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Negative SEO - it works!

Gareth Cartman

Wow. One of our clients has been hit with a negative SEO attack. We didn’t believe ourselves immune from an attack, especially in competitive industries, but we didn’t believe it would ever happen to one of our own.

So, just like any good SEO agency, we’re on the job. But to anyone with a website, any business who wants to generate leads or revenue online, a “negative SEO” attack can be potentially fatal. So let’s look at what it is, why people do it, how people do it, and what can be done – as well as the implications for Google, who started this whole thing.

Negative SEO – what is that, then?

Let’s take our client as our example. Her site had been moving steadily up the rankings for her main ‘trophy’ keyword, despite only having launched a totally new site at the start of the year. She had obtained page 1 positions for a number of local searches, which was good to see – but the presence of that trophy short-tail keyword was very pleasing.

Someone else must have noticed – and decided to take preventative action. By creating links to her website from ‘bad’ websites, they managed to take down that trophy keyword not just by several pages, but completely. It bombed. They must have been scared of having another competitor, or maybe they were just having fun. Who knows.

For a while, we scratched our heads, wondering what might have caused the drop in rankings. An algorithmic trigger? Had we built excessive links to the home page? Not likely, that would be too easy to spot. And then, in Webmaster Tools, we saw about 100 new links, dating just before the demotion in the rankings. They were all ugly, horrible looking links, from the kind of sites that usually incite an “oh dear sweet Jesus, what is this?” and the back button. And what might a bad link be?

  • anything that’s easy to get a link from (link injecting, we call it)
  • anything that has lots of random links on the page (e.g. Viagra?)
  • site-wide links, for example, on the side of a blog – where it would be on every page
  • anything that allows for lots of anchor text links

Gulp. There’s a lot of ‘bad’ out there.

So, Google looks at the links and says “SPAMMER” – and unless you have a long history of organic links pointing to your site (many new sites will struggle in this respect), then you’ll suffer a penalty of some description – manual or algorithmic.

Negative SEO – I want to try that

Do you? Well, OK, you could just google “negative SEO” and find yourself a service provider, but we wouldn’t recommend it.

If you really want to hurt your competitors (again, it wouldn’t be very nice of you), then you could simply do some private blog network writing, submit your articles to hundreds of different article directories – letting some software change words for synonyms so that they appear (at least to you) to be unique. You could mass submit to directories that bear no relevance to your topic. You could get some blog commenting software that auto-comments on anything with your keywords in them.

Sometimes, you really do wonder if SEO companies (and I apologise for saying this, but primarily based in India) know that they’re doing negative SEO when they claim to really be doing SEO. I’ve met some brilliant SEO-ers from India, but their image is really being tarnished by hordes of amateurs using cheap software that effectively ruins their clients’ websites and reputations.

So don’t try it.

Negative SEO – what do I do about it?

First of all, get to know your bad links. Webmaster Tools lets you see your backlinks and when they were first crawled – so you’ll know if there were 100 on one day, something has happened. You can contact the webmasters of those websites and ask to have your links removed, but most of the time, these are auto spam sites whose webmaster has long since disappeared.

So what to do then? You can look them up on whois, but the likelihood is that they’ve hidden their contact information because they own bad sites.

There are – believe it or not – services that help you remove the links. You can google that, too, I’m not promoting them. It really is a self-sufficient industry, sometimes.

All you can do now is tell Google that you have tried to remove the bad links – with proof – and hope that they reverse any penalty. In the future, Google will have a ‘disavow links tool’ where you can simply click away any bad links from your backlink profile, but for now – this is all you can do.

There is one alternative – and that is to carry on building good links. For a small business with not much time or budget, that’s not much consolation, and may not be enough to counter-act the negative effects of some idiot spamming your site with bad backlinks. However, it’s one way to convince Google that there are two people building links to the site – you, the good people, and them, the bad people, and hopefully it will look obvious.

Google – they started this, didn’t they

Not their smartest moment, to be honest. Yes, websites who reach the top of the rankings through spamming should not be there, but bad links were previously discounted anyway, weren’t they? If you pointed lots of bad links towards a website, Google just regarded it as a waste of time and effort. Now it penalises the website being linked to.

It’s like everyone at school calling someone names – say it enough, and Google associates that person with the names everyone is calling them, but not with what they are saying.

We’re even at the point where people are asking significant sums of money to remove links – what’s to stop someone with a ‘bad’ website pointing links to hundreds of sites and waiting to see who comes asking. Sounds like a potentially profitable business model.

We’re also at the point of litigation – some businesses are threatening webmasters for linking to them.

This is what Google started, and what Google could have avoided.

And, as an aside, the SEO ‘superstars’ who preach that you shouldn’t rely solely on Google for your traffic are misguided. For small businesses, conversions come through search engines, and Google is used for over 95% of searches in the UK. For most people, Facebook doesn’t sell, Twitter doesn’t sell – but Google does. A drop in rankings thanks to a competitor who has paid for negative SEO can seriously harm someone’s livelihood.

So – our advice if you have seen your rankings drop significantly is to check your webmaster tools, look at the sites linking to you, and ask the webmaster to remove those links. Prove to Google that you’re making an effort, and you might have those links discounted – and your rankings back.

And to the person who attacked our customer’s website – whoever you are – we’ll outrank you soon, and we’ll only use positive SEO to do it!

Photo credit: Xanti-S’ (Flickr / CC):