What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is the practice of deceiving Google to believe that a domain you do not own is doing something to violate Google’s webmaster guidelines or interfering with Google’s ability to crawl a domain. This includes everything from spam link building to denial of service attacks. The goal of negative search engine optimization is usually to drive down a competitors rankings. Google has claimed that businesses do not have to worry about negative SEO and that they have preventative measures to identify it. However, lately the evidence is mounting that they are not nearly perfect at identifying negative SEO attacks, and it is becoming a real threat to webmasters.

How Long Has Negative SEO Been A Problem?

This has been a popular topic for a few years now (since shortly after the initial Penguin release) and I think all search engine optimization professionals are just sick and tired of talking about it. Unfortunately, negative SEO has started to make some noise in the general public. I’ve even gotten solicitations from companies offering to perform negative SEO on my competition. This got me doing more extensive research on the subject matter to determine if the topic was worth continuing to pay attention to. The results definitely surprised me.

Should You Be Scared? Maybe. Maybe Not.

I looked at numerous sites (over 50, though admittedly not all in-depth) with elements of negative SEO being performed on them. When I reviewed the data, I got a big bag of mixed results. It appears at face value that there are situations to be afraid of, despite Google’s claim that negative SEO is easy for them to detect. Before you say it, correlation and causation are two different things. This is all based on a small set of data and should not be taken as fact, but more as a simple observation.

  • Porn Kills: In the sample studied, domains that suffered most included domains where the heaviest volumes of spam came from pornographic sites and/or using pornographic anchor text. One site was even removed from Google’s index. That firm has since discontinued their URL. However, I also saw sites where porn links had little effect (likely a disavow file in place).
  • Blog Comments Do Nothing, Regardless Of Anchor Text: A lot of companies that call me concerned about negative SEO find they are getting high volumes of spammy blog comment links. Nearly all of these were nofollow, which means Google claims to ignore them anyway. I saw nearly 2/3 of one firm’s profile filled with blog comments from spam domains from other countries, all over a 2 month period and it had relatively no effect on their traffic. There was roughly a 10% traffic drop, but its important to note that though there is a correlation, this was almost definitely not the cause. When I analyzed the drop, the cause in this case was some thin, deep content that no longer drew traffic after Panda 4.0.
  • Casinos, Gambling And Pay Day Loans: Linking from the same sites that also link to payday loans, credit card scams, casinos, gambling and things of that nature should hurt you, in theory. However, I think with the Payday Loans update Google has made it easier for their bots to determine what’s spam and what’s an irrelevant attempt at negative SEO.
  • Repointing flagged domains: This was one of the more clever tactics I saw used and one that worked fairly well, but is really more of a “single-target” method of eliminating a competitor. One domain reviewed had about 25 irrelevant redirects that I have to assume was someone intentionally pointing flagged domains at the site. That site has seen a drop-off (though not as bad as you might think), even with a lot of very strong links. Google has discussed not 301 redirecting severely penalized domains as the penalty may be passed along in the redirect, but I’m not sure that’s what happened here. With a small sample I have to point out again that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation. It was interesting nonetheless.
  • Exact Match Anchor Text: Probably the toughest for Google to figure out when this is bad SEO or negative SEO, yet I’ve only seen a handful of cases in the legal niche where a law firm had high volumes of what I suspected to be exact match anchor text related to negative SEO (usually its just a bad SEO company).

As I’ve pointed out, I do not have access to disavow files and other important factors in determining if negative SEO was the source of any of the above drop-offs. However, there are many indicators (including the dates and times links were found that correlate with steep dips in traffic) that point to these domains suffering (or not suffering) from negative SEO. There are a variety of other forms of negative SEO as well. Have one I missed? Share it in comments!

The Scariest Part Is, A New Industry Has Developed

As I stated earlier, I’ve received solicitations from companies offering to perform negative SEO on my competition. Without the proper knowledge in place, this sounds like a great idea in theory, right? Rather then focus on driving my domain up, I can push my competition down! It scares me to think how many businesses will love the sound of that proposal. In the SEO world, bad or devious tactics have a way of coming around to bite you in the backside. They may even work in the short-term, but in the long run it will be your competition that has the last laugh. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years it’s this: Don’t insult Google’s intelligence. It will come back to haunt you. Do the right thing now and be patient waiting for the results. This is an industry where over the years, the tortoise definitely beats the rabbit.

If I’ve Been Targeted By Negative SEO, What Do I Do?

First, don’t panic. Even significant drops I’ve seen from negative SEO have almost always quickly turned around. Google and their employees figure a lot of these situations out on their own and in most cases a strong SEO company can bring you back within a few weeks to a few months. One law firm I talk with frequently is still doing very well and had no idea that a negative SEO link building campaign was underway against their domain. Even if you haven’t been hurt yet, you should clean up your link profile to make sure it never effects you. Here is the same simple 3-step guide I provided them:

1) Request removal of any known poor links. Most domains have at least a handful of links they’ve built or bought over the years that need to be removed. If you’ve been flagged, Google will want to see you cleaning up bad links or paid links you may have built as well. Your competitor may be able to keep these links, but you can’t. If you have control of the link in question, simply remove or revise your link to meet Google’s standards and you don’t have to worry about disavowing it. If the webmaster has a contact form, you can send them a request to remove your link. Once this is complete, proceed to step 2.

2) Update your disavow file in Webmaster Tools. If you don’t know what this means, please do your research and hire a search engine optimization company to assist you. As the disavow tool warns, using it improperly can have devastating effects on your domain. Once updated, your traffic may take weeks to months to come back, especially if you’ve delayed getting started. I’ve found the faster these situations are caught, the more forgiving Google seems to be and the quicker traffic rebounds (and the less you have to do all at once).

3) Register your domain at MajesticSEO.com. You don’t have to pay for a subscription to run some link reports on your own domain. You simply need to register and verify ownership of the domain. Use MajesticSEO and Webmaster Tools’ link data to help you update your disavow file every 15-30 days (as frequently as you can, really). You can use the “latest links” section of Webmaster Tools to find out which ones are new. Any poor domains, disavow at the domain level. If you have poor or spam links from a good domain, disavow at the page level. In most cases, you will disavow at the domain level.

Share your story!

Share your story with us in the comment threads. Has your law firm been hit by a negative SEO attack? Are you a search engine optimization specialist who has helped a client rebound? Did I omit a topic you’d like to discuss? Did you run a similar study and see different results? We’d love to hear what worked for you and share as much knowledge as possible to help shut this growing industry down!