Where your business lands in the search engine rankings for key terms could be the difference between profit and loss, so it’s likely you’ll have engaged in some form of search-engine optimization (SEO) to give yourself the highest possible rank for key searches.
Maybe you handle SEO yourself, or perhaps you hire professionals to do it for you. Either way, your search rank is something to be treasured, cherished like a beloved pet – but being one of the top dogs in your field does have its downsides.
As the SEO industry has grown to support sites in the quest for better rank, its evil cousin crept out of the woodwork. Negative SEO can destroy years of hard work – and if your ranking has started to slip, you could be one of its victims.
“Could” being the operative word – a sudden fall in rank or traffic could be due to any number of factors, and negative SEO is only one of them, but it’s still something you need to be aware of. Here are some common forms of negative SEO – and what you can do to defend against them.
#1. Link-Based Negative SEO
When it works, negative SEO does exactly what the name implies – negatively impacts the search ranking of the target website. The impact can be small, or it can be utterly devastating – a successful attack could even force a business to close.
Google does not publish the long list of factors influencing site rank for any given term, but we know that incoming links play a significant role.
Numbers matter, but quality is king – so it’s no surprise that the simplest and most common form of negative SEO exploits the way the Google algorithm assesses the links pointing to a site. Google likes high-quality, “organic” links – the best are links that look natural, from well-regarded, trusted sites hosting relevant content.
A link to your site from, let’s say, Forbes.com, will be regarded by the algorithm as “good” – their reputation is outstanding; if a Forbes author valued your content enough to link to it, Google assumes others would want to read it too. Incoming links from authoritative general or industry sites have a positive impact on where you rank for certain terms.
But a link from a low quality affiliate site, wouldn’t have the same appeal. If you suddenly acquired a thousand links from SpammyLinkLand.com (I made that up, but you get the idea), Google – assuming it was doing its job as intended – would be anything but impressed.
If you suddenly find yourself with a few thousand links pointing your way from low-quality blog comments, junk forum posts or obvious link farms, you might be the unwitting victim of a sneaky attack.
Activity like this gives off the whiff of someone trying to cheat the system – automated mass-creation of backlinks in the hope of making the target site appear more popular or relevant. Google penalizes sites trying to game the system by lowering their rank.
You could get an automatic penalty based on the poor quality of the mass of links, or a manual penalty because a human thinks something looks suspicious. Manual penalties are much harder to repair.
Unfortunately, the algorithm can’t tell who was ultimately behind the creation of these links. Was it the site owner, a rival, a bored black-hatter or a disgruntled ex-employee? Too often, the site is punished even if the owner had nothing to do with the spam.
For a negative SEO provider, this is a golden opportunity to do some serious damage.
Backlink Defense Tips
- Regularly monitor your backlinks, using either Google Webmaster Tools (free, less capable) or a paid option such as Ahrefs or Monitor Backlinks.
- Google isn’t flawless, but it does spot a lot of these links for what they are and disregards them. If they’re not hurting you, you can take a more leisurely approach to removal.
- If you identify harmful backlinks, politely ask the sites hosting them to remove them. Even if you know it won’t work, do it anyway. A tool like Rmoov (free for basic users) is helpful if you’re doing this.
- If necessary, employ the Disavow tool on Webmaster Tools. This informs Google you do not want the links specified to be taken into account when determining your ranks, but it should be used with extreme caution, and only after requesting the links be removed.
- If you were given a manual penalty, do what you can and file a reconsideration request to Google, along with documentation showing what steps you have taken to fix the issue.
- Talk about what’s happening on social media and raise awareness among your peers. They may have experience of similar attacks, and helpful advice for recovery – and the more people talk, the sooner Google might get round to finding a foolproof solution for this.
#2. Negative Click-Through
Another type of negative SEO focuses on making Google think your site isn’t providing users with what they’re looking for.
Amongst the many, many factors influencing your ranking, click-through rates from Google searches matter. If a thousand users search for a given term and click on Site A, the Google algorithm assumes that Site A is delivering what people are looking for, which has a positive influence on site rank.
But if those same thousand users search and do not click on Site A, Google may assume it is not what people want to see when they search for that term. This could result in a fall in rank.
A typical negative SEO attack aiming to exploit this would see the attacker using bots to automatically carry out searches for a term that the target site ranks highly for. For example, if an attacker targeted Hillary Clinton’s official website, he would program bots to search for “Hillary Clinton,” then click on every result except www.HillaryClinton.com.
One bot (or person) doing this wouldn’t make a difference, nor would ten; for this particular example, the attacker would probably need hundreds of thousands of bots sending queries repeatedly over a long period of time to make an impact.
