September 20, 2014

Negative SEO – What Is It?

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about Negative SEO in the community.

Lots of people are afraid that they might be a target of a negative SEO campaign that forces them out of the search engines and into obscurity. There’s tons of panic in the industry and people are over-reacting at an alarming rate.

If anything is clear, it’s that the Penguin update is the SEO community’s own War of the Worlds moment. Instead of panicking in the streets though, SEOs have taken to scrutinizing every single link to their website, even going so far as to request removal of links they had nothing to do with without any proof that they’re actually harming them. I mean, really? THAT’S the most impactful thing you can possibly spend your time on?

It’s time we put an end to the insanity. Before we can do that though, we need to understand exactly what Negative SEO is.

So What Exactly Is Negative SEO?

Many in the industry associate the concept of Negative SEO with building shady links to your competitors websites. I’m not so sure it’s that simple. When Google updated their FAQ about whether or not competitors could harm your website it created a giant panic in the SEO community. Was Google admitting that negative SEO is really possible?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: Probably not in the way you’re thinking.

Let me try to explain. When it comes to harming a competitor’s website, there ARE some things that shady webmasters CAN do – but they’re slightly more involved than firing up xrumer or scrapebox and building some links. More on the link techniques later.

At SMX Advanced @mattcutts brought up the mention of Sex.com and how they had to go to court to get their domain back after somebody forged a fax to transfer the domain. That’s technically something a competitor can do to harm your website, and it’s probably the type of stuff Google is referring to in their updated FAQ.

So what else can somebody do to harm my website?

Forgive me for not going into a lot of detail in the various methods I’m about to list, but the last thing I want is for somebody to try any of these. Here’s what a competitor could do to harm your website with regards to SEO.

  • File a DMCA takedown request and get your host to take you offline
  • DDOS attack you, rendering your site unreachable to Google
  • Hack your website and do all kinds of dirty things
  • get access to your webmaster tools account and de-index your site. (Via hacking or social engineering)
  • Send phony legal notices to your host. (I once had a friend whose entire server and domain were ceased by the FBI for months for what turned out to be a bogus complaint. This domain was hosted on that server and I was down for a while.)
  • Send spoofed emails to places who link to you asking to remove or change the link
  • 302 Hijacking. It still works.
  • Send DMCA takedown requests to sites who link to you.
  • Use XSS to inject malware and report you to Google – causing your site to instantly drop from search
  • use their go.php or affiliate redirect scripts to create huge duplicate content issues for them
  • Edit your robots.txt file because you chmodded it to 777 or have a vulnerable script
  • Claim your google maps listing and move you to Africa
  • “Help” you spend your PPC budget or increase your adsense earnings.
  • cross domain canonical has some issues that can be exploited
  • so do 301 redirects (especially with other domains that already got penalized)
  • DNS Poisoning (sorry, no more details here)
  • Cloaking
  • Mechanical Turk.
  • And those are just a few things somebody can do to hurt your website that don’t involve giving you a link penalty. In fact, most of them are MUCH easier than creating millions of links for your website.

    My point is, these are the things Google most likely had in mind when they updated their privacy policy. Some of them are things Google can warn you about through webmaster tools, but almost all of them are things outside of Google’s control that they couldn’t prevent even if they wanted to – hence the most likely reason for the wording of their FAQ.

    So Does Building Shady Links Work?
    I could write about this for hours, but the short answer is that we just don’t have any proof yet. My faith in the Google team leads me to believe that they wouldn’t allow the system to be gamed as easily as some people suggest. In most of the cases I’ve seen, the sites that got hit had very obvious links of their own creation. Things like obvious paid links, sitewide footer links on sites it was clear they also controlled, and links in their plugins / widgets. Many of them also had some pretty blatant keyword stuffing going on too, but that’s another issue.

    Until we have solid proof that somebody can take down your site with a simple $97 program, we should have some faith in Google and spend our time worrying about things that we CAN control – like going out and earning some hard quality links.

About Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is an SEO from Detroit. By day he works as a manager of SEO & Analytics at SapientNitro where his team performs SEO for Fortune500 clients. By night he's either playing hockey or attempting to take over the world with his own websites - which he would have already succeeded in doing had it not been for those meddling kids and their dog. The views expressed here have not been paid for and belong only to Ryan, not any of his employers or clients. Follow Ryan on Twitter at: @RyanJones, add him on Google+ or visit his personal website: www.RyanMJones.com

Comments

  1. You said:

    “Was Google admitting that negative SEO is really possible? Short answer: yes. Long answer: Probably not in the way you’re thinking. ”

    Thank you for pointing that out as well as all the ways that Google might have been referring to (pretty scary list ya got there, Ryan!)

    When it comes to ‘shady links’ in the form of negative SEO, I think it all comes down to this… the weaker your backlink profile, the more open your site is to being harmed by an attack.

    If we all do as you suggest and keep our heads down working towards getting those good/hard-to-get links, we are spending our time in a much more productive way.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this (and thanks for the link).

    Jennifer
    ~PotPieGirl

  2. “. My faith in the Google team leads me to believe that they wouldn’t allow the system to be gamed as easily as some people suggest. In most of the cases I’ve seen, the sites that got hit had very obvious links of their own creation”

    I’m sorry but your faith is misguided. If it is possible for people to tank their own websites by building crap links of course it is possible to tank someone else’s. How on earth can a machine know the difference?

  3. so, some of the stuff I’ve seen not help is internal link abuse (like the sites who link to themselves 50 times within their own articles) and sitewide footer links (often reciprocal) etc. Those are all clear signals that you own and control those.

  4. Of course Google are going to say it’s not possible to take someone else down. Sure it could be harder to take down larger sites with massive links, a lot of authority and good social metrics but it’s still possible. More to the point though, anyone who has been slapped by the penguin update has the upper hand in negative SEO as they would have a pretty clear idea of what sites, networks etc are getting sites punished. This is exactly why Google need to get off their arse and give people an option in webmaster tools to ignore links!

  5. I think Ryan is right in that Google is not going to allow negative SEO tactics to have a major impact on your rankings. Most of the sites that have been downranked have done it to themselves knowingly or unknowingly. If you are authentic in building your links and developing your site, the benefits will outweigh the possible negatives.

  6. Yes u r right Google doesn’t allow negative Seo techiques. The Penguin only wants a fair game. It wants to see quality contents and quality links

  7. I think that if done properly, Negative SEO can really work. Did you see the cases that showed up on Seomoz ?

    It’s creepy but some people whiped off small/average websites with 15$ of spam.