Negative SEO has been a bit of a boogeyman for webmasters since 2011. Concerns about the black hat technique, and the way Google handles it, put webmasters and SEO professionals on edge. Though anecdotes abound, actual negative SEO is rare, but when it happens it can be devastating. What is negative SEO, why is it dangerous and why is Google failing to support webmasters against it?
Long ago, in the early days of SEO, it was relatively simple to game the system and entice Google into pushing your site to the top of the rankings. The algorithm was in its infancy back then, and it used simple metrics to decide how a site should be ranked. One of them was incoming links. A site with a large number of links pointed to it must be influential and useful, right? After all, other sites wouldn’t link to them if they didn’t provide something of value.
Unfortunately for Google, the value these sites provided was money. A site could pay to have hundreds or thousands of blogs link to their page. With hundreds of incoming links, Google parsed the site as popular and pushed it to the top of the rankings.
Eventually, Google caught on to this tactic and began analyzing incoming links. Links from high quality sites still provide value, but incoming links from low quality or spam sites actually penalize the linked page.
This is where the idea of negative SEO comes in. The webmasters who own these large spam blog networks are no longer able to sell links to boost a site ranking. On the contrary, now they can sell those same links to penalize a site. To Google, a site suddenly has hundreds of incoming links from a spam page, so it must be attempting a black hat strategy, so it is penalized. There is no analysis of how those links came to be. It doesn’t matter who paid for them.
Negative SEO is at once a huge threat and less of a threat than people imagine. Successful negative SEO attacks are rare, and there’s a reason for this. Large businesses with established, old websites will have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of incoming links already. A negative SEO attack adding a few hundred or a thousand spam links will hardly budge that site’s ranking. The percentage of bad links is simply too low. The site may experience a brief drop in rankings, but such a bump in the road is normal for large, established sites.
Small businesses and new websites looking to build a following are most at risk. Small niches can be incredibly competitive, and black hat webmasters won’t think twice about using a negative SEO attack to nuke the competition.
The typical story for a small business is this.
Business A has very little recourse, and it all comes down to information and timing.
When business A finds themselves removed from the rankings, there is little indication that a negative SEO attack has happened. It can take seven days or more for Google Analytics and the Google link profiles to update enough to show the spam incoming links. That’s a full week, minimum, before the webmaster of business A can even determine why they were removed from rankings. Third party link evaluation sites can take even longer to update.
Meanwhile, Google updates much faster. Internally, there is closer to a two-day turnaround for ranking updates. A negative SEO attack happens, Google sees the spam incoming links, and within two days, business A is penalized. That leaves five or more days before business A knows why.
The timing issue doesn’t stop there. In the ideal world, after seven days, business A sees a more or less complete list of incoming spam links. This is assuming the negative SEO attack was a one-time thing, and not an ongoing process. Business A gathers up the spam links and reports them to Google via the disavow links tool.
An aside; the Google disavow links tool is the answer to negative SEO, as far as Google is concerned. If your site is being attacked, simply plug in the spam sites and submit the form. After a few days of processing time, Google will remove those links and prevent them from affecting your ranking. At least, in theory. In reality, Google might not remove all of them, and it might take longer.
Assuming complete removal through the disavow links tool, the site finds the incoming links removed. At this point, the negative SEO effects are cleared up, but the business has not been restored to its place in the rankings. To do that, the webmaster must submit a reconsideration request to Google. These requests can take as long as four weeks to process, and they might be denied.
By the time business A is restored to rankings, business B has six or more weeks of head start. Meanwhile, business A has been spending money to keep up with incoming reports. It has lost significant revenue from the penalties. Businesses of a small enough size, hit by a negative SEO attack, can easily bankrupt themselves.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to handle negative SEO attacks. Google needs to calculate some value for incoming links. If there’s no penalty for low quality links, spammers can use them to benefit a site. If there’s no value for incoming links, high quality backlinks become useless and the work Google does to encourage community fails.
A similar problem happened on WordPress, with trackbacks. The system they implemented notifies a webmaster of a trackback and asks them if they want it to count. This gives the webmaster control over incoming links through WordPress. Such a system would fail on the scale of the Internet at large, however. Imagine a site like Amazon, with over one billion incoming links, suddenly being required to approve them or deny them on an individual basis. Businesses would need to create entire departments just to keep up with incoming links. Such a system is unsustainable.
The bottom line is that Google does not have an effective system in place to combat the threat of negative SEO. No matter how rare these attacks may be, small businesses will live in fear of an attack ruining their reputation and their revenue. Until Google comes up with a solution to the problem, negative SEO will remain a threat.