A lot of things can happen when you’re out there doing your best to rank higher on search engines, especially Google.
How people use SEO is entirely up to them. There are those who leverage SEO for good and those who use it to inflict harm on others.
While you can’t always expect disasters in SEO, there’s a rare (but real) threat that scares most online site owners looking to build successful businesses: Negative SEO.
Yes, negative SEO can happen to anyone as it has happened to Spencer Haws of Niche Pursuits. His project site, BestSurvivalKnifeGuide.com, got penalized in 2013.
This led to the drastic drop in his Google rankings. At the same time, Haws lost his affiliate earnings.
How did this happen?
Upon investigating the matter with the help of a friend, Haws discovered that someone had built thousands of unnatural, spammy links pointing to his site.
In 2012, Google released their Penguin algorithm that punished websites receiving unnatural links. The data below shows “negative SEO” searches skyrocketing in the same year:
Image source: Moz
What happened to Haws is just one of the ways people use to launch a negative SEO attack on a website, and there are still several more which we’ll be discussing later in this article.
But first, let’s learn the basics of negative SEO…
What is negative SEO and how does it work?
Negative SEO is a huge problem that undermines your efforts to optimize for SEO. It basically refers to a set of spammy or black hat practices that are done for the sole purpose of decreasing your hard-earned rankings.
Sites in competitive niches like online casinos and gambling are the most common targets. Calmer topics are less likely to be attacked. Nevertheless, it still pays to be extra vigilant regardless of the niche or industry you’re in.
You may not be aware that you’re a victim of this tactic unless you regularly keep track of your organic search rankings and backlink profile.
Like Spencer Haws, someone or an unscrupulous company will want to sabotage your successful website by engaging in poor tactics to get it penalized.
Unless you deliberately engaged in shady SEO techniques to over-optimize your site, bought a link building package from a company, or randomly outsourced your SEO to a freelancer, you can safely assume that you’ve been hit by a negative SEO attack.
Negative SEO is such a serious problem for online business owners. It’s no secret that as your rankings decrease, your traffic decreases. Low traffic = loss of revenue.
Why in the blue hell would anybody conduct negative SEO?
Remember that not all things are immediately negative SEO. Negative SEO is deliberate and done by another person (yes, not you) for two possible reasons:
- You’ve made enemies online– In rare cases, people you’ve had a fight or argument with (a client or business partner) seriously want to get back at you and see your business go down.
- Competitors who want to outrank you– Obviously, some competitors who want to rank fast do away with white-what SEO practices. Since you’re a competing site, they want nothing more than to demote or see you disappear on search.
What are key signs of a negative SEO attack?
This is evidenced by the following:
1. A sudden drop in organic search traffic
If you regularly monitor your site traffic using Google Analytics, you should a sudden drop in your online visits.
Image source: Ahrefs
2. Google notifies you of a manual penalty
In a manual penalty, you get an email message from Google letting you know that they’ve detected activities on your site that are outside their Webmaster Guidelines.
As you enable these email notifications from Google, make sure that you select “All issues” for the type of issues you want Google to notify you of. Click save.
Image source: Kissmetrics
3. Your individual keyword rankings went down
Track the position of the keywords you optimize for using Monitor Backlinks or Ahrefs. If a lot of your most important keywords have been removed or demoted, expect that your traffic will also decrease.
The different negative SEO tactics you need to be aware of
In this section, we’re going to explore various negative SEO tactics unscrupulous people use. That way, you’ll be able to easily detect it and take actions to protect your business website.
Here are common tactics you should know:
1. Link building (low quality or spammy links)
Your website rankings are not affected with just one or two spammy links pointing to it. This is why when you’re attacked with negative SEO, it always involves “link farms” or a heavy influx of backlinks optimizing for one anchor text.
Such anchor text used can be totally unrelated to your site or a niche keyword (which gives the notion that you’ve been trying to manipulate your backlink profile).
This excessive volume of bad backlinks and over-optimization of an anchor text can get you penalized by Penguin or Google’s web spam team.
Spammy or low-quality link building is a common tactic you need to look out for. These links come from spam articles on spam blogs, comment spam, hacked websites, foreign language sites, porn sites, and low quality directories.
2. Link removal attack
The link removal attack strategy goes like this: An attacker pretends to be you and emails a website where you have your best backlinks on, requesting that they remove those outbound links for some reason.
Such requests are actually questionable most especially if those links on authoritative websites are editorial in nature. This means to say that the links were built using good content and online marketing techniques like writing quality blog content. Editorial links are earned, not paid for.
In case you get an email message from a company who wants you to take down their client’s links on your site, try to investigate the matter and you will realize that these email requests are simply fraudulent.
3. Scraping and copying content
Everything you see on the web is basically content. You know that high-quality content creates loyal readers and effectively generates conversions and sales.
