Negative SEO (aka “Google Bowling”) was once a huge threat to websites and webmasters.
As Google has expanded into natural language processing, negative SEO is less of a threat than it once was. Google typically ignores irrelevant and low quality links.
But don’t let that make you complacent!
While successful negative SEO attacks are VERY rare, they can still have a massive negative impact on your site and traffic.
If you feel you’ve been the victim of a negative SEO attack, you are not alone. We’ve been hit with multiple. Here is one fairly recent example:
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What are Negative SEO Attacks
When someone attacks your site with negative SEO, they are employing unethical black hat SEO strategies to manipulate your rankings and bring you down in search engine results. There are a number of ways this is done:
- Thousands of overtly spammy backlinks to your site (e.g. link farms and link wheels)
- Copying content from your site and posting it all over the web
- Creating social profiles and review sites that speak negatively of your business
- Removing your top backlinks
- Backlinking with irrelevant links like Viagra or online poker
Forums are one of the most notorious places where negative SEO exists. There are also SEO agencies that employ these negative SEO tactics by inserting spammy links in comments.
Smaller/Newer Sites are Most Impacted by Negative SEO
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. It’s one of the reasons that startup SEO & digital marketing can be so difficult. 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 is new and looking to establish itself in a niche
- Business B is looking to establish itself in the same niche
- Business A is using Google best practices and following all the rules to build traffic organically
- Business B sees that they can’t compete and comes up with a negative SEO attack on Business A
- Business A suddenly finds their site removed from rankings and penalized for black hat SEO
- Business B takes advantage of the temporarily vacant niche to establish themselves as the number one resource, despite a better resource existing
- Business A has two options; clear up the negative SEO or fail
Business A has very little recourse, and it all comes down to information and timing.
Types of Links that Negatively Affect SEO
A lot of webmasters are having extreme difficulty determining what backlinks are negatively affecting their rankings in the SERPs. However, there are a few major types of backlinks that have the potential to reduce visibility in the search engines.
It’s important to understand that there is nothing wrong with buying links. Thousands of companies buy links on webpages because it’s a great way to reach more people. In fact, a lot of companies make a decent ROI through links that they’ve purchased on various webpages.
However, webcrawlers want webmasters to label paid links with a no-follow tag, which means ranking power is not passed through the links.
Webmasters need to avoid paying for links that are do-follow, which means the links pass ranking power. Although research shows that paid links do increase Google rankings, they can also cause ranking penalties, which have catastrophic effects on SEO rankings.
Webmasters should also avoid getting irrelevant links to their website. The Google Penguin update changed the importance of various ranking factors.
Basically, it greatly enhanced the importance of relevant links while decreasing the power of irrelevant links. The Penguin update made link relevance crucial. It only makes sense that a website about hotel would have relevant links from websites that are about hotels or similar.
If an abundance of irrelevant backlinks aren’t already hurting your online exposure, then there is a good chance that they will in the future. Put simply, it’s best to avoid obtaining irrelevant backlinks.
Broken and Dead Links
It’s not unnatural for many of a website’s links to become broken over a long period of time. A few broken links will not cause too much harm to your rankings, but if a website loses a large percentage of its links, it can negatively impact SEO. Both external and internal links can reduce search rankings when broken, so it’s a good idea to keep track of both.
In the last couple of years, the Internet has witnessed a massive increase in link networks. A link network can be any network of web properties that are used for the sole purpose of building backlinks to a website. There are both public and private link networks.
Search engine algorithms have been taking action against the largest link networks. Some link networks are made out of websites that have expired while others are created with hundreds of free-hosted blogs. There is no denying that link networks pass serious ranking power.
If they didn’t, then Google wouldn’t be attacking such networks so aggressively. However, while the ranking power of link networks can be quite potent, they also come with a huge level of risk. Due to the very strict stance that search engines have taken against link networks, both public and private, any websites caught using such networks are at risk for being penalized.
In a worst-case scenario, a website might even be kicked out of the search index, which would cause a total loss of search engine traffic and rankings. It’s best for webmasters to avoid getting links from any type of link network.
