What you need to know about “Negative” SEO

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Craig Smith  |  Founder & CEO

If you run a site and follow SEO practices, then you likely came across the term “Negative SEO” and stories of companies ruined by their competitors because of it. If you try researching it further, you’ll come across a different definition on nearly every site, and others who insist that it doesn’t exist at all.

Despite what you might read, negative SEO is real. It could theoretically harm your company, but it’s unlikely that you’re a victim of an attack.

Negative SEO Defined

Negative SEO is when a rival or some other party attempts to remove a website from appearing in otherwise relevant terms. This, in turn, would reduce the traffic to the affected site and could negatively influence revenue.

For eCommerce websites, their competitors start most negative SEO campaigns, but this is not always the case. A negative campaign is initiated for any number of reasons, from rivals attempting to bolster their own rankings to anonymous online pranksters who disagree with something you’ve said or simply feel that you are an easy target.

The most common type of negative SEO is “link based,” meaning another party is sending spammy or low-quality links to your site. This includes leaving keyword heavy comments on unsuspecting blogs, or exact-match anchor text on otherwise foreign language pages.

In the short term, these links could actually give the targeted site a short term boots, but attackers hope that Google notices the low quality nature of these links and then assume that it is the website trying to artificially inflate their ratings. This can result in either a algorithmic penalty (such as Penguin) or a manual penalty.

Site’s hit with a penalty will see their rankings drop and then they’ll have to spend precious resources getting that penalty removed.

True Negative SEO Is Rare

Thankfully, Google feels that true effective negative SEO is very rare and nearly impossible to implement. The search company constantly updates their algorithm to prevent tampering, including negative attacks, making it difficult for any strategy to have a noticeable effect.

Before January 2003, Google initially insisted that there was “nothing” a competitor can do to ruin you’re your search rankings. They later updated this to “almost nothing.” While they still contended that negative linking on its own cannot hurt your ratings, an attack on your onsite content itself could do some harm. This includes injecting malicious code into your webpages or putting a meta robots no follow tag in your CSS header. This is still true today.

Then in 2007, Google came out and said that negative link building wasn’t impossible, just extremely difficult. In October 2012, Google created the “disavow” tool so that when sites did find harmful links on their site, they could easily tell Google crawlers that they didn’t want those links counted toward their site ranking.

Don’t Focus On Potential Negative Attacks

Google insists that Negative SEO should not be a concern because they have built into their algorithms things that help decide whether the negative links are self-made or not. This means that if there is a bunch of bad links pointing to your site, most likely they will not harm you because Google has figured out a way to recognize whether those links are coming from a competitor or if they are coming from something that the site owner has done.

Google does admit that they aren’t 100% correct all the time, hence why the ‘disavow’ tool was created. That said, the company insists that most suspected negative SEO attacks reported by worried webmasters are, in fact, just naturally occurring links that happened to fall on negative sites.

For example, you could be getting a lot of bizarre looking links that are actually coming from something you’ve done in the past (link building, a former SEO company that may have outsourced their work), or could be coming from a completely benign source. Some weird links are very normal and most sites end up getting links from undesirable sources, but Google understands that this is natural and doesn’t count them.

If you notice an influx of spammy links and can’t figure out where they’re coming from, it helps to ask around. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a well-meaning friend or family member that thought they could help you get some links.

Signs Of A Negative Attack

If, by some small chance the site is a target of a negative campaign, these are a few of the signs to keep an eye out for:

  • Sudden influx of redirected links or from sites in “bad neighborhoods” like porn, gambling, payday loans, or other “spammy” categories
  • Links from foreign forums-if you suddenly have many links from places like Russia, China, or other foreign countries that really have no business with your site
  • Flood of links from sites that end with .ru, .cz, .cn, .pl, .ro, .bg, .biz, .com.ar, .com.br and .info. Not all are necessarily bad as a few are completely normal, but a sudden rush of links coming from sites like that could be an indicator that someone is trying to harm your rankings
  • Large number of links from “nonsense blogs”-These are websites created with the sole purpose to host links so there will be no real content on the site, only advertising
  • Exact match anchor text-Natural links will typically use your website name, or perhaps everyday terms like “here” or “link” as anchor text. If you notice a sudden increase in the number of links using the same keywords, it’s a sign that the links are artificial

Countering A Negative SEO Campaign

Remember, even if your site is targeted by a negative SEO attack, it’s unlikely that it will influence your search results in any measurable way. Google updates their algorithm constantly to identify attempts at manipulation and excels at recognizing most negative SEO campaigns. Conversely, they will penalize webmasters who build these low-quality links themselves, which is why “Black Hat” style link building is frowned upon.

If you suspect that your website is a target of a negative SEO campaign there are a few steps you can take to further reduce the risk of a penalty:

Disavow Suspect Links: Google’s disavow tool lets the search engine know that you do not want those links passing any value to your website, which means that you shouldn’t receive a penalty for them. Disavow all suspect domains.

Verify The Links Are From A Third Party: Spammy links can come from well-meaning employees or family members hoping to boost your sales. Be sure to verify that the links are not generated internally or with a third party you’re working with. If they are, work with them to take the links down.

Document Actions You Take: On the rare chance that you are penalized for an external campaign, having documentation of your steps trying to fix the attack will go a long way towards having the penalty removed.

Negative SEO campaigns are possible, but they are rarely effective. Even if you do find yourself temporarily penalized, you can get this penalty lifted swiftly provided you’re monitoring your backlink profile.

Search result ranking is the lifeblood for many eCommerce sites, so it’s understandable that webmasters will look to do anything possible to protect their visibility from outside attack. Despite this, outside manipulation is the smallest factor when it comes to how a site performs, and no negative SEO campaign can harm a website more than a “black hat” campaign initiated by the webmaster can.

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