Negative SEO – How to Identify Threats, Prevent Attacks, and Protect Your Site’s Search Ranking

Negative SEO is something that’s been around for a while now, but with Google’s Penguin update, the threat has been increasing, with potentially disastrous results.

One current threat that seems to be doing the rounds currently, is an email with the subject line “I want to buy. Please guide me”, and starts by saying:

“Hello,

Read this email very carefully.

This is an extortion email.

We will do NEGATIVE SEO to your website by giving it 20,000 XRumer forum profile backlinks (permanent & mostly dofollow) pointing directly to your website and hence your website will get penalised & knocked off the Google’s Search Engine Result Pages (SERP) forever, if you do not pay us $1,500.00 (payable by Western Union).”

Read a more in-depth case study of this example here.

Even if you haven’t received a direct threat or email like this, there’s still always a possibility of a Negative SEO attack; whether it’s from competitors within your industry, or complete strangers with an unknown agenda.

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What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is widely considered to be any technique which drives down the page ranking of your website in Search Engine Results Pages. Google’s Penguin algorithm made Negative SEO easier and more effective, impacting how website linking works.

For other SEO tips and help, see our blog on how to boost your SEO:

20 Top SEO Tools to Increase Your Site Traffic in 2014

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Negative SEO attacks can take many shapes and forms, but there are notable examples worth watching out for.

  • The main form of Negative SEO scams or attacks, is by creating a vast number of low quality backlinks to websites in order to drive down their results. Due to how Google’s algorithms work, this will be penalised by a reduction in ranking.  This can be done by anyone really, but competing businesses may also purchase paid links from companies specialising in dragging down the SEO of other websites.
  • Negative SEO can also take the form of fake reviews on your company website. By posting a selection top rated reviews on a website, it can appear as though the business is doing this themselves; and so, the page ranking goes down.
  • If your site is hacked, it could be injected with malware, or become filled with HTML links, which leads to your website to fall down the search rankings. If there are any security vulnerabilities then there’s potential that it could be used for a Negative SEO attack. Such vulnerabilities can be found in FTP logins, and WordPress installs. Hackers can also edit the website’s robot.txt file, in order to make Google block your website entirely.
  • Removing the most valuable backlinks on your website can be very damaging to your SEO efforts. This can be done through DMCA removal requests, whereby a competitor finds your most valuable backlinks, notifies the webmaster that this link is a copyright infringement, and that it should be removed.
  • Another important aspect of SEO is original content; and a Negative SEO attack could take advantage of this, by stealing and duplicating content before it is indexed by Google. Sneaky, but it’s something to watch out for.
  • As loading speed is a ranking factor, using malicious crawlers on a website could also make it drop down the search results as your site will respond slower than normal.

What will Google do to protect you from Negative SEO attacks?

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Not a lot, is the brief answer. Google have previously stated that you cannot be de-indexed due to negative SEO tactics, stating that “almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index”. 

Since stating this, they have changed their stance, noting that “Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” So this shows an obvious change of direction. But whether they will change their views further, via algorithm updates or protection guidelines against negative SEO tactics, is still yet to be seen. For now, Google will not help.

Google’s official answer is essentially to clean up the mess after an SEO tactic. Whilst this is the best advice they can offer, it’s not at all comforting.

Will Google change it’s ways? Probably not. At the end of the day, it’s not a public right to be displayed in Google. You don’t have to use Google, but it’s so widely used and ingrained into society that people forget there are a multitude of options out there. It just so happens that Google search ranking can dramatically impact your business.

How to know if you’re the target of a Negative SEO Attack

Watch out for the following indications that you are at the heart of a Negative SEO scam or attack:

  • There’s a dramatic change in organic traffic
  • Your site’s high ranking key terms have dropped
  • You’re seeing an inordinate amount of suspicious links to your website
  • You have received a direct extortion email or other threat in the past

What can you do to prevent Negative SEO?

If you receive a threatening email on Gmail, Google will investigate here. If not, then Google’s advice is to contact the local authorities. However, many of these extortion emails are from other countries, and because of this, it’s unlikely local law enforcement has much power.

You can always get rid of any unwanted links with the Disavow tool, but only if you’re certain it’s necessary. Matt Cutts explains why in the following Google Webmaster video:

For more information on the Disavow Tool, see our blog: Google’s Disavow Tool

Pre-emptive tactics could save you in the future. To protect your website, you should make sure you do the following: 

  • Stay up-to-date with security measures, and make sure your website is safe and secure at all levels.
  • Ensure you have Google Authorship in place, giving your search results authenticity. Also, use the rel=canonical tag, to improve link and ranking signals for content in multiple URL structures.
  • For indexing purposes, ensure your sitemap is up to date, and Google can crawl your website without any problems. This will prevent other people duplicating your content, and making it seem as if you’re the plagiariser.
  • If there are any links that look suspicious, or you plainly don’t like the look of, ask the webmaster to remove them, and document this.
  • This goes without saying, but leave your competitors alone. Don’t opt to create a Negative SEO campaign against others, as if Google finds out, you could be in a heap of trouble. This opens up a can of worms you simply don’t want.
  • Keep an eye on reviews, as any which look fake could be looking to damage your reputation, or be a part of a Negative SEO attack.
  • Be sure to set up and use Google alerts, in order to monitor your brand mentions. There’s no real way to prevent Negative SEO from happening, but with constant monitoring you can at least lessen the damage beforehand. Again, keeping an eye on your webmaster tools is essential.

If you have any further questions or queries regarding Negative SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation in general, then do get in touch with us at Xanthos, as we’d love to help you out.