Ever since Google rolled out its Penguin Algorithm Update in 2012, millions of websites have been hit with harsh penalties for using black hat SEO techniques. While this is a good thing to ensure that hard work and ethics pay off for the genuine website owners, it also opened a sneaky avenue for nasty people who now exploit the system to convince Google to penalize their competitors. To achieve this, these villains bombard their competition’s sites with harmful SEO techniques with the sole aim of triggering loss of rankings. This entire process is known as negative SEO.
What is negative SEO?
Negative SEO is simply a suite of dark and unethical tactics and techniques often used by people looking to sabotage the rankings of a particular competitor’s site on search engine results. In most cases, this comes as a calculated move by a disgruntled or overly ambitious competitor; however, it sometimes might be unintentional.
There are two types of Negative SEO – off-page and on-page.
Negative off-page SEO is the most common whereby external forces attack a site in an attempt to soil its reputation on the face of search engines. This can range from content scraping and duplication, fake reviews, malicious link building, and social engineering attacks among others.
On the other hand, negative on-page SEO entails common mistakes committed by a webmaster (often unknowingly) and which trigger Google’s penalty. This can include over optimization of keywords, anchor texts, and duplicate content.
Why do people send negative SEO attacks?
The simple answer to this question is that – negative SEO works, at least in some cases.
The perpetrators of these vile practices understand that they can try to beat the system and use that leverage to bring down their competition. They will do whatever it takes to outrank their main competitors, only that this time they do it by soiling their reputation in the hope that Google will favour their sites for top rakings thereafter.
Other negative SEO criminals will do this with an aim to extort or blackmail their victims. For example, they could demand to be paid a certain amount of money to remove harmful links directed to these websites. Others do it just for fun.
In some cases also, negative SEO could be totally unintentional such as in the case where an SEO expert or even website owner engages in shady or obsolete tactics in the hope of getting quick rankings.
Is negative SEO real?
When it comes to negative SEO and its impacts, there’s no shortage of public cases where tens of bloggers, both little-known and big industry leaders, describe their experiences in the hands of villains.
For our example, we’ll take a look at one of the most publicized case studies that involved Ginger, the popular grammar and plagiarism software. In a detailed post, Yonatan Dotan, the lead SEO at yellowHEAD, explains exactly how this website lost well over 90% of its traffic within less than 10 days after getting involved in a (rather unintentional) negative SEO attack.
His agency was working with Ginger for its SEO work at the time when one day they woke up to a disturbing email from Google notifying them that the site had been hit with a site-wide manual penalty. Reason given? They had involved themselves in building unnatural links.
A close backlinks analysis later revealed that Ginger had accrued a significant number of spammy links from shady content about pharmaceuticals, gambling, and pornography.
To try and recover the website, Yonatan and his team mobilized everyone at Ginger to help in identifying andnoting down all the spammy links. They then compiled in a disavow file and submitted a request for reconsideration. The penalty was revoked nearly a month later and Ginger recovered a majority of its rankings thereafter.
If you’re not yet convinced that negative SEO exists, then the above service which is open on Fiverr.com (and many other online jobs marketplaces) will help you understand that this is a grave problem staring at all genuine digital marketers. Discussions on black hat forums depict an even bigger problem as people there openly share their ‘happy’ experiences of how they successfully managed to drag down other websites; sometimes just for fun.
Luckily, Google has also continuously tried to stay a step ahead of these rogues as it strives to protect its best clients that give everything to provide users with valuable content and solutions. The search engine giant has managed to fine tune its systems to ensure they’re incredibly good at spotting occurrence of negative SEO. In some cases, it will just ignore the attempts or even in a strange twist,improve the rankings of the targeted website.
However, should you get affected by these attacks, keep calm and create a sound strategy to revive your site. In the following section, we describe effective ways you can use to recover any site affected by negative SEO.
