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Is Negative SEO Public Enemy #1?

The world of Search Marketing thrives on buzzwords. If it’s not Article Writing then it’s Content Marketing. That’s how this industry perpetuates. Perhaps no buzzword has been bandied about as much lately as Negative SEO. Is it the real Public Enemy? I put on my professional SEO hat (and my amateur hip-hop historian Kangol) to find out. Could a competitor use Negative SEO tactics to hit your site as hard as beats from DJ Terminator X?

The SEO world has written much recently about the concept of Negative SEO. What is it you say? Let’s listen to Google’s own Flava Flav, Matt Cutts explain:

 

Read more:
Moz – Were you Hit by Negative SEO?
Search Engine Watch – Understanding Link-Based Negative SEO
Moz – Negative SEO: Myths, Realities & Precautions – Whiteboard Friday

To summarize, Negative SEO revolves around the notion that someone can nefariously build a ton of junky links to your site and torpedo your organic traffic and search visibility. There’s been so much great discussion on industry blogs and within the SEO community, which I always find a healthy, productive thing. However, I tend to dread the moment of spillover, that exact moment when mainstream press covers an SEO topic ensuring a critical mass of emails from every SEO client I’ve ever had or group I’ve volunteered for espousing panic about the next big thing. I present for you that critical mass:

Entrepreneur – How to Protect Your Website From Negative SEO
Forbes – Understanding Negative SEO And Your Saboteur Within
Forbes – Expedia, Negative SEO and Google Penalties

The cat is out of the bag if the big business sites are writing about Negative SEO. So is this even a real thing? Does anyone have a documented case of Negative SEO affecting someone’s website? Did you repair it? It’s certainly easy to locate someone claiming to perform a Negative SEO service for you. Here’s a screenshot from a search on Fiverr.com showing a few users who will build thousands of junk links to the site of your choosing. 

freelancenegativeseo

Tasty Placement lists a test case that they designed specifically to use Negative SEO upon (*No Client rankings were harmed in this experiment) and they demonstrate some negative ranking effect, but don’t discuss any punitive action they would take to recover.

It’s safe to say this test was performed on site that wasn’t very established. Pittsburgh’s own Nick Ker of  KERcommunications.com disputes any significant harm done after a forum-user engaged in Negative SEO built bad links to his site. Granted his site was an established one, even though it had a smaller link profile.

Making matters all the more cloudy is the fact that largest companies (like Expedia) mentioned in conjunction with Negative SEO were most likely using bad link tactics to begin with, making it that much harder to sort out.

Which is it then? Is this real or fake? Is everyone getting worked up about a hypothetical threat? I feel that answer lies somewhere in between the two. Yes, it seems certainly possible that a person could target a very new site and do damage if no one was minding the shop. If you’re operating a site that’s been around a few years and has an established pattern of activity, I find it really hard to believe that negative SEO could create any serious damage (especially long-term damage). Search algorithms are just too good to be fooled by sudden, huge influxes of terrible exact-match anchor text links, or even close-match anchor text links.

So If Negative SEO is real, how can you catch it?

If you’re an SEO working on client accounts, you should be able to naturally catch any major change in backlink profile in your monthly or weekly backlink checks. If you’re a business owner working on your own site, use any of the following tools below to keep tabs on your backlink profile. If you suspect a high volume influx of very unnatural links, there are some steps you can take to safeguard your site.

1. Evaluate

Ask questions:

-Did your site receive a manual action warning message in Google Webmaster Tools?
-Did your business or organization pay for any link building or other activity that could cause any drop in rankings or traffic?

 

2. Backlink Monitoring Tools

Use services like these to monitor and check for an influx of shady or unnatural links.

ahrefs

Google-Webmaster-Tools-Logo

majesticseo-logo-white-blue-large

 

3. Cleanup

Say you spot a hundred or more very suspicious links. What’s your best course of action? Use Google’s Disavow Tool in Webmaster Tools (Search it, it’s not on the GWT menu). This simple tool lets you upload a single text file full of your junky links and says to Google “Please ignore these when ranking my site if you can”. That last part is important. This isn’t a total banishment. It’s a mea cupla that says “Hey, I know about these. I just want you to know that I know about these”.

img1

You’re well on your way to controlling any outside damage, but the fight may be over. Treat your link profile like you would your server. Monitor it and fix any issues to keep your business online and making money.

