Understanding Negative SEO & How to Defend Your Website

Google has stirred up some fear by sending out the following message within Google Webmaster Tools, resulting in several discussions in the Internet marketing community on the current effectiveness of negative SEO.

gwt-unnatural-links-message

It was previously known that Google would send messages notifying a site owner if their site was pointing to what would be considered spammy pages. It now looks as though Google feels comfortable letting site owners know links they have identified as part of what they would call a link scheme are currently pointing to their site. This is an attempt by Google to discourage the use of paid links to manipulate PageRank and gain higher rankings.

The Google Webmaster Tools message shown above, in combination with the recent Penguin algorithm update, has lead many people to believe that negative SEO is a very real danger. This is because Penguin was partially created to take out sites utilizing paid links.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO attacks can come in a few forms. Generally, negative SEO refers to when one website buys links and points them at a competitor’s website in an effort to torpedo their rankings. Other instances of negative SEO have included such tactics as hacking a website to inflict some sort of malicious damage on a website, review bombing (pointing a large number of 5-star reviews at a business so it appears they paid for them), or simply by reporting another website’s “black hat” tactics to Google.

Since external links are more or less beyond the control of the site owner, it would seem competitors could very easily improve their search rankings by using tactics to negatively impact their competitors.

The reality of the situation is... this is only partially true. You can do things to protect your website. Before you get too worried about a competitor targeting your site to harm your rankings using negative SEO tactics, understand that:

  • It’s generally agreed that a site with strong domain authority is less susceptible to negative SEO tactics.
  • It’s very risky for a business to engage in a negative SEO campaign. Most legitimate businesses won’t take the gamble.
  • Google has systems in place to review sites that might be affected, understanding the process can mean a swift recovery if something were to happen.
  • It’s extremely important to monitor SEO factors that can easily be manipulated by competitors such as backlinks and reviews.

Negative SEO Tactics

Below are some notes on tactics that were part of what was considered to be a successful negative SEO campaign.

  • Paid linking: If thousands of links get pointed to your site there is a reasonable chance it will most likely get on the radar of Google. Work with Google, change your site to comply within their guidelines the best you can, and submit a reconsideration request containing details on links you have no control over.
  • Stealing content before it can get indexed: This is an attempt to copy a site’s content to make it look like the original site is actually duplicating it. You can prevent this from being an effective tactic by maintaining an updated sitemap and consistently re-submitting when new content is published. The use of an absolute rel=canonical tag on pages can help establish your site as the authority when content is getting scraped by a third party. A great way to identify if your site is getting scraped and duplicated is by performing a Google search containing a a sentence from your webpage within quotes.

duplicate-content-check

  • Fake reviews - A competitor can easily add fake reviews to a business listing, making it seem like it is your business creating them. This supposedly worked in the “case study”. In that, reviews were removed from the victim’s Google Place listing. To prevent this from happening be sure to monitor reviews and use the “report a problem” link at the bottom of your business listing to notify Google of the issue.

reviews-spam-report-a-problem

  • Site speed: Excessive crawling of a site can cause latency issues for a typical user browsing a site. It’s possible to prevent malicious crawlers from having access to your site, but it should be done very carefully so as not to block Google, Bing, or users from navigating. Knowing Google and Bing’s IP addresses can be helpful if using IP detection as a method for identifying and stopping bad crawlers.
  • DMCA removal requests: This is, by far, is the most effective and scary negative SEO tactic. Targeting a site’s most valuable backlinks, a competitor sends emails notifying the webmaster that the page containing a link to your site is considered a copyright infringement and should be removed immediately. One defense for this is to establish a relationship with the site before it can happen. Even an email saying, "thank you for the link!", could be enough to help keep that link permanent. Keeping an eye on new referral traffic in analytics can help identify new links worth being thankful for! This is faster than waiting for a link index, such as Open Site Explorer, to update and surface new links.

The Best Negative SEO Defense

can-of-worms-aheadJust to be clear, there is no set list of negative SEO tactics. A negative SEO campaign will identify the weaknesses of your site and exploit them.

The best defense is having a website with a solid SEO focused foundation and constantly monitoring important ranking metrics for foul play. Additionally, an open and honest relationship (if possible, customer service can be non-existent) with Google can help you maintain long standing rankings.

Google truly opened up a big can of worms with the Penguin algorithm update and the latest Google Webmaster Tools message warning sites of paid links. It will be hard for them to distinguish whether a site has a serious issue of a competitor implementing negative SEO or if the site owner is guilty of playing outside the rules and pretending it was someone else.

It would be surprising if Google isn’t aware of the effect this move is having. My guess is that they’ve begun spearheading identifying patterns of link manipulation, beefing up customer support and the webspam team, and preparing for the ensuing onslaught of controversy.