5 Most Common Negative SEO Tactics and How to Prevent Them
Malicious link building is arguably the most common tactic used by proponents of negative SEO, and for a good reason – it’s extremely easy to implement. Luckily, its effectiveness is dwindling quite rapidly now as Google continues to improve its linking algorithm and other related functions. This means that most bad links sent today often end up causing less damage than it was the case some years back.
Spammy links often take different forms with the most common ones being links from irrelevant forums, low-quality directories, comments on lowly and irrelevant websites, and sitewide footer links.
How spam link building happens
An attacker will begin be creating a random network of links by leaving hundreds or even thousands of spam comments andspammy links on forums that are rarely moderated as well as abandoned blogs.
As if that’s not enough, theseattackers will often use certain anchor texts which they’re sure will highly trigger Google’s Penguin penalty. This can range from over optimized anchor texts that contain your main keywords or strange words that Google hates.
For example, if your main keyword is ‘negative SEO’, an attacker may choose to use ‘negative seo’ as the anchor text for all oncoming links that they send from their link farms or comments. This is likely to raise Google’s antennae and make the search engine believe that you’re possibly trying to manipulate anchor texts for your backlinks. In the end, Penguin may be forced to depreciate all links that contain these words – including the quality links that you had acquired legitimately before the attack hit.
What to do to minimize effects of spammy links
The first and most important action to take once you notice an influx of low quality links or a sudden drop in rankings is to conduct a backlinks analysis. There are a few ways to do this;
- You can log on to your Google Search Console and check your portfolio of links. Here, try to primarily focus on links that you’ve not created yourself, at least consciously.
- You can also subscribe to one of the several quality paid SEO tools like Ahrefs, SEO Powersuite, or Majestic which are very thorough when it comes to auditing backlinks. Majestic is particularly very effective as it automatically sends email alerts every time your site acquires a new link.
- If by any chance you identify a strange pattern in the amount and velocity of links, the next step is to find out whether the anchor text used in these newly acquired links follow a particular pattern.
- If you keep a historical record of all the links you’ve acquired over time and their specific anchor texts, try to compare the record before the attack and the current one. This helps you approximate the amount of work needed to return the keyword density to a level that Google considers “right” for your website.
For example, if your keyword density for a particular keyword was 2% before the attack and now stands at 5%, it means you’ll need to put effort to cut down the extra 3% to be able to enjoy the results you had earlier on.
- Reducing excessive anchor texts can be done in two main ways – by removing the newly added links pointing to your website or by acquiring more quality links with brand or neutral keywords. The latter strategy helps to dilute the spiked anchor density caused by the negative SEO attack.
- To remove the spammy links, you can use two main methods – you can reach out to owners of websites in which oncoming links are found. Request them to manually remove them or add a ‘no follow’ attribute to them. If this method doesn’t work or is too tedious for you, consider using the disavow tool provided by Google in its Webmaster Tools. Below is a simple breakdown of how to use a disavow tool:
- Create a list of all oncoming links that you think are doing your site more bad than good. You can arrange them in a spread sheet, outlining whether you need to disavow specific URLs or entire domains.
- Thereafter, paste these domains/URLs in a notepad and perhaps add additional comments for your reference in the future. When you’re sure everything is recorded correctly, you can now go ahead to upload your disavow file in your Webmaster Account.
- You should be able to see the effects in a couple days or weeks after Google has removed the bad links from your site. For more information the disavow process, click here.
It goes without saying that duplicate content can negatively impact your site ranking. Again, this is another avenue your competitors can use to lower your ranking.
How duplicate content happens
Put simply, duplication of content happens when identical copies of your web pages or posts are published in other domains. When many web pages with similar content are published, Google bots tends to get confused and this can often lead to ‘copy pages’ being ranked better than the original page (yours). It gets even more problematic if the content is re-published on a site that has more authority than yours.
If the attacker manages to have your content indexed before yours, Google may consider your attacker’s content to be the original content.
Also, content duplication can occur to people with e-Commerce sites. If you are promoting a product from a manufacturer, content you get from them may show up in Copyscape. This means you will have to make it unique by rewriting it. Keep in mind that Google rewards sites with original content. However, a competitor site can use a scraping tool to copy your ‘original product description’ and recreate it on another domain. If they get this content indexed before yours, then it means your web page will be flagged down for having duplicate material. However, this is only effective when your content is yet to be discovered.