Conclusions

This topic has sure made the rounds lately. I’m incredibly skeptical if this type of damage can be done to your site from nefarious external forces seeking to outrank you. The core flaw of negative backlink SEO as a tactic is that a webmaster can so easily disavow the offending links. Temporary damage could theoretically occur, but it could be corrected by the site owner. I say don’t believe the hype.

Are you an SEO who’s seen Negative SEO first-hand? Want to share your story? Are you a website owner who thinks something has attached your site’s link profile? Contact us and we’ll help you diagnose it.

Michael Bartholow

About Michael Bartholow

Michael Bartholow is a Senior Search Project Manager. He has a special knack for B2B Lead Generation and e-Commerce Marketing. Michael holds an Integrative Arts degree from Penn State University and uses the same SEO & PPC skills he once employed to promote award-winning independent films to help businesses across a variety of verticals find audiences. When he's not helping businesses find the right customers, he's either experimenting in his kitchen or helping Silk Screen, Pittsburgh's Asian Film Festival, select films to exhibit and promote. He has Google certifications in Analytics & AdWords.

http://www.lunametrics.com/blog/2014/04/17/negative-seo-public-enemy/

16 Responses to “Is Negative SEO Public Enemy #1?”

Geo says:

Well, I haven’t dealt with negative SEO myself, but I have close friends/colleagues who did and I got to tell you – it’s ugly. You can have all the link-research tools you want, they’ll never show you all the links the spammers put.

Plus, even they did, even if disallowing really worked (far from confirmed, according to the latest polls amongst SEOs and from my personal experience as well), the spammer can still point hundreds of junk links to your site for a couple of bucks and you’d still have to spend hours on end monitoring and cleaning, instead of doing productive things…

I said it was a mistake when Google started penalizing sites for links (instead of just stripping link value at the source) and I continue to support my statement. Big brands, of course, have nothing to worry about, but small firms are really getting burned out there.

Geo, Excellent points.

If you’re able to screenshot some data, I’d love to see it. I’m very open-minded on this topic and don’t want my post to be read as polemical. I”m a little skeptical, sure, but none of us have a 100% percent understanding of how this all works all of the time (including Matt Cutts). If you can get me some data and a timeline, I’ll gladly revise my post and make it into a case study.

Post here in the comments or email me: bartholow AT lunametrics.com. Thanks!

Felix says:

Hey Michael,

Thanks for sharing my article from Entrepreneur!

Sure thing Felix! If you like the piece, please share it or tweet it. Thanks!

folmand says:

Hi.

I actually have two reasent cases of my companies sites getting struck by negative SEO.

I have (had) a site top ranking en several branche specifik keywords in germany. Dec – 16 – 2013 I woke up to an unexpected disaster.
All our top ranking positions was GONE. Actually we had no page one rankings at all. Our traffic dropped to 10 % of normal within hours.
We used Ahrefs and jesus christ we had been naive. For the past month – thousands of links had been indexed. Lots of spammy links from sites like “nastyxxx – bla bla.com” etc. etc. We had 3000 profile links of same name – not an anchor related to our niche – but backlink targetet our main page.

What we did:

First we analyzed links with link-detox and majestic SEO. Several links was from pinguin struck sites.

Then we tried to contact siteowners from these spam sites to get links removed manually. Ofcause without any luck at all.

Third we used several days to make a disavow list – submittet it to WMT and then we just Waitet.

Almost as we thought all hope was out – the site came back. Just as sudden as it disappeared. Exactly 6 weeks after we uploaded the disavow file.

We did not fully revocer. SADLY. But we recovered what I would estimate to like 80 %. 1. positions is know 2. and 3. positions.

We have tried to figure out who did it – but without any luck – ofcause.

Negative SEO is worth watching out for. This 8 weeks in sandbox for our site – costet us about USD 20.000 $ in lost income (estimatet by average income from this site).

Best regards Jacob

Mark says:

Negative SEO does exist. My companies website was recently hit with a google penalty. Admittedly, we didn’t monitor our backlinks much before hand. When we looked into the data to send google a reconsideration and disavow list, we found many strange comment links on random websites in Russia.

