Since having recently attended the SMX conference in Seattle, I have been in two minds about writing this article. The term ‘Negative SEO’ was dropped at the world’s leading SEO Conference almost as many times as the word ‘Google’.

Negative SEO is a fast growing industry in the US and other parts of the world, however it’s not a term that many South African companies are familiar with – and if they are familiar with it, then they might very well be the ones who have either been practicing this ‘trade’ or who have fallen victim to it.

A former employee is stealing company information, isolated against a white background

Should we talk about Negative SEO?

The reason that I have been in two minds about writing about this forbidden act is because I am concerned that the more we talk about it, the more educated the evil-doers become. However, just days ago a client contacted me after one of their websites went down for some unknown reason.

At first they were concerned that they were hit with a Google Panda penalty, however Google will never take down a website for bad practice, it will simply stop indexing it. This website was not accessible through any means, with all clues leading to a potential Malware hack. This is one of the many tactics that negative SEO practitioners are using to target competitor websites.

Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t

Following this event, and many other similar attacks that I have recently heard of, I feel compelled to share some insights with my clients to prepare them, in the event that they might be targeted for a negative SEO attack.

What is Negative SEO?

The term ‘Negative SEO’ is used to describe any intentional act by a company, or their SEO service provider, that sets out to target competitors with actions that could result in the competitor’s website dropping significantly in search rankings, or may even cause them to be completely dropped from the Google index.

Common Negative SEO Tactics

Hacking into your website: This tactic is probably most difficult, as competitors need to have the skills to physically hack into a website and install malware, bad code or links into the website in order to compromise the website.

Speed Stress: This is one of the oldest tactics in the book. Competitors launch robots that crawl a website excessively in order to put unnecessary strain on the website so that it will go down.

Link Bombing: This is the most common tactic. Companies buy thousands of spammy or poor quality links that point to their competitor’s websites in the attempt to get a website penalised by Google Penguin.

Toxic Anchor Text: Competitors craft backlinks to point to a website with keywords in the anchor text that are considered high-spam words related to gambling or adult content.

Bogus Reviews: Here competitors create a large number of phoney reviews to a Google business listing to make it seem as though the company has created un-natural reviews for its own website.

False Social Signals: There are a number of social media tactics that competitors use to hurt websites, such as publishing negative content about the company on fake social profiles, or by purchasing thousands of fake fans or followers for a competitor’s social media profiles to appear un-natural and manipulative.

Splogging: This is a term commonly used to describe the act of blog spamming, the practice of creating fake blogs with the intent of artificially increasing links. This year, Google announced that it would penalise poor quality blog content. Competitors take advantage of this by creating loads of poor quality blog posts pointing to a website to make it look bad.

Duplicating Content: Competitors copy a website’s content and distribute it on other platforms, or make complete copies of websites (mirror the domain) in an attempt to trigger Google’s duplicate content penalty.

Stealing Content: This act is a little tougher to pull off as competitors need to be monitoring a website so closely that it knows exactly when it publishes a new piece of content, so that that they can scrape it off the website just before Google indexes it, and claim credit for the new content themselves

Removing high quality backlinks: This has become one of the most effective – and most frustrating – tactics performed by negative SEO’s. Competitors find a website’s most valuable and authoritative links, and then (masquerading as the website itself) send removal requests to the linking website to ask that the link be removed.

When good SEO’s turn bad

Many companies who have hired ethical SEO practitioners in the past have become impatient at the rising changes to the Google algorithm, and the ensuing challenges and complications faced with these changes that makes ranking tops on Google increasingly more difficult. Instead of adjusting their strategies and investing in more ethical SEO tactics, they rather spend their budgets on targeting their competitors with negative SEO.

Unfortunately these futile attempts often do not achieve the outcome that they had hoped for, while they could otherwise have invested in building a quality website and credible brand presence that could earn them better rankings faster than what their negative SEO attempts would cause their competitors to lower in theirs. As a result, these companies end up making enemies online, opening themselves up to retaliation.

How to protect your website against Negative SEO

Let’s explore some preventive measures and possible remedies that companies can take against the act of negative SEO.

Preventative measures:

The best pre-emptive act is to define key SEO ranking metrics and then to monitor them closely for any sudden un-natural patterns. Monitor your backlink profile for any sudden spikes or dips. Keep a particularly close eye on your lost links to ensure that your top links don’t start to drop off fast.

Keep track of your business listing reviews and be sure to report a problem to Google if you detect a problem.
Maintain an updated sitemap and ensure that you submit new content to Google the moment you publish it.

Add a canonical tag to your content to verify that your content is in fact the original version. You can also include an author tag to your content to claim ownership of the content as the author. Run your content through Copyscape regularly in order to identify any potential duplicate versions of your content on the web.

Validate your website with the publisher tag in order to verify your brand mentions against your domain. You can use Google Alerts or a more sophisticated social media monitoring tool to monitor brand mentions.

Block malicious bots from crawling your website and run regular speed tests to detect any un-usual stress that might be placed on the server. If you are using WordPress, ensure that you change all the standard and default settings as recommended by WordPress when installing the theme. Consider installing the Google Authenticator Plugin which prompts you to enter an additional security code when accessing the website’s files. Don’t forget to install an antivirus on your server to prevent malware hacking.

Don’t make enemies online!

Can you take legal action?

Unless you can prove without a doubt, that your competitor has targeted you for negative SEO, it is almost impossible to identify a perpetrator. Provided that you have irrefutable evidence of the spammer, you could potentially take legal action for copyright or trademark violations.

As this is not a criminal matter, proving damages in a civil case could rack up enormous costs, and there is no guarantee that you will recover or receive compensation for damages caused. You could however issue a cease and desist order against the culprit to try to prevent any further harmful action. If false brand mentions have been made, a right to be forgotten order could be granted so that Google stops showing the negative content in the search results.

What can Google do about it?

Unless Google has received a court order, they are not obliged to take any action to remedy your damages. Google has however been saying for a number of years that they are committed to ensuring that they prevent any competitor from hurting another on Google. Since link bombing is probably the most common form of negative SEO, Google has introduced the Disavow tools, which allows companies to renounce any toxic backlinks that might be pointing to their website. Website owners can also report web spam to Google directly for manual investigation. Should you be penalised unfairly as a result of your competitor’s negative actions, you could submit a reconsideration request to Google via your Webmasters account.

Why companies need ethical practitioners to combat negative SEO

It is far more difficult for negative SEO to hurt a well optimised ethical website than a website that has flaws. If a website is monitoring its SEO metrics regularly, and applies good on and off-site SEO, then it would be very unlikely that a couple of negative SEO attempts can do enough damage.

Ensure that you invest in an ethical SEO practitioner!

What to do next:
If you suspect that you might have been targeted, or if you are concerned that you are exposed to negative SEO, then contact us at Blue Magnet to find out how we can assist in tracking, monitoring and preventing negative SEO attacks on your website.