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Matt Beswick explains the threat of negative SEO, and how you can identify issues for a fight back, as well as preparing yourself for an attack.
The introduction of Google’s Penguin update had one simple aim: improve the quality of the SERPs. Whereas Panda focused on punishing thin content, Penguin cracked down on link scheme loopholes and made site authority far more important when calculating PageRank and overall value. One unfortunate consequence of this change in ranking methodology was the noticeable increase in negative SEO, a tactic which has experienced renewed popularity (both as a talking point and a genuine risk) lately.
Thanks to this surge, site owners and SEOs now face a serious threat to their hardearned Google rankings.
The Mechanics of Negative SEO
Before embarking on any discussion of negative SEO and its consequences, it’s best to start from scratch and define the concept in clear, unambiguous terms. When Google’s algorithms analyse and evaluate any website, they look at which sites are linking to it. As you’re probably already aware, rankings are largely determined by the link juice of inbound links. In other words, a link passes some of the PageRank value of its origin page to its target. But what if that value is calculated as being negative?
Whether it’s too much exact match anchor text, too many links from spammy pages, or a combination of the two, the Penguin algorithm aims to penalise sites who’ve been involved in shady link practices. So, in theory, if you wanted to hurt another site’s rankings, you could do just that by linking to it from a lot of sites with low value.
Even more frustratingly – as I was recently reminded – it’s really easy to outsource a negative SEO attack on another website. For instance, one could turn to sites like Fiverr or elance to hire a digital hitman. Alternatively, they could rely on programs to do the deed and use the likes of XRumer to do it themselves. The basic idea is that someone would build up as many spammy, unnatural links as possible to their target of choice. Once they’ve rubbed out the competition, they can move into the top slot for their desired keywords. Sadly, many small-time webmasters who are the victims of such campaigns would have no idea what’s going when their site’s rankings drop.
Who’s Most Vulnerable?
Websites with above average link authority and PageRank are less likely to be affected by negative SEO attacks. While Penguin made it easier to use the practice for nefarious means, the science of ranking websites is still enormously complex. A lot goes into the formula, including content, keywords, semantics, dwell time and much more. It’s harder to hurt the reputation of sites with a wide moat of superior content and a mature network of high-quality inbound links. Therefore, large websites like the Huffington Post won’t feel the sting of negative SEO like their smaller competitors would.
Regrettably, it’s the sites at the bottom of the totem pole trying to climb their way up that are most vulnerable. A negative SEO campaign could wreak havoc on fairly young websites that lack massive archives of content or a good number of authoritative inbound links. Newer websites have to work the hardest for their spots and typically don’t have as many good links to outweigh the bad; and so struggling up-and-comers need to be on their guard, as they can’t afford to have their efforts derailed by negative SEO. Considering how much is on the line, it’s irresponsible to ignore the dangers posed by negative SEO, which is part of the problem. Those who are most at risk are the people who are less likely to know, or even care, what negative SEO is or does.
Shoring Up the Defenses
In order to make your site as impervious to negative SEO attempts as possible, you’ll need to begin with the basics and work your way up. For starters, perform a thorough audit of your inbound links and make sure that they’re relevant and employ appropriate anchor text. You’ll also want to take care to avoid going overboard with exact match anchor text, as Penguin tends to penalize such links. In addition, using link building tactics like guest blogging to create backlinks to your pages from high-value sites is a great method for passing on potent link juice (as long as you do it properly).
In the age of Penguin, high quality links are certainly the biggest factor in bolstering site authority, and generating traffic. More important is the quality content that’ll encourage other sites to link to yours organically in the first place. Remember that SEO, like economics, is not a zero sum game.
By creating the most forward-thinking, high-quality content possible, you’ll attract quality links from quality sites, even if they’re competing with you in the same niche. Forget about focusing solely on short-term gains and invest your time in achieving the goal of becoming well-respected in your field of expertise. Alternatively, take an opposing view and make a complete nuisance of yourself by riling people with your opinions – either way, the aim is to get them to take notice and link to you!
If you think you’re getting spammed with lousy links by an SEO assassin, you can get proactive and take matters into your own hands to stem the tide of sub-par link juice.
First, you’ll want to determine whether or not you’re being targeted. Admittedly, the process is a bit involved. However, by using a combination of Open Site Explorer, Google Webmaster Tools and link removal utilities like rMoov, it’s possible to protect yourself and, potentially, repair negative SEO damage.
In short, the process is as follows:
1. Build great links into your site. The more of these you have, the less likely a negative SEO attempt is going to harm you.
2. Keep an eye on your analytics and webmaster tools. If you see traffic coming from the likes of Fiverr, or referrals from sites that you know shouldn’t be linking to you, investigate the cause. I was lucky enough to be able to track a negative SEO attempt right from the start because I closely watch where my traffic comes from – I advise you do the same.
3. If you think you’re being attacked, track things closely. It’ll take a while for the links to appear in OpenSiteExplorer and Webmaster Tools but as they do use SEOGadget’s link removal tool to find the most dangerous links and try to have them removed. This involves emailing the owners of the sites that have linked to you and, in my experience, is very hard going. Response rates are somewhere around the 20% mark but every little helps.
4. Don’t forget about Bing’s disavow tool.
5. Keep a spreadsheet of the links that have been built without your permission and submit a reinclusion request to Google with an explanation of what’s been going on. I do this even if rankings haven’t been affected – it’s better to preempt than react.
The Future of Negative SEO
Google has been typically mum on the impact of negative SEO and how much it factors into the equation. That’s not particularly shocking, since their exact algorithm recipes are closely guarded secrets, although there has been a subtle rewording of their guidelines over the last few months which have pretty much confirmed that negative SEO is possible.
There’s some talk of adding a link disavowal feature such as the Disavow Links utility found in Bing Webmaster Tools, and it will probably arrive in the next few months. The concept of negative SEO has been around for a long time, and it probably won’t go away any time soon. Still, you can expect Google to continue to tweak its algorithms to nullify the efforts of negative SEO practitioners around the web.
The Real Deal
To what extent negative SEO campaigns pose a threat is the subject of some debate. The reality is that most webmasters won’t really have to worry about it. Still, it never hurts to err on the side of caution and do your homework to determine whether or not you’re in the cross hairs of someone who’s looking to take your site down a peg. Remain vigilant and take action when it’s needed, but don’t spend too much time worrying – it’s better to just get on with the more positive sides of SEO!
The views expressed in this post are those of the author so may not represent those of the Koozai team.
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