There is no point in explaining what an anchor is. A quick search will yield the definition. Put simply, it’s the text used to link to a website. For years, many webmasters have been manipulating anchor text because the webcrawlers use it to understand what a website is about.
In the past, it was possible to get backlinks to a webpage that all used the exact same anchor text, and the search engines would rank the webpage very high in the rankings for the anchor that the backlinks were built with. However, times have changed, and the Google Penguin update took a major stab at anchor-rich backlinks.
When the Penguin update was released, websites that had an abundance of anchor-rich backlinks experienced a penalty, which negatively impacted rankings. When acquiring links, webmasters need to avoid getting too many backlinks with the same anchor text. Too many anchor-rich backlinks will send your keyword rankings down the virtual toilet.
Low-Quality Directory Links
Many services offer to submit a website to a variety of low-quality web directories. It’s important to understand that there are a few high-quality web directories that are worth getting a backlink from.
The Yahoo, Best of Web and DMOZ web directories are looked favorably upon by the search engines because they’re heavily moderated. Backlinks from many low-quality web directories can negatively affect search engine rankings.
In the past, these directories were abused, so the search engines had to take action and significantly reduce their value. Many professional SEOs believe these directories can actually cause a website to be penalized. These days, it’s best to only get backlinks from the top directories, which were mentioned earlier.
Another type of backlink that can negatively impact search engine rankings is a link exchange. Although it’s certainly possible to stay under the radar with one or two link exchanges, getting more than that can cause a penalty, which reduces rankings.
It’s important to understand that the search engines have issues with excessive link exchanges. A handful of these backlinks shouldn’t do any harm, but when obtained in excess, link exchanges can be toxic for SEO.
A link exchange involves two websites linking to each other. However, it’s when the link exchange looks unnatural or in excess that problems arise.
Keyword-rich Blog and Forum Comments
In many industries, blog commenting is commonplace. There is absolutely nothing wrong with visiting other websites and leaving a valuable comment on them. After all, the Internet was built for information sharing. Many webmasters engage on forums and blogs, and links from these places are fine.
However, it is how these links are created that matters. There are many software programs that automatically spam forums and blog with comments, and these programs normally build anchor-rich backlinks, which means a keyword phrase is used in the place of a real name.
If you leave a bunch of backlinks on blogs or forums using your real name, this shouldn’t negatively affect your search engine rankings. However, creating backlinks on blogs and forums using keyword-rich anchors is one of the fastest ways to get a search engine penalty.
Although this is not an exhaustive list of toxic backlinks, it contains some of the most common types of backlinks that can negatively impact your ability to rank.
Preparing for a Negative SEO Attack
If you want to stop these attacks from happening or recover from negative SEO, you can follow these tips.
1. Set Up Email Alerts in Google Webmaster Tools
Google has a variety of tools that can help you prevent negative SEO from tanking your site. One of them is through email alerts. Google can send you an email for each of the following:
- Pages are not indexed properly
- Server connectivity problems
- Manual penalties from Google
- Your website has been attacked by malware
You have to connect your site to Google Webmaster Tools.
2. Track Your Backlink Profile
If you want to prevent spammers from succeeding in taking down your site, you have to use tracking tools. There are a few different ones that can monitor backlinks like Ahrefs or Open Site Explorer. However, these are more manual checks. If you want to get one that will always check your backlinks, you can go to MonitorBacklinks.com. This site sends email alerts whenever your site loses or adds new important backlinks.
And here’s the SEO rankings drop and subsequent recovery result (after a few nasty-gram cease and desist orders):
Again, Google may ignore most nefarious attempts at link spamming and negative SEO, but that doesn’t mean such attempts will never have an impact.
Stay vigilant. Monitor your backlink profile with a regular backlink audit.
3. Protect Your Best Backlinks
When high authority sites link to your site, you want to keep those links. Spammers often look for ways to get these links removed. They can contact the owner of the site where you are linked and even request that it be removed. To prevent this, you need to communicate from your site’s email address instead of using Yahoo or Gmail. You also should track your best backlinks. You can do this with any of the monitoring tools mentioned above.