Another way duplicate content issues occurs is through scraped content ending up being published across different domains. This is where content scrapers repost your content as their own. While Google can easily identify the original author of the content, it is still possible for your website to get penalized instead of spammer’s site. This is possible if Google had not crawled your website.
What to do to prevent content duplication
- Use a tool such as Copyscape to determine if there are copies of your content elsewhere. If found, contact the webmaster and request them to remove it. If unsuccessful, report the scraping site via Google’s copyright infringement report.
- Make sure to immediately index your articles as soon as you publish them. By indexing yours first, Google will know that you are the original author of the content and will, therefore, discard the rest of the pages that have copies of similar content as yours. In the end, it will be them that get penalized for publishing content that you own.
- Make sure to use canonical tags on all your pages.
- Always contact the webmaster of the site(s) containing the duplicated and request them to remove pages with your content. In some cases, they may be hacked and therefore publishing your content without them even knowing.
- Report the problem to the hosting of the site publishing copied content.
- Create Google email alerts for all the titles of your article. This means you get a notification anytime an identical copy is published elsewhere.
- Contact Google, through their DMCA infringement report tool and request the search engine to de-index duplicate content.
Website hacking can occur in several ways as we’ll see below;
- Injection of malicious code
You possibly already know that stuffing your anchor text with your main keywords can be quite detrimental to your SEO and search visibility.
However, there are other unpleasant ways competitors can use to harm your ranking- this is by sending spammy bad backlinks with unknown anchor text to certain pages in your link profile. If you notice this happening, it is possible that you’ve been hacked.
Hackers take advantage of some weak site code, especially on WordPress sites, when they want to inject and hide a code with links to certain pages they are looking to rank.
This is quite common on websites with high authority and good reputation. Attacker’s site will act as a parasites with the sole aim of boostingits ranking and relevancy using the hidden links posted on your website.
What to do to fix this
- If you suspect that you’ve been hacked, but you do not see anything suspicious in your site code, check the suspect page on your Search Console using the ‘Fetch as Google’ tool. If the hacker is extremely good, there’s a likelihood they’re able to hide malicious content from you when reviewing the code or viewing the page. However, the Fetch as Google tool is able to reveal any new code in a page including a fishy one that goes undetected using other tools.
- Monitor your link profile regularly using Search Console as well as other SEO tools such as Ahrefs or Majestic. This will ensure you detect anything unusual as soon as possible.
- Ensure you host your site on a reliable hosting that has quick and reliable technical support team.
- Always keep your plugins and WordPress updated, and use other security plugins such as Wordfence or Sucuri to make your site more secure.
- DDoS Attacks- Distributed Denial-of-Serve Attacks
The aim of DDoS attacks is to continually crawl your site to make it difficult for your visitors to use and Google to crawl. Ultimately, they aim to take it offline as a result of server overload.
How this happens
Attackers use automated crawlers to send heavy traffic to your site with the aim of overloading your servers. If Google cannot easily crawl your site, chances are high that it will lower your visibility on its search results. Besides, any organic traffic you get will possibly not come back because of the poor experience they had with your site.
How to prevent and fix this
Monitor your site speed on a frequent basis. If you notice that your site is beginning to lag, and you don’t see any onsite technical issues, have your hosting company or webmaster review your server logs. This will help you to determine the source of your traffic. If you notice any malicious traffic load to your site, then you can block those crawlers with your htaccess and robots.txt.
Additionally, for WordPress sites, you can install security plugins such as Wordfence. This will help you to track traffic sources by location and IP, and automatically block them if they are malicious.
Finally, make sure to have a secure, reliable hosting; most cheap shared hosting will leave your site prone to negative SEO tactics.
