Negative SEO - 10 Things You Might Not Know About

Ever since the Penguin algorithm began penalizing websites that appeared to have built unnatural backlinks, webmasters and SEO experts have been breathing with difficulty whenever negative SEO is mentioned. In a world where the hue and cry over Penguin's penalties and manual penalties is yet to die down, negative SEO has all the ingredients of being the next big explosion. What is negative SEO? How is it done? How simple is it for somebody to do negative SEO for an unsuspecting competitor's website, causing to be thrown off Google's SERPs? How to safeguard your website if an evil negative SEO campaign targets you? What is Google's stance on the same? The answers to these questions are not easy to find. Here are 10 things you'd not have known about negative SEO:

1. It's not just about deliberately planted crappy backlinks!

SEO consultants, black hat enthusiasts, and webmasters - all define negative SEO differently, but essentially mean the same thing. Whereas some consider malicious efforts to bring down your website by building spam links or stealing the most valuable links from your website as negative SEO, others also like to include issues such as brand impersonation, fake news and false stories, negative PR, and even hacking into the scope. Considering what the intention behind the activity is, all or some of these activities can fall under the dark umbrella of negative SEO.

Right from creating spam links to your website in black listed forums to creating full-fledged fake websites to particularly hurt your web reputation, anything done to make your website's visibility, traffic, and reputation suffer is negative SEO. Invariably, major search engine search algorithm updates are followed with an increase in negative SEO buzz, as evil, desperate, and dishonest webmasters and SEO masterminds try hard to exploit the loopholes of the updated algorithm. It's noteworthy how negative SEO news has started popping around

2. Pulling competition down is just ONE reason to indulge in negative SEO

Whereas every naive webmasters first fears about negative SEO are mostly about his/her website being linked back to by hundreds of low quality links from discredited forums, it's important to realize that there are other reasons too. Heard of online reputation management? Heard of SERP Bubbling? How about some positive uses of negative SEO? Here's more-

  • In stiff, neck to neck competitions between two or more credible website in a segment, a webmaster could take the bait of trying out negative SEO, which is all about investing in SEO for your own site, as well as negative SEO for the competing website. Like we mentioned, this involves everything from spam link building, fake news stories, etc. This is what's technically referred to as SERP Bubbling (we're guessing it's a metaphor for popping a competitor out of the SERP).
  • Negative SEO could be the problem and the solution at the same time. If a competitor has spread some derogatory and fake stories about your brand, you could have to consider targeting the websites running the fake stories. To do this, you'd have the option of hiring Negative SEO experts who can quickly bury the defaulting websites low down search engine results pages, effectively wiping them out from popping up when somebody tries to Google for your brand. Celebrities (who often even find themselves in need of silencing down true stories), politicians, businessmen, social figures of repute - anybody could feel the need of well-planned and reactive negative SEO to maintain one's reputation. In fact, online reputation management services do include SERM, that's Search Engine Reputation Management, as a part of their service mix.
  • Targeted negative SEO (TNS) is a potent weapon used by social activist groups to target companies, government departments, and people in general whom they stand against. What's noteworthy is that such targeted negative SEO attacks are not through low quality back linking, but by strong news and PR campaigns.

3. There are almost a dozen identified methods of eliminating web pages, not all are negative SEO

These are several ways in which a website's presence, or ranking on a search engine can be affected by somebody other than the person who's in charge of the webpage.

