Should you be concerned about negative SEO?

The dark world of Negative SEO

It’s tough enough to get the search engine optimisation results you’ve always wanted, but what if your competitors were out there trying to sabotage all your good and honest work? It sounds like the plot of a paranoid thriller from the 70s, but in reality, it is something that is known as negative SEO.

Negative SEO is when a competitor tries to lower a website’s ranking in Google and the other search engines by using frowned-upon tactics that are common knowledge in the SEO world, without the innocent party’s knowledge that it is even taking place.

The websites that are most likely to be hit by a negative SEO attack are websites in a competitive niche. This is for two reasons, 1) It’s harder for the dodgy guys to make an impact on the niche legitimately, and 2) Google watch the competitive niches more closely, which means that you are more likely to be hit by a penalty right away.

What are Negative SEO Tactics?

If you’re keeping tabs on Google’s algorithm updates, watching Matt Cutts videos, Rand Fishkin’s whiteboard videos and reading up on all the latest SEO news from a host of websites like SearchEngineLand.com and SearchEngineWatch.com and RAD SEO, you will know what legit (white hat) SEO methods are, and which ones are dodgier than a nine pound note.

Here are a few known negative SEO tactics that your guilty parties might be using:

  • Obtaining or buying dozens of links from dodgy domains that end in .ru, .cz, .cn, .com.br, and .info.
  • Links coming from blogs associated with link networks
  • Embedding links in awfully written generic, low-quality blog posts, hosted on poor offshore websites.
  • Links from forums on websites in far-off places like Thailand, India and others.
  • A host of links from porn sites, gambling sites and payday loan sites.
  • Low-quality directories set up only for the purpose of capturing business details and obtaining links.

The question people will have at this point is likely to be “Why on earth would anybody want to do this?” The answer is simple: These guilty parties are aiming to get ahead of their competitors by getting them penalised, reducing their domain authority, reducing their search engine rankings and put them off their game by taking away from their daily duties by having to take time-consuming action on the penalties occurred by negative SEO.

See what Matt Cutts the Head of the Google Webspam team (currently on extended leave) had to say about negative SEO back in December 2012 around the time they launched the disavow tool.

Are you at risk from negative SEO?

In fact, in the last 3 years, RAD SEO has been attacked a number of times not just with large amounts of spam links but often smaller batches coming from very poor sources that we had no reason to be associated to.  These are often harder to find as you don’t see a spike in ‘links acquired’ via monitoring tools.  You really need to be monitoring and reviewing individual inks on a regular basis, something we do for ourselves but also as part of our SEO management services for clients sites.

Although it can be difficult to work out exactly where spammy backlinks have come from it’s not impossible and some do have a pattern especially when large attacks may impact multiple websites in a particular niche.  We can take a good assumption that as we have such high performance for our own SEO ranking and visibility that attacks on RAD SEO come from other local SEO competitors competing for similar keywords and visibility.  The fact that we pick up on these bad links quickly and remove or disavow them shows to Google that this pattern of attacks is not something deemed natural that we are proactively instigating.

As a rule of thumb we build strong positive relationships with other agencies and local companies where possible so prevent any reason from anyone having a reason to dislike us and naturally it makes sense for other companies to follow the same positive approach.

Many other top performing websites and big brands handle regular attacks and have to stay on top of backlink analysis.  In fact BBC Apprentice winner Mark Wright came out and said that soon after he won tv contest and set up his SEO company he became the target of large attacks and had to employ an individual purely to disavow the bad links being pointed at their site.  No matter how new or old your business is, no one is immune to these negative SEO black hat tactics and despite it not quite being digital espionage it can lead to long term damage if not dealt with quickly and effectively.

What Happens When You’re Hit with Negative SEO?

If your website has been hit with negative SEO, the first sign is likely to be an algorithmic penalty, this something that you will not have a warning about but you are likely to see an increase in backlinks to your website and traffic to your site slowly starts to drop off.  If you are hit with a manual action penalty from Google you will receive a message in your Webmaster Tools, you will be able to check the Google manual actions report and take appropriate steps to address the problem.

The most likely course of action will be to disavow the dodgy links pointing to your site using the disavow tools on Google Search Console (previously known as Google Webmaster Tools) and Bing Webmaster Tools. If you receive a manual penalty it would also be advised to contact all webmasters where possible to remove the bad links using tools like Who Is if contact details are not on their website.  Track your external activity so that you can provide this to Google to show you have made appropriate efforts to resolve the problem.  Once you’ve taken action on your bad links, as part of your manual penalty you will need to enter a reconsideration request. It may take a little time for the search engines to reinstate you to the same level of search visibility, but at least you know that you’ve done the legwork.

Keeping Tabs on Your Backlink Profile

The best way to prevent negative SEO from taking action is to be aware of what happens around your website. Here are some methods you can use (and probably are already):

  • Checking your link activity using Google Search Console which should be top of your list for managing the way Google views your website. There are numerous other sites like ‘ahrefs’ and ‘open site explorer’ who also offer in-depth analysis of backlinks.
  • Set up Google Search Console email alerts to monitor and alert you if your site is being attacked by malware, page indexing drops off, connectivity stops or you receive a manual penalty.
  • Create a Google Alert for your business to keep tabs on where you are being mentioned on the web.
  • Use a search engine rank tracking tool on a weekly basis to see where you are ranking and if your rankings have dropped suddenly.
  • Check Google Analytics on a daily basis – checking to see where your traffic is coming from, pay particular attention to spikes in traffic and traffic from countries that you are not usually associated to.
  • Don’t buy links from blog networks or other link platforms.
  • Check for duplicate content on a regular basis with tools like ‘copyscape’ and plagspotter.  Scraping and using your content on other low-quality sites is a popular way for negative SEO to be carried out.
  • In worst-case scenarios there may be fake social accounts created for your business that push out your duplicated content.  Google alerts and checking for social mentions via other social media/mention tools.
  • Keep an eye on the speed of your site particularly if it starts receiving a high loading time which can be an indication that your site is under attack from spammers sending large numbers of requests to your server.  In some cases your host may shut your site down until the issue is resolved they may also alert you immediately but in many cases this doesn’t happen so consider signing up to a tool like Pingdom for email alerts if your site goes down.

You don’t need to be terrified about negative SEO, as you might not ever come across the issue. However, it is on the rise, with parties offering their negative SEO in outreach emails to webmasters, businesses and website owners all over. The majority of people won’t take the bait (and definitely shouldn’t), and hopefully this new wave of black hat tactics will die out soon.

Google stated way back in 2006 that there is almost nothing that a competitor can do to affect your rankings. While this is not necessarily true, keeping an eye out for any negative SEO against your site is likely to protect you from being hit or at least enable you to react quickly to it.  And for the record, if we are asked to carry out negative SEO on a website the answer is a big fat NO!

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