- Website Hacking
Hackers can attempt to gain access to your website, sometimes even with no intention of harming your SEO. They can do this to redirect traffic, steal information, inject a code, etc. However, if Google discovers that your website has been hacked, it will display a message in the search results that tell the searcher that your account may not be safe as it has been compromised.
How website hacking happens
A hacker identifies a security flaw in your site and uses it to gain access to your dashboard, database, or hosting account. Once they gain entry, they can execute their malicious activities including theft of personal information and credit card, redirect traffic to other domains they have control of, or even steal your browser cookies.
How to prevent and fix this
For starters, make sure to keep your site’s software up-to-date and also install security plugins to your website. Additionally, ensure to use HTTPS. Recently, Google has began giving warning to searchers that website that lack a HTTPS encryption are not secure. Majority of the people will not visit a site that has this warning. Of course, it’s not always cheap to migrate to HTTPS, but the effort and investment will be worth it. HTTPS adds more encryption to the data collected by your site thereby keeping it more secure.
Additionally, always lock down file permissions and directories and use strong passwords for sensitive accounts like your hosting and cPanel.
- Hacking with the intention of creating negative SEO
Hackers can also try to gain access to your site with the intention of harming your SEO. If their goal is to implement negative SEO techniques, then you are less likely to notice their activities. This is because they might target pages that are rarely viewed.
A few of the negative SEO tactics they may employ include;
- Adding disturbing or low-quality content to your pages
- Replacing your unique content with duplicate content, so you get penalized
- Replacing links to drive traffic to unethical sites or to their pages
- Removing images and links from your pages
If your website is loaded with a lot of content and there are pages that receive relatively low traffic, it might be easy for subtle hackers to alter the structure of these pages, which will impact negatively on your SEO.
How to fix and prevent this
The main solution to this is to conduct regular auditing to your site and admin monitoring. When you regularly audit your website performance, it is possible to notice changes on your web pages. There are various SEO audit tools that can help you monitor your site.
Some of the signs indicating your site has been hacked include;
- A sudden increase in traffic going to a few pages that were relatively dormant over the past few months or years.
- A sudden influx of backlinks from websites that were not normally linking to you or backlinks to previously dormant pages.
- Irrelevant keywords beginning to rank high on search results.
Hacking doesn’t necessarily come from your competitors; it can be one of your disgruntled employee who might be seeking revenge. If you recently fired an employee and didn’t entirely annul their access to your site, this can be one of the avenues they can use to spam your site.
Another negative SEO tactic which is becoming more popular recently is the creation of fake reviews about your site and then publishing them in pages such as Google’s My Business. Of course, bad reviews will not only affect your search engine rankings but will also damage your reputation online and possibly invite penalties.
What to do to fix this
- Monitor your reviews on the sites where you publish your data to report any malicious reviews.
- Control your online reputation with tools likeSERPWoo.
- Gather real product reviews. You can do this by encouraging your customers to leave a positive review of your services and products on Google and other popular review sites.
- Post customer reviews on your site.
- Respond to all of the reviews, regardless of whether they are fake or not. Google rates responses to reviews and includes them in their algorithm. This means that a positive response to a negative review can counter the negative effect.
- Claim social profiles on all social platforms. Even if you do not have intentions to use the platform to build your brand, ensure you have a social profile on the main social media platforms.
- Never use fake reviews to safeguard your reputation.
- Flag fake reviews so that Google and review sites can identify spammers and prevent them from further damaging your reputation and that of others.
While it is difficult to admit it, negative SEO is something that every webmaster needs to plan for just in case it hits. It’s a despicable business practice whose popularity seems to be growing by the day, perhaps due to the increasing competition on organic search results.
One of the most effective ways to mitigate the risks of being hit hard using this tactic is by increasing your site’s authority. Purpose to develop a strong foundation with Google by focusing on creating industry-leading content and acquiring powerful backlinks from authoritative websites.
Besides, make it a habit to monitor your backlinks and website in generalregularly to arrest any potential attacks as soon as they occur. Finally, be nice to other web ownersand your employees and avoid giving potential attackers the reason to attack you.