Whilst navigating your way through the murky world of black hat and white hat SEO techniques you may have come across another nefarious sounding term… negative SEO.

The purpose of this post is to tell you exactly what negative SEO actually means, whether you need to worry about it and what you can do to defend yourself from it.

What is negative SEO?

As opposed to using black hat techniques in order to illicitly rank your own site higher up search engine results pages (SERPs), negative SEO is about using similar underhanded techniques to attack a rival’s website and scupper their ranking.

This can be done a number of ways…

  • Pointing hundreds of low-quality, spam-heavy links to your website, particularly ones using particularly unsavoury keywords or ones that are nothing to do with your content.
  • Copying your website’s content and distributing it around the internet, therefore placing you at risk of transgressing Google’s ‘duplicate content’ policy. As follows...

In the rare cases in which Google perceives that duplicate content may be shown with intent to manipulate our rankings and deceive our users, we'll also make appropriate adjustments in the indexing and ranking of the sites involved. As a result, the ranking of the site may suffer, or the site might be removed entirely from the Google index, in which case it will no longer appear in search results.

  • Crippling your website speed by sending thousands of requests per second to your server.
  • If you have quality backlinks from other authority sites, someone could potentially get in touch with those sites and using your name and details ask to have them removed.
  • Negative SEO can also refer to website hacking. From removing content or even deleting your site entirely, to changing the robots.txt file to tell search engines to stop crawling it.
  • It can also be about damaging your reputation, perhaps through fake social media accounts set up to specifically badmouth your company.

Should I worry?

According to Kissmetrics yes it’s a very real threat and numerous websites have had to deal with the problem. However as Google’s Matt Cutts states in his own video response to negative SEO:

If you’re just a regular small business you are not likely to run up against this. There are a lot of people who talk about negative SEO, but very few people who try it and fewer still who actually succeed.

This quote (and related video) was published back in 2012, the same year that Google released the first version of its Penguin algorithm created to reduce and penalise the use of spammy and unnatural links. It also released the disavow tool, which we’ll talk about further down the page.

Moz has summarised all of Google's communications related to negative SEO and distilled them as follows… 

Google works hard to ensure that a competitor cannot hurt your site by pointing bad links at it and if you notice a bunch of bad looking links pointing at your site, most likely they are not going to do any harm to you. In fact the vast majority of cases where people report negative SEO attacks end up not being negative SEO.

However Google admits itself that it may not get things 100% correct all of the time.

Protect yourself

If you do run a website in a highly competitive market and are worried about the risks of negative SEO, especially if you yourself have received penalties from Google in the past, there are things you can do to help.

In our SEO trends of 2014 post, the SEO director of Jellyfish Nick Fettiplace stated that…

Webmasters will need to ‘build-in’ to their monthly SEO activity an element of on-going backlink monitoring and health-checking to ensure that negative SEO attacks are picked up quickly and can be rapidly remedied. This will involve iterative updates of disavow files and manual link removal processes.

Monitor your backlinks

Make sure you have Google Webmaster Tools set up for your site. Then you can sign up for email alerts, which tell you as soon as any suspicious activity occurs or malware is uploaded. It will also tell you if you’ve been served a manual link penalty by Google, which can be a sign someone is maliciously attacking you.

There are also other third-party companies offering monitoring tools. Search Engine Land has a list of available tools it recommends. It also suggests you should monitor on a monthly basis, keeping an eye out on a large number of new links uncharacteristic of the website and large numbers of links from low quality domains.

Ask for the bad links to be removed

Go directly to the source and ask for any spammy backlinks to be removed. Keep a record of your correspondence, as it’s good to have evidence to show you’ve done everything possible to solve the situation amicably before contacting Google directly for intervention.

Google’s disavow tool

You can ask Google not to take low-quality links into account when it crawls your site by using the disavow tool. Although this should come after you’ve done as much work as you can to remove spammy links and are unable to make further progress.

First you need to download a list of links to your site. You can do this via Webmaster Tools, under Search Traffic>Links to Your Site.

Next create a file containing only the links you want to disavow then upload this to Google.

Use this tool with caution, as if used incorrectly you may end up doing more harm then good.

Further reading…

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. 

The following related articles should help clear up a few things...

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 6 January, 2015 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (5)

Ant Robinson

Ant Robinson, Optimisation Director at Pure Optimisation @antrobbo

Great article Christopher however I think your assertions around duplicate content has slightly missed the point or at best missing half the potential risk. The Negative SEO risk with respect to duplicate content often lies within URL vulnerabilites on a brand's own website.
For Example: The BBC website enables redering of parameteurised URLs and the creation of sub-domains. e.g.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/
I can create both
http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/?=antrobinson
http://www.antrobinson.bbc.co.uk/weather/
Thereby creating duplicate content.
This risk is removed by utilising the rel=canonical tag effectively throughout a site, this has been implemented by on the BBC website, however all too often this is overlooked by brands leaving them vulnerable to negative SEO attack.

almost 3 years ago

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor, CEO at Gravytrain

Great piece Christopher. We've been continually monitoring the backlink profiles of our customers for some considerable time now and have witnessed first hand attempts to perform negative SEO particularly in the competitive area of insurance. In that respect the disavow tool has been incredibly useful for us to help combat this activity.

almost 3 years ago

Pankaj Gupta

Pankaj Gupta, CEO at Think Audience

Negative SEO is very real. I believe the best way to be safe is to regularly monitor the number and quality of inbound links, as well as getting a tool that protects content from being stolen. After all, prevention is always better than cure. If a negative SEO attack succeeds, it may take months to fix it. No one wants that.

almost 3 years ago

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Danny Butler, Marketing Assistant at Portsmouth Marketing Group

Great post! Very useful.

almost 3 years ago

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Kathy Zant, CEO at Maximum Clarity Marketing

I've helped a couple of people recover from Google penalties. One was a negative SEO attack from a competitor. The other was from bad link building. There are a number of ways people can get hurt or hurt themselves. The biggest thing is to manage your search placement as an asset and watch it closely. Just another thing to add to regular web site maintenance.

almost 3 years ago

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