When you bring up the topic of negative SEO, you’ll get the full range of reactions: from the hushed-voices and darting-eyes confirming that it’s happening, to the naive dismissal of it as a myth.
If you’re working with SEO, you’ve stopped paying attention to only what Google says and look at what Google does — and gather data on what seems to be indications of their algorithm.
I’m sure you’re regularly testing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting that magic top three ranking.
Google seems to have accepted that negative SEO could potentially happen, but they believe it’s rare.
Matt Cutts made a video to address this issue, and says that it’s not common, usually happens in small competitive niches (like online casino’s and gambling), and that not many succeed in using it.
That’s cool, but knowledge of how it works and what to look for is critical, especially if SEO is your job.
When you think about it, and if you let your mind go into those dark corners, then you probably know how you could potentially hit a competitor with, for example, a torrent of really crappy, over-optimized anchor text backlinks — you know, the kind of stuff Penguins eat for breakfast.
At the very least, you should be aware of what negative SEO looks like, in case you find yourself scrambling after an official notice from Google about shady activity — because you’re not doing anything shady, right?
Well, What Exactly Is Negative SEO?
That is, you use strategies and tactics that can devalue a site rankings, and in turn affect its traffic.
Could you potentially completely destroy someone else’s rankings?
Maybe not, but you can certainly make an impact. Sure, there are probably numerous “white hat” tactics employed by a website that would balance out any detrimental activity, but we all know it’s the sum-total, overall picture of a site that Google looks at.
If something fishy is happening, a penguin will eat that fish.
Some would argue that a site who’s affected is a weak site to begin with. That sounds great but it’s not necessarily true. Even something as singular as a backlink profile can make or break your standings in the SERPS, despite great content that people love.
Still on the fence?
Well, here’s case study and demonstration of a successful negative SEO campaign.
How On Earth Did We Get To This?
Turns out, Penguin and Panda updates opened the door to it. These updates were, of course, aimed at targeting web spam and penalizing websites — very noble and worthy pursuits, but the flip side is that now it’s easier for negative SEO to happen.
You won’t have to search long and hard to find those who provide negative SEO campaigns, either. I’m not going to link to it, as I don’t encourage or condone such activity, but let’s not pretend it’s not happening.
Here’s What You Can Do To Protect Your Websites
All that being said, what can you do to protect your websites?
There are a few indicators and signals that could herald an onslaught of negative SEO. If you know what to look for, you can monitor what’s happening, take preventative measures, and hopefully fight back.
1. Your Backlink Profile Blows Up
Mr. Cutts says that the most common negative SEO tactic is having “bad” backlinks directed at your site. That would be irrelevant, spammy kind of links. Think in terms of link farms, spam directories, irrelevant websites (no topic relation or even sometimes in a different language).
Negative SEO is almost always an off-site strategy, and monitoring your backlink profile is critical as it’s also a very easy target for attacks.
You can use a tool like Ahrefs to see a dashboard graph of your backlinks over a period of time.
A tell-tale sign is if you see a strange spike of backlinks in recent months, especially if you know your own backlink activity and keep track of what happens to social sharing and so on.
Lots of junk links in a short amount of time? Google ain’t gonna have time for that.
However, just make sure you analyze what kind of links you are getting along with your SERP rankings. You don’t want to freak out over a potential viral spike, which is a good thing.
2. Fake Reviews From Fake People But Real Consequences
Are you getting a bulk of bad reviews posted all over the web? Are they using similar language? The person who posted them, can they be tied to a “real” person or are they overwhelmingly coming from unidentifiable, shady looking names and profiles?
A fake review is usually pretty easy to spot, but could cause damage regardless. If a bunch of them shows up, you might even get delisted from Google reviews altogether.
3. Your Content Is Being Scraped
Anyone can copy and scrape your content, and then re-post it as their own. It’s fast, easy, and can end up hurting you. Google sometimes can’t tell the difference of who came first, especially if it’s happening fast and before proper indexing.
Also, someone could potentially take your content, claim it as its own, and turn around and file a DMCA request against you. Crazy, isn’t it?
4. Reporting You For Spam And Paid Links
Now we’re really getting dirty, but you should be aware that all the tools available to you to fight spammers and negative SEO, are equally available to those who engage in this nefarious activity.
Don’t be surprised if you start getting reported for all kinds of bad behavior. Sure, if you’re squeaky clean, you’ll probably come out unscathed but you’ve lost quite a lot of work, time, and energy dealing with it. And any lingering effects might still have an impact.
5. Straight-Up, Full-Frontal Website Hacking Attack
If you’re really unlucky, you might experience all kinds of attacks on your website — from SQL-injections for adding malicious links and modify content to DDoS aimed at blasting your site off the face of the internet and bring it down.
This also includes hacking your site and adding hidden text and links to, say, payday loans or viagra.
First of all, you should make it a habit to secure your website. If you’re on WordPress, you should use a plugin like Better WP Security. It has a number of settings you can add and use to add a layer of protection.
Next, make sure you keep an eye on your website and regularly scan it for code changes, or even conduct searches for keywords you know shouldn’t be there (like those cialis and viagra pills, casino and online gambling, payday loans and more).
Are You Feeling Comfortable And Secure Yet?
While Negative SEO is an unquestionable reality, and is happening, all hope is not lost.
If you’re engaging in SEO activity that’s deemed okay and you avoid sliding down the slippery slope of any shady, darker-colored-“hat”-wearing type of stuff, you’re probably building sites that are somewhat resilient against these kinds of attacks.
Even a surge in crappy links are often temporary in impact. You can have them removed and even disavowed.
By monitoring your website for attacks, keeping track of your content, and doing what you can to create positive ranking signals, it won’t be much of a game of whack-a-mole. You’ll be fine.
Sure, you can’t prevent everything (too much time and money involved), but simple awareness of what’s possible is enough to get started in protecting yourself. At least you know what to look for.
Have you been affected by negative SEO? What did you notice? What other signals can you share?