Due to Google’s recent algorithmic changes, their targeting of link networks and pre-existing measures against low-quality links, there has been a growing concern regarding Negative SEO. Because the web is so open and many of the signals search engines such as Google use to determine a site’s ranking take place off site- without the participation of the site owner or webmaster- there are a number of techniques that could be used by competitors and hackers in an attempt to penalize another site or diminish their rankings.
We will discuss some of those techniques below but the common theme of negative SEO is misrepresentation, i.e., someone impersonating a shady and unscrupulous marketer within your organization in an attempt to entice Google to penalize the site. This reminds us of the Ali G Show skit in which Borat follows a local politician on the campaign trail informing potential voters that if elected, his candidate will be “...powerful, like Stalin!” You don’t want Borat helping you with your political campaign and you certainly don’t want your competitors helping you with your SEO.
The primary concern regarding Negative SEO at this point seems to be backlinks. The fact that anyone can point a link to anyone else without their consent - here, I just randomly pointed a link to NPR- it naturally follows that any competitor could potentially point links from low-quality sites that Google has identified as spam to your site. Low quality links are cheaper to buy than ever and with the April Penguin update which specifically targets sites with low-quality or paid links, Negative SEO, and especially negative linking has become a growing topic of discussion in the search community.
Around Mid-March Google began taking further action against link networks. If you were participating, you may have seen your traffic drop because those links were devalued, or because Google penalized your site. BuildMyRank.com was penalized so severely that they had to shut down their service and provide refunds to customers.
In this type of scenario it is important to distinguish between sites being penalized for low quality links and Google simply not counting those links, which is often the case. In practical terms a penalized site suffers at the hand of one of Google’s engineers directly for participating in practices falling outside of their Webmaster Guidelines while those receiving link devaluation do not benefit from something they never deserved in the first place. In fact, this is the case most of the time.
Here, Google further explains and slightly comforts us on the second scenario:
Also, it should be noted that Google has ramped up its efforts to communicate with webmasters through the message center of Webmaster Tools, including warnings against low quality backlinks. However, it’s unclear whether Google will ever create functionality for sites to “disavow,” or basically say “I don’t know these guys and they don’t represent our company” certain backlinks.
However Negative SEO can extend beyond just pointing spammy links at your site. It can include security breaches in which hackers find a vulnerability in your FTP connection and place spam on your site or edit your robots.txt file to block Google from crawling the site, or introduce other malware. It can also include scenarios in which a competitor may report your site to the search engines for shady or “on-the-border” gray-hat type SEO you’ve conducted or build a number of quick and dirty sites to repost (copy and paste) your site’s content, effectively creating spammy, duplicate content.
Negative SEO isn’t a new concern but has so far proved to be rare. Google has said that it does an enormous amount to prevent one site from targeting another. In most cases large sites with quality structure, content and links have built up a natural immunity to these types of attacks. In other words, the good outweighs, and can often overcome, the bad.
Our advice is to be aware of and watch out for Negative SEO, but to not stress about it. Build backlinks naturally; monitor your site and backlink profile regularly, and avoid any techniques that may be considered spam. Implement known security measures and be ready with a “reconsideration request” should you suspect any wrongdoing. We’ll be following this debate closely and feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.