In light of the recent Google Penguin and Panda updates many people have discussed the issue of negative SEO (search engine optimization) or practices that competitors can do to harm your site’s rankings. The topic is controversial in nature among webmasters and those who work in SEO, and even Google has changed its position towards negative SEO and statements regarding the possibilities of negative SEO. While negative SEO is something that the best search engine optimization firms do not practice or condone, it is an important topic to be informed on.
Google’s position on Negative SEO
Google has changed its position and statements towards negative SEO over the course of 2012 as it has been a controversial and widely discussed topic. Google guidelines originally stated:
“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”
This statement was then modified to say:
“There’s ALMOST nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”
Then back in March Google revised this again to say:
“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.”
This indicates that Google now recognizes negative SEO to be possible, which contradicts their original position and has fostered concern for these types of attacks. Therefore it is a topic that you should know about, yet is usually unlikely that these attacks will happen and harm your site.
What is negative SEO?
Negative SEO refers to any type of practices that others use towards a site in order to decrease its ranking position within a search engine. There are several forms of negative SEO which can harm a site in a variety of ways such as security attacks, spam reporting, and directing bad links towards a site. These practices are illegal and highly unethical, yet some “black hat” SEO’s will use these tactics rather than doing positive quality SEO practices.
How can it be done?
The most commonly practiced negative SEO tactic is organizing an effort to make your link profile look bad, which can decrease your rankings within a search engine. This can happen in several ways, yet the most commonly practiced is buying mass amounts of spammy links from multiple domains and directing them towards a site. Google tends to devalue sites with a large number of links from a limited number of domains as well as devaluing sites based on spammy inbound links. Another similar tactic to this is buying mass amounts of fake reviews about a company or site to make it look like the company is manipulating their reviews in sites such as in Google reviews. When this happens search engines may remove their ratings which can be a large setback for many sites.
Another negative SEO practice is to find security vulnerabilities within a site and expose them to malware, hacks, injections, and viruses that can install themselves on computers that visit the site, ultimately eliminating the trust people have for a site. Also some will find security vulnerabilities to access your robots.txt files and will edit these robot.txt files in ways that will prevent Google bots from crawling your site or restrict IP addresses from certain ranges from accessing a site. These types of tactics can be very harmful and immediately decrease traffic to your site.
The final commonly used negative SEO tactic is to direct spam towards your site, commonly through links or spammy forum activities, and then spam reporting your site to search engines such as Google in order to try to have your site devalued or de-indexed. Depending on the type of spam on a site, Google may give a warning or go as far as de-indexing a site which is the ultimate consequence. However, when a site is spam reported to Google, Google will make an effort to contact the site administrators to signify them they have been reported.
How concerned should you be?
While negative SEO can seem like an alarming topic, it is not something that you should actively worry about. It is good to know what negative SEO is and how to potentially recognize negative SEO, but negative SEO is currently not widely practiced. You should know the tactics that can be used in negative SEO and potential signs of how to catch negative SEO. However, a decrease in rankings does not always indicate negative SEO attacks and therefore evaluating and diagnosing your site for potential problems on your end should be the first area of concern. Google changes its ranking algorithm consistently, and it’s possible that an aspect of your site may fall to a penalty within an algorithm change.
What are the signs?
Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools give you options to monitor aspects attributed to your sites such as inbound links. A typical sign of negative SEO practices is a large pattern of low-quality inbound links from multiple domains over a short period of time. Negative SEO attacks are likely to happen over the course of several weeks rather than for an extended period of time. Also it is important to note that one or a few bad links from a low quality site will not decrease your rankings, as this can happen naturally due to the nature of the web, but a sudden influx of bad links in higher numbers is more likely a negative SEO attack. Also a sudden cease of search engine related traffic could indicate that your site has been de-indexed by methods such as editing your robots.txt files. Overall drops in traffic may indicate negative SEO attacks but like mentioned before, it is essential that you audit your site for potential problems on your end first.
Also it’s important to note that linking back to sources of incoming links can signify that you recognize, trust, and want to associate with this link. Not linking back to incoming links signifies that you may not associate with this link, and therefore links that you do not link back to often do not carry as much weight as trusted or associated links within your link profile.
What should you do?
There are several options for what to do if affected by a negative SEO attack. If the attack is link based, using Google and Bing Webmaster tools will allow you to notice these attacks. Bing Webmaster Tools recently launched a link disavowment tool within their platform, which essentially allows you to disavow or devalue links you do not associate with to prevent them from affecting your link profile. Google currently does not offer this, but Matt Cutts recently mentioned in a conference at SMX (Search Engine Expo) that Google is thinking about disavowing links indicating that such a tool may be offered with Google Webmaster Tools.
Also, participating in quality SEO practices is the best form of prevention from such attacks. The best defense is to have a clean authoritative link profile because Google will look at the patterns of your link profile and will often recognize these malicious attempts to harm your site and link profile. Creating relevant quality content that people want to share will foster a clean, quality, and natural link profile.
If your site has fallen to security breaches and malicious attacks such as viruses, malware, injections, and edited robots.txt files, fixing these vulnerabilities is essential. Identifying them is the first step and then you can address the issues. If your web development team is not capable of this, it is possible to hire trusted web developers to fix the vulnerabilities. Of course this will be at an additional cost, but a decrease in traffic is even costlier.
Wrapping It Up
Negative SEO can be an extensive topic, but the information provided within this post can give you a general overview of how to look at negative SEO. It is likely that a site may never fall to a negative SEO attack, but recognizing security aspects of a site and monitoring link profiles will give you further insight to what is happening should a negative SEO attack happen. Practicing positive and quality SEO practices should be your main concern rather than worrying about negative SEO. Digest this information and let us know what you think about this topic.