign and defend against it, then you will save yourself from tragic financial disaster.
While you’re monitoring your backlinks, it’s also helpful to monitor your site speed. Pingdom.com is a helpful source of speed checking, as well as Google’s PageSpeed Insights. PageSpeed cannot be set up to send you notifications, while Pingdom does have this feature.
3. Remove or Disavow Suspicious Backlinks
The reason you are monitoring is not just so you can know about the negative SEO, but so you can do something about it.
Do not wait until it’s too late. The more spammy backlinks build up on your site, the more likely it is that your site will be penalized. As soon as you see toxic backlinks, get them removed by requesting a removal. If that is unsuccessful, update your disavow.txt.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can also report the spammy backlink to Google using the Spam Report Form. This is a little-known feature of Google, that may or may not be effective at taking down spam sites. Who knows? It’s worth a try.
4. Speak to the Enemy
If you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the individual or organization responsible for the negative SEO, then you may want to confront them.
It sounds a bit old-fashioned or ornery but you never know. Some people can be reasoned with. Maybe an email will do the trick — “Hey, do you mind not doing this?”
If that doesn’t work, then ramp it up a notch. If the enemy doesn’t speak to you, then speak to the world. Express your concern on social media. If you can create enough buzz about someone who is intentionally damaging your site, it might create the defense you need.
5. Fight Back
The best defense is a good offense. I’m not talking about doing negative SEO against your competitors! I’m talking about transforming your site into an entity of authority and stature. You can become the authority in your niche — out growing, out ranking, out marketing, and out doing your competitors on every front.
You’ll only get so far by monitoring your backlinks and disavowing spam links. You’ll get much farther by creating a site that is so strong, so powerful, and so awesome that no amount of spam attacks can bring it down.
You don’t win by cutting the legs out from under your competitors. You win by just being plain better. To be better, you make a better website and better content.
Over the years that I’ve been building up Quicksprout.com, it’s reached a point of virtual immunity to spam attacks. Although giants can fall—like Expedia.com, for example—it is extremely unlikely for a site that is producing great content on a consistent basis.
The way to fight spam creation is with good content creation. Make the exact opposite of spam. Make legitimate, high-quality, powerful, and authoritative content.
I want you to come away from this article, not with a sense of fear, but with a feeling of confidence.
Yes, negative SEO is real. Yes, it works. Yes, people are doing it.
So what do you do?
You defend yourself:
- Set up alerts
- Monitor your backlinks
- Remove or disavow suspicious backlinks
- Speak to the enemy
And then you go on the offense — you make killer content. Flip the tables on your competitors by out doing them with content so good and powerful that they can only cower in fear. Get ferocious about creating a site that obliterates the competition with its power.
What is your experience with negative SEO?
Featured Image: Trueffelpix via Shutterstock
All screenshots taken August 2014