Even then, Google is (probably) smart enough to recognize such a large-scale attack and disregard it.
But for a smaller site competing within a very specific niche, a few thousand search-and-no-clicks spread out over a week or month might be enough to shift the site’s ranking. And this sort of smaller attack may not be detected.
Negative Click-Through Defense Tips
- Again, be vigilant. Keep track of your click-through rates with our Google Analytics reports to identify what’s happening.
- Score well in other ranking factors to help shield you from attack damage.
- Don’t be tempted to buy a couple of thousand search-and-clicks for yourself to counter the attack. Google is likely to flag this as attempted manipulation, and it could dig you even deeper into a hole.
#3. Review-Based Negative SEO
Customer reviews count. Sometimes they make a big difference, sometimes they don’t; in SEO, you have to assume there are no insignificant factors.
Everything is important, and reviews are no different – especially if you don’t really stand out from your competition in other areas such as backlinks and site content.
Your reviews – either on Google Reviews or on respected sites such as Trustpilot or Yelp – don’t just influence whether or not a potential customer will choose you; they could also determine whether that customer even knows you exist.
In a garden-variety assault on your reviews, a competitor or someone else with an ax to grind would leave a few negative reviews of your business. Because the review sites rank businesses based on star-ratings or similar, low-star reviews would make you slip down their ratings – and drive down your Google rank in turn.
The primary damage from negative reviews directly influences potential customers on the review site, and the impact on your search rank may result in a drop in traffic, which affects your rank.
But the real damage to your rank could come from something far more insidious. Fake positive reviews could be the ticket for someone aiming to hurt your search rank – doubly so if they’re planted on Google Reviews.
Seeding a ton of glowing positive reviews is a risky strategy for a competitor. The algorithm could miss something like that and your attacker could accidentally help your rank. But it’s more likely Google will notice and think you’re writing yourself amazing reviews . This sort of suspicious activity could earn you a manual penalty – even if you had nothing to do with it.
Negative Review Defense Tips
- Secure your WiFi. You don’t want a particularly smart local rival to sit outside your home or business, banging in fake reviews on the same IP address you use to manage your business.
- Keep an eye on your reviews and be ready to quickly request the removal of any you feel are fake.
- Stand out above your competitors in other ranking factors – this will lessen the blow of any negative reviews.
- Sign up to receive email alerts on Webmaster Tools – these will tell you if you’ve been given a manual penalty.
#4. Duplicating your Content
People stealing your original content and reposting it on other sites is obnoxious – we all like to receive due credit for our work, and this kind of behavior takes that away.
But it doesn’t just harm our egos – it could also damage your bottom line.
Google’s end goal is to present users with worthwhile, original content; as such, duplicate pages without canconical tags are a no-no. The algorithm does not normally apply penalties just for duplicate content – every website almost certainly has at least some of it, and most is ignored.
But where it deems the duplication is being done for nefarious reasons, such as to quickly rank a large quantity of pages, action may be taken. This can range from ranking drops all the way to removal from the search results – and the Googlebot isn’t perfect.
If someone has set up automated scrapers to harvest your content and repost it elsewhere – essentially, making it look like an organized spam campaign – you could find yourself caught in the net and penalized when someone steals your content without your permission or knowledge.
Alternatively, a negative SEO attack could aim to exploit the way Google deals with showing duplicate content to search users. It knows we don’t want to see the same stuff in our results, so it picks the site it considers most likely to be the originator of the content and lists it – and hides the rest.
So an attacker could, for example, copy one of your blog posts and upload it to a site that they think would score higher than you. If the Google algorithm rates this site as more trustworthy than yours, it may assume it was the originator of the content.
The traffic would go to them – and your original post would be shuffled into obscurity.
Duplicate Content Defense Tips
- Regularly check for your content being duplicated. This can be done manually, or with a tool like Copyscape.
- If you find scraped content on another site, contact the webmaster where it’s posted and politely request the content be removed.
- If this doesn’t work, Google recommends filing a DMCA request – as the original creator of the content, copyright law is on your side.
- If you receive a manual penalty – you’ll know about this if you have email alerts turned on – submit a reconsideration request with as much detail and documentation as you can.
Negative SEO: It’s a Problem, but You Can Recover
Though there are no laws specifically aimed at addressing negative SEO, legal options using existing laws are being explored.
That’s no consolation for anyone struggling to fend off this sort of attack right now. The good news is that a business can usually recover from a negative SEO attack and get back to where they were before.
The bad news? It remains a problem, and it’s unlikely we’ll see any sort of permanent solution from Google any time soon.