  • Requesting moderators and site admins to remove derogatory threads and posts – If somebody has created a page or post to tarnish your brand's reputation, you could choose to contact the parent website's webmaster and request for removal of the content, and possibly even banning the original poster.
  • Google insulation – Negative press stories floating about your brand? Why not pump more effort into SEO for some positive stories, so that the negative stories get choked under the pile of links carrying positive news? In this manner, the detrimental links are insulated off. Companies can even do this to push off competitor brands.
  • Google Bowling – The act of trying to bring a website down from Google's SERPs by building thousands of spam backlinks to the website is known as Google Bowling. Planting such spam links on black listed forums, link farms, article directories etc. within a short time duration can, theoretically speaking, lead to penalization to the targeted website. Another way is to identify dynamic URLs on the target website, with slightly varying URLs pointing to the same page. Then, hundreds of variants of such URLs are created and planted online, triggering a black hat alert in Google's algorithm which can severely damage the target website's ranking.
  • Virus, code infections, and XSS flaws - SERPs ideally try to keep off infected website, which motivates negative SEO masterminds to attempt infecting your website with virus. Injecting malicious code into the website, or misusing cross site scripting to create URL's that link to pages displaying on-page content via posted query strings – all are possible hacks to make a website suffer.
  • Other malicious techniques - Tattling, the act of informing Google that a website is violating its guidelines, involves deliberately purchasing backlinks for the target website, and indulging in other grey hat activities without any knowledge of the target, followed by reporting of the same. False copyright and data theft claims to tarnish a website's image also come under tattling. Another way is to create a website named very similarly to the target website, and even using same hosting and domain registrar. Then, the copy website is splattered with spam content, and 301 redirects pointing to the target website are installed. This adversely affects the target website, as the actual spam website is treated as a proxy of the target website!

4. The socially empowered negative SEO – an increasing threat

An extension of Google Bowling explained above, this is a technique wherein the perpetrators create dozens of social network accounts (primarily Facebook and Twitter). Then, these accounts are used to create spam links that link back to the target website, marked with phrases like 'warez', 'porn', 'teens', 'Viagra', 'no prescription', 'casino', etc. As Google SERPs also include social networking site results, this technique is proving to be a lesser known and powerful trick being used by webmasters to affect competitor website rankings.

5. You can fight it in so many ways!

Though Google sticks its head out and claims that it's close to impossible for anybody to negatively affect a competitor's website, there are enough enticements for adventurous webmasters to test out various negative SEO roads. Thankfully, there are as many ways to be careful, proactive, and reactive to any negative SEO attempts -

  • Ensure your correct email ID is provided in webmasters tools, and make it a point to regularly check your webmasters account to identify anything fishy in terms of unnatural backlinks emerging.
  • Stuck by a virus? It could be negative SEO evil mind trying to pull your website down. Get things right at the earliest, very hour matters. Invest in strong website security measures to prevent any such situations.
  • Disavow spam links the moment you have anything to suspect, whether they are coming from social media comments or strange sounding foreign forums.
  • In case of a DDOS attack, get in touch with the web host and ISP as they can control the situation quickly.
  • If you can find the source of the negative SEO attempts, send in an offensive letter threatening to sue, and reporting for blacklisting to Google.

6. From the horse's mouth – what does Google have to say on it?

If you would have read through all guidelines pages on Google's webmasters portal, you'd have read Google's claim that there is nothing that a competitor can do to hurt your website's ranking or have it pulled off from the index. However, post January 2003, Google mended the wording by adding an 'almost' in between. The statement now reads - There's almost nothing... Not that this is an out and out warning from Google about how you could fall for negative SEO, but it's more about accepting that issues like a person hacking in to your website, etc. could cause changes to your ranking. Nevertheless, as the cyber-sphere went more abuzz about negative SEO, Matt Cutts quoted, in 2007, that dumping thousands of backlinks to a website to hurt its ranking is not impossible, although too difficult. Ever since Google Penguin started penalizing websites with unnatural backlinks in April 2012, the buzz about negative SEO has heightened. The launch of Google Disavow tool, which can be used by webmasters to mask out the effects of backlinks that they suspect might be from discredit websites. Matt Cutts, and some other senior software engineers have, time and again, given away valuable notes about Google's stance on the negative SEO debate. Here are the key takeaways -

  • Preventing any damage to websites because of competitors piling unnatural backlinks at them is something that Google takes seriously.
  • The algorithm is smart enough to make out links that would have been placed by the webmaster, or any unscrupulous competitor, and also conducts pattern analyses in the same direction.
  • Though a few unnatural looking backlinks might not matter much, but Google suggests using the Disavow tool to diffuse any such links.
  • Any instances where a webmaster feels that he's being victimized by negative SEO, the case can be reported to webmaster forums or by directly contacting John Mueller.
  • Many times, what's perceived as negative SEO, is not actually so! This takes us to the next section.