While it’s a great thing to have hundreds to thousands of people coming to your site to consume your content, put in mind that your valuable pieces of blog content can easily be copied and duplicated on other websites.
The danger in being a victim to this negative SEO tactic is that the scraped version of your web copy might be the first one to get indexed. If Google indexes the duplicate version first, it will be the one to show on search results and not your original copy.
Consequently, your site may get penalized and completely removed from search. Though this case is rare, the fact that it’s a possibility compels you to be more protective of your content.
4. Fake negative reviews
Attackers who are looking to sabotage your online credibility create false negative reviews about your business. While negative reviews can be helpful for a business to improve and grow, fake ones created for the purpose of destroying your rankings are a real headache.
You can usually spot them on social media sites and online listings like Google My Business and Yelp. Usually, these false reviews come in multiple numbers.
Make sure that you watch out for and immediately deal with these poor mentions before they completely ruin your reputation and turn off your best customers.
5. Website hacking
Lastly, the worst possible kind of negative SEO that you never ever want to encounter is a site hack. Perhaps the most important thing you should make sure of is to safeguard your site against malicious hackers.
This destructive tactic can tremendously impact your bottom line in business.
Three common ways your website can be hacked are brute force attacks, SQL injection hacks (stealing of credit card numbers and deleting data), and cross site scripting (redirecting your traffic to another site).
Know that when your website is hacked, your business information and those of your customers, are at stake.
How to protect yourself from negative SEO
I’m sure you can never afford to get your website penalized. Finally, we’re going to discuss several techniques to prevent negative SEO from damaging everything you’ve worked hard on.
1. Be on the lookout for any signs of attack
The most important step you must take to mitigate damage is to be on the lookout for the key indicators of negative SEO. As we’ve mentioned earlier, you can easily do that by setting up Google Webmaster Tools to notify you via email of any site problems:
- Website hacking
- Your website hasn’t been indexed
- Your website received a manual penalty from Google
If you’re sure that you haven’t done anything to decrease your SEO, this can mean that your website is being attacked.
2. Use the Google Disavow Tool
You need to use the Google Disavow Tool if your site has received a flood of low-quality or spammy links from several places on the web and you received a manual penalty. By disavowing these links, it’s like telling Google that you don’t want them to consider these links for your site rankings.
Google warns that you need to proceed with caution when using their disavow tool (see screenshot below). Use it as a last resort if a site owner never replies to your email message asking them to take off those poor links.
3. Monitor your backlink profile
Keep track of the links that your site is getting from time to time. To save yourself time and effort in reviewing your website’s backlinks on a daily basis, a great tool to use is Monitor Backlinks.
Monitor Backlinks helps you keep track of your best backlinks and get notified with new ones by automatically sending you email updates. All you need to do is add domains and any changes that happen on your website will be delivered to your inbox while you relax.
By the way, I should also mention that with this tool, you’ll be able to filter out your low-quality and spammy backlinks. You can download this disavow list and upload it to Google Webmaster tools.
4. Look for scraped content
A simple way to check whether your content has been scraped and published elsewhere is to use the tool Copyscape. You can either add your domain or a piece of content and the tool will immediately show you where your scraped content is found.
Stop this negative SEO practice by contacting the site where you found your copied content. Let the site owner know that you request your content to be removed immediately. Find the site’s contact form, email address, or social media pages.
If these details are unavailable, conduct a Whois Lookup to check the site owner’s name, email address, and phone number. If these site owners do not respond to your request, you can file a notice of infringement with Google.
5. Monitor your social media or brand name mentions
Mention.net is a great tool to use for the purpose of monitoring everything that is being said about you across the web. Using this tool, you can detect brand-bashing, fake negative reviews, and fake accounts of your business so you can take immediate action.
Simply choose the sources (social media sites, forums, images, etc.) you want Mention.net to monitor and enter your preferred keyword.
Image source: Entrepreneur
6. Upgrade your security
Because you can’t afford to see our online investments go to waste, make sure that you level up your security to protect your site safe from hackers.
Since you’re currently using open-source programs on your site, keep them up-to-date. That way, attackers won’t be able to access your site through these software tools. To do that, simply enter your WordPress dashboard and click Updates to update your plugins.
If you’re storing sensitive customer information such as passwords, email addresses, and credit card numbers, consider investing in an SSL certificate. This encrypts your website, making it more trustworthy and safe for your site visitors and consumers.
If your site and rankings have suffered from negative SEO, know that it can be solved and countered by following the strategies in this post.
Like Spencer Haws, you’ll be able to recover from any damage that happens on your site.
After taking several steps to deal with the penalty (contacting the sites to remove the bad links to disavowing the links and even moving to a new domain), he was able to make a comeback in a couple of months.