We have been the victim of a sly broken backlink attack. Here’s our cease and desist request to the attacker:
4. Monitor Duplicate Content
Duplicate content can kill SEO faster than a mosquito bite in summer. It’s a typical technique of negative SEO practitioners. One tool that can help is Copyscape.com. You just add your site or look up your articles in Copyscape to see if your content is located anywhere else on the web. If it is, you can have it quickly removed by contacting the website owner or reporting it to Google.
5. Monitor Website Speed
If your website doesn’t load very quickly but it used to load just fine, you might be getting thousands of requests per second by a spammer. If you don’t stop this, the spam can actually bring down your server and further slow your site speed and make your hosting company very upset with you. Pingdom offers a great tool to help you improve site performance. You can also use Google’s PageSpeed checker to figure out what’s going on with a slow loading site.
6. Monitor Your Online Reputation
Haters are going to hate. Spammers who want to negatively affect your SEO can make dozens of social profiles dedicated to spamming your content and bringing down your social signals. To find out who might be mentioning your site in a bad way, just use Mention.com. As soon as your site is mentioned anywhere, you’ll get an alert.
Monitoring your online mentions is table stakes for online reputation management in SEO.
9. Be Friendly
You should always be professional whenever you talk to marketers or fellow competitors. You don’t want to give people any reason. Spammers do what they do for a variety of reasons, but many of them just pick a reason for a reason or to outrank competition that they don’t like. While you don’t want to seek out friendships either with these negative SEOs, you also don’t want to invoke their wrath.
How to Notify Google of Negative SEO
In order to combat these unwanted SEO attacks, Google wanted to provide webmasters with a simple and efficient way to notify Google. The disavow tool is Google’s answer for having an efficient conversation about negative SEO. With this tool, website owners are allowed to send Google a list of links or domain names that should be ignored where their site link profile is concerned. Better still, this tool is easily available within the Google Webmaster tools.
Cutts, the head of Google’s webspam team, has stated what the main intended purpose for this tool is. According to Cutts, Google has always maintained that the disavow tool was primarily intended for webmasters who had done bad SEO and had manual action taken against them by Google in the search results. For these webmasters, once they had done their best to clean up their link profile, they could use this tool to clean up their profile if spam-based links still existed after these initial efforts. Still, webmasters do not have to wait until manual action is taken against them and their site to use the tool. Indeed, webmasters that are concerned about their profile are encouraged by Google to use the tool at will.
So, What Should You Do if Negative SEO is Affecting You?
If you have the suspicion that a negative SEO campaign has been launched against you, then the first step taken should be to log in to your Google Webmaster account. If manual action has been taken, you will receive a message which informs you that “some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google Webmaster’s guidelines.” If, by contrast, no manual action has been taken, then just use the disavow tool to inform Google that they should ignore these links.
Cutts has also suggested that the disavow tool can be used preemptively as well. “If you are at all worried about someone trying to do negative SEO or it looks like there’s some weird bot that’s building up a bunch of links to your site and you have no idea where it came from, that’s the perfect time to use disavow as well.”
The next logical question, then, is how does a webmaster use the tool? First, you should sign in to your Google Webmaster account. Then, under the ‘Search Traffic’ feature, find the ‘Links to Your Site’ icon and click it. Next, click ‘More’ under the ‘Who links the most’ section, and then click ‘Download more sample links’. As a result, you should have a complete listing of the links to your website, and this can be used to pick and choose which ones should be ignored by Google. These links that should be ignored should then be saved to a .txt file and uploaded to the Disavow links page within your Google Webmaster account.
General Misunderstandings of Negative SEO
Take a look at these five facts about negative SEO you might not have known:
1. It’s Not Just About Sabotaging Links.
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.
2. Not All Unfamiliar Links Are Bad Links.
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.
3. Effective Negative SEO Is Incredibly Rare.
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.
4. Recovery is Possible
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.
5. No Amount of Negative SEO Can Undo a Great Strategy.
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 (especially if you are using white label SEO services), 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.
Negative SEO Attack? We’re Here to Help
Are you suspicious you have been the victim of a negative SEO attack that may be having an impact on your rankings. If so, we can help. Get in touch with us about putting together a recovery plan.