7. Many times, what you're worrying about is not really Negative SEO

Let's learn how several webmasters raise false alarms of negative SEO, when actually the unnatural looking links pointing back to their website are just 'weird'.

  • Websites like m.biz, mrwhatis.net, askives.com, and websites that provide domain information link out to pretty much every other website in the world, so if you observe backlinks from these, don't worry.
  • If a website having hundreds, or even thousands of pages links back to your website through a keyword or more on every page, then you would be surprised to find equivalent number of 'links to your site' in the Webmasters Tools account for your website. It's easy to think that this would invite a Google penalty; however, the Google algorithm is good enough to treat these thousands of backlinks as just one vote from the source website, and not as a suspected attempt of building unnatural back-links.
  • Seeing spammy looking links pointing to your website? They could well be because of some of your pre-Penguin sins! If you have had a history of purchasing link building packages, you might want to check if one of them has somehow replicated efforts for your website, despite you having ensured that the genuinely unnatural backlinks got disavowed.

8. Telltale signs that negative SEO has paid you a visit

Despite the fact that many times webmasters mistake other reasons for unnatural links as negative SEO, there can also be genuine occurrences of the same. Here are cases when you need to watch out and act quickly:

  • Backlinks, lots of them, coming from websites with TLDs such as .bg, .pl, .cz, .ru, .com.br, .com.ar, and .info. Use Google Disavow to ensure that they don't take your website's ranking down.
  • Illogical blog posts linking back to your website.
  • Spam comments, dozens of them on same page, linking back to your website though anchors.
  • Payday loan websites, porn websites, and gambling websites linking back to your website.
  • Backlinks from lots of foreign forums.

9. Some smart tools and weapons to fight all negative SEO off

Whether you see traffic dipping down, or observe suspicious signs in your Google Webmasters account to conclude that you're being hampered by negative SEO, it's important to not panic. In most cases, you will be able to quickly overcome the effects of the negative SEO attempts. Apart from Google Webmasters Tools, you can use several other smart tools that can help you prevent and overcome negative SEO.

  • Monitor Backlinks - get a daily report of new backlinks added for your website, so that you never sleep without knowing as to whether your website has an unnaturally lucky day or not.
  • Trackbacks - Find out who is stealing your content through internal links or trackbacks from the CMS you are using with the tool. A hint - always link back to any other of your post within the same when you add a new one, so that you get a backlink every time one republishes the content.
  • Cyfe - Perfect for the busy webmaster, Cyfe integrates Google Analytics, Google Webmasters Tools, and any keyword ranking tool you might be using, all in a single dashboard to make management easier for you.

10. Negative SEO is the new KIDNAPPING, so beware

"This is an extortion email, read carefully. We will knock your website off Google SERPs by building tens of thousands of do-follow and permanent backlinks from a spammy forum. If you want to prevent that, deposit $1,500 by Western Union within the next 48 hours." Imagine what your plight would be, if you were to receive this email one fine evening, seemingly casting shadows of doom over the future of the website you would have built, popularized and monetized over several years! What's worse, several webmasters have already felt the jitters, as extortion emails like these have been reported in alarmingly high numbers lately.

Of course, several of these webmasters have taken these mail seriously (not to the extent of falling for the extortion), and have contacted Google to report the matter. Understanding the gravity of the situation, Google has also ‘investigated' the matter, and representatives from the search engine giant is that it is ‘unclear how credible' the claims of the extortionists are. Whereas it might be some time before which the credibility of these blatantly extortionist claims will be established or lambasted, it's important to acknowledge that ‘negative SEO' is no more just a concept. Nevertheless, if you receive any such emails, don't consider paying; instead, implement the lessons you've learn from this guide!