Negative SEO is an unethical strategy that takes advantage of black hat practices to earn penalties for a competing site. Since Google lowers the ranks of sites who have duplicate content, poorly written content, or irrelevant backlinks, some webmasters have intentionally masqueraded under the guise of competing domains in order to lower their competitors’ ranks and boost their own performance for certain keywords.
Since negative SEO started getting noticed, many webmasters have grown paranoid about the possibility of losing ranks due to the uncontrollable efforts of a malicious competitor. However, there are a number of public misconceptions and misunderstandings about the nature of negative SEO and how it can actually affect your site.
Take a look at these five facts about negative SEO you might not have known:
When most people think of SEO, they think about irrelevant or intentionally over-optimized backlinks pointing back to the victim’s domain, which in turn, would lower the victim’s page rank via a Google penalty. It makes sense, and negative link building is by far the most common type of negative SEO. They’re easy to build because they usually require no verification of site ownership, and virtually anyone can make the attempt. They can also be difficult to remove, making them an even stronger negative strategy.
However, these types of sabotaging links aren’t the only strategy associated with negative SEO. The motivated webmaster could attempt to hack into your site in an effort to sabotage your onsite efforts. They could go the obvious route by posting spammy content, wrecking your title tags and meta data, and so on, but these are unrefined and easily noticeable tactics. It’s more likely that they would use coding tricks, like including a robots.txt file that blocks search engines from crawling your content, or eliminating your microdata structures so they can’t be deciphered by Google.
These types of sophisticated hacking assaults are much rarer than negative link building, but they are possible, and have been known to occur. You can protect yourself against this type of attack by keeping your servers up-to-date and secure.
Paranoid webmasters often assume the worst about backlinks that show up mysteriously, but not all strange links are a sign of negative SEO. There are many reasons why a link from an unfamiliar domain could turn up, and even if that domain is of a low authority, the link itself might not be hurting your authority—at least not much.
For example, there are countless sites that exist to analyze domain information, or sites that scrape the web, and it’s not uncommon to have several links from these sources. Similarly, it’s possible that a major site like yellowpages.com is linking to your site regularly—maybe even thousands of times. If you see this type of data in your Webmaster Tools account, don’t panic. Google does a great job of determining what constitutes a sitewide link, and you generally don’t have to worry about the negative repercussions of such an event. You certainly don’t have to worry about it being some kind of attack.
There’s also a chance that these unfamiliar links are ones you’ve built yourself, without remembering—have you ever paid for link building service, maybe a long time ago? Are any of your friends or employees building these links with good intentions? There are a lot of possible origins for these strange links that have nothing to do with negative SEO, so avoid making snap assumptions.
Back in 2007, Google announced that there was “nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” Shortly thereafter, they changed this statement to the slightly more open “there is almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” This change indicates that Google recognizes the possibility for negative SEO to exist, but also believes that such instances are incredibly rare.
Today, Google’s statement reads “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. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.” This indicates that Google understands that negative SEO is a realistic possibility, but still not something that most webmasters need to worry about. In the event that a negative link is posted or a negative SEO attack is carried out, Google can probably recognize it, making negative SEO attacks rare and effective negative SEO attacks even rarer.
In the event that you are suffering from a real negative SEO attack, there are many strategies you can use to mitigate the effects. First, if your site has been hacked and your code has been sabotaged, you can easily reverse the changes they made—as long as you have backups of your site. In order to prevent future attacks from occurring, you can change all your passwords and increase the levels of protection you use to ward off would-be attackers.
There are also many tools you can use to monitor the types of links that are pointing back to your site, such as Webmaster Tools or Open Site Explorer. You can use these immediately to determine whether any backlinks have been posted without your consent, and check them on a regular basis to scout for negative SEO and eliminate it before it takes effect. You can generally remove negative links just by asking a webmaster, but if that doesn’t work out, you can always use Google’s Disavowal Tool to request that those links be ignored.
This is critical. People often overestimate the amount of damage a handful of bad links can do; if the vast majority of your onsite content and offsite links are of high quality, even a well-executed negative SEO attack can’t do much to hurt you. At most, you’ll lose a couple of ranks for short period of time, and in the grand scheme of things, that isn’t very significant. Lately, a lot of search marketers have warned about the dangers of negative SEO—but there aren’t many real examples of significant or irreversible damage. Keep in mind that negative SEO is real and something you should watch for, but it isn’t something that’s going to undermine or overturn an otherwise powerful strategy.
Educating yourself is the best defense against a possible negative SEO attack. Hopefully, after understanding the limits and scope of negative SEO, you’re no longer worried about the possibility of seeing all your hard work go down the drain because of one rogue webmaster’s hateful efforts. Keep up a solid content marketing and link building strategy and regularly audit your backlink profile. As long as you’re paying close attention to suspicious activity and protecting your domain with consistent best practices, you have nothing to worry about.