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by Stephen Logan on 18th May 2012
Every business wants to be top of Google for their primary keywords. That’s where the action is and huge profits can be made. However, it can also make you a target. Disgruntled customers, envious competitors and mischievous hackers may deploy what is now referred to as Negative SEO. An attack that could see your rankings wiped out overnight.
Whilst this might sound ridiculous, it happens. In fact, it is happening more and more, with companies being hit by huge penalties in the search engines for SEO work that they had no knowledge of. So how does it work?
Well, essentially somebody, somewhere will deliberately create a host of bad links and direct them to an unsuspecting victim. Other techniques may also be employed (including frequent DoS attacks and fake reviews being a good example); but essentially the idea is to contravene Google guidelines in the most overt fashion in an attempt to trigger a penalty. Just to make sure, they may even alert the search engine to the victim’s supposed misdeeds.
Now Google have said that Negative SEO doesn’t work. It’s a myth apparently, but this doesn’t appear to be preventing it from working in the real world. Traffic Planet posted an account of a successful attack on Dan Thies, a renowned name within the SEO industry, last month. This prompted an outcry and even more questions about the potency of Negative SEO attacks.
So what’s going on?
On the face of it, there doesn’t appear to be much that search engine spiders can do to determine whether dodgy links have been created by the site owner or somebody who is out to damage their domain. After all, there isn’t going to be much of a paper trail to follow and the evidence appears to be pretty black and white.
So what do they do? Google can’t stop punishing sites that are buying links or joining link networks, therefore the onus will remain on the affected sites proving their innocence. Oliver has written a detailed post on this process, so if you have been hit with a penalty it might be worth a read. Essentially though, a site owner will have to demonstrate that they have contacted the relevant providers to request that their links be withdrawn. Once this evidence has been reviewed, which can take a while, only then will you be able to start clawing back rankings.
This puts Google and websites in a difficult position. It highlights a fallibility within their ability to detect and appropriately punish sites, whilst it appears that anybody could be a sitting duck to attacks. Not good news.
However, the solution may be starring us all in the face. Essentially, there are certain sites that are never going to be dragged down, regardless of a few bad links. Just look at JC Penney, they had thousands of paid links and didn’t have to suffer the ignominy of a penalty until Google had their hands forced. Now, the assumption was that the search engine simply missed these, but what happens if they just chose to ignore them?
What most big brands and major websites have at their disposal is a strong, naturally occurring link profile. Media organisations, blogs and others are more than happy to fire a link to a favourite story or product – it’s logical. Therefore, if the ‘bad’ links aren’t having a huge impact on their rankings, why should the site be kicked out of the rankings entirely? Sure, it’s naughty, but by punishing an otherwise popular and authoritative site, Google will only ruin their own results.
This is why the onus has always been on encouraging quality links and possibly why we’re moving towards a more social method of ranking. Google needs to use human factors, including reputation and popularity (found through visits, bounce rate and brand searches) to determine rankings, not more susceptible factors such as links.
There can be no doubt though that having a more authoritative site should stand you in good stead should you come under a sustained negative SEO attack. Whilst it could still have an impact, the penalties are likely to be much less severe. Whilst that’s not much consolation for anybody who has been hit and struggled to get back on their feet, it does demonstrate the need to employ a varied approach to online marketing with a clear focus on quality and quantity.
Negative SEO is an unfortunate by-product of the growing value placed on being number one in Google. It’s not pleasant, but it is something we all have to think about. Over-reliance on a search engine to deliver all of your traffic and sales is a risky strategy, no matter how big your business is or how long you’ve been at number one in the rankings. The more awareness you can build around your brand on a number of platforms, the more people will naturally gravitate towards you.
If you are concerned about possible Negative SEO attacks, make sure you keep an eye on your link profile. Should you find anything that looks out of place or you notice a sudden uptick in inbound links despite a lack of effort on your part, investigate further and maybe contact the site to see why they sent a link your way. If things really aren’t adding up, then just ask for it to be removed and be sure to keep a copy of this request – just in case.
Equally, look out for unusual negative reviews and keep a close eye on your site speed. A sudden increase in critical comments may point to an issue that needs to be dealt with. If you are experiencing unusual downtime, talk to your domain host or webmaster to see if the situation can be attributed to anything in particular. Again, if there is anything out of the ordinary, make sure you take action as soon as possible.
So if you’ve been affected by Negative SEO or have anything further to add on the subject, including advice on dealing with the problem, please comment in the section below.