We sent the disavow list and got the penalty lifted. Now we are monitoring our backlinks almost daily. And what do you know, just recently we noticed over 200 new links from random the same types of spam websites.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing this is getting in the news. I’m so sorry that the poor SEO’s of the world will have to deal with clients asking questions, but honest small businesses who are attacked by negative SEO campaigns need to be informed somehow, and a lot of them don’t read SEO blogs daily. The only way they’ll learn about this is in mainstream media.

Burlo Arthur says:

I don’t think that a new business has to worry about negative SEO. Until the site is well established, I don’t think anyone would waste their time or cash to make it look bad in the eyes of Google. It’s also pretty hard to damage a well-established site. The best course of action is to monitor your links in Google Webmaster Tools (the others can all be blocked easily with robots.txt) and never be afraid to use the Disavow Tool if you see suspicious activity.

One little note: you don’t necessarily need to have been hit with a MANUAL penalty for negative SEO to have any adverse effects. Triggering Penguin is pretty easy, for example by building a huge mass of spammy links using programs such as Senuke XNR. That doesn’t involve manual penalties, but it may sure have a very negative effect on SERPs.

Gene Eugenio says:

Matt Cutts as Google’s very own Flava Flav… LOL, that’s rich. Negative SEO is real but if people are really trying to bowl you, they’d do it the smart way. I’m not going to go into details but one thing is for sure: they won’t do something so obvious as go on Fiverr or SEOclerks and order a huge amount of spammy article directory backlinks for your site.

newbie says:

I am very confused here it’s my first visit here on this site and I can’t get my head around YE the experienced SEO guys thinking negative seo is or might not be a fact ? I’m not completely new to seo but at the same time I would not call myself an SEO guy. But from gestures I seen makes me look at SEO in a whole different light.

Why would you not think negative seo could not affect you ? Would you advise a business to go to fiverr in the morning to obtain backlinks for higher rankings NO Because it would be curtains for that site depending on the scale. So how would there be any difference in someone else doing that against your site ? None bad links are bad links.

As Gene Eugenio said if there was real “I would interpret as money at stake” Guys trying to bowl your site I’m sure big brands with all their cash could buy up a lot of domains with PR and go from there I am only guessing here but I don’t see why not. Correct me please if I stray from lack of experience but whats stopping any of this from spiraling.

Jacob- It does sound like something hit your site hard. This is an interesting case. I’d like to know more about it. Did you run an Open Site Explorer link profile export and save it? I’d love to review a before and after.

Mark- In writing this post, I don’t want it to come across as “oh the poor SEO’s”, but I can see how it can be read as that. I mainly want people to know that this will not be an issue for 95% of business websites. There are 200+ claimed factors in ranking a website, and links are a part. I don’t think that every person doing business online should be woken at night fretting over, but I am in favor of websites monitoring their link profiles and being engaged. Effort is the best defense.

Burlo- Interesting that you say new business may need to worry less than established ones. I feel the opposite. A new business online has far less link history and much less in the way of patterns. I feel it’s more likely that a local Tool & Die shop could hire/source harm towards a rival Tool & Die shop’s link profile than a bigger, established competitor could harm a similarly established site, simply because the link profiles are smaller and every link counts. Sites that are operate in very competitive, online-only spaces (online casinos, affiliate marketing sites, etc) could be more vulnerable than others.

Newbie- Sorry for the vagueness. I don’t believe that Negative SEO is a reality the vast majority of sites online need to worry about. There will always be a few cases (as we’ve seen in the comments). Links are but one part of a full rankings profile and doing harm to a competitor doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of the instigator’s website. Much of what we do in Online Marketing is based on patterns, and I very much feel that negative/harmful link building towards another site can be quickly sussed out as not part of the site’s normal pattern of behavior, leaving little long-term damage.

If you’re a concerned small business, here’s a list of things that would be unaffected by Negative SEO/malicious backlinks: Social traffic, traffic/reviews on Yelp, direct traffic, Online Advertising/PPC. In other words, don’t be vulnerable by putting all of your eggs in one basket. Being in SEO in 2014 means shepherding an online marketing strategy that encourages traffic from multiple sources and taking an active role positioning businesses for success.

Thanks to everyone for participating in this discussion.

Gareth says:

@Michael Surprised you ‘don’t think negative SEO is a reality’ when there are sites being hit all over the place. Even Halifax bank lost all rankings due to negative SEO. Yes there are 200+ ranking signals but links play a huge role.

Negative SEO is not just about bad links too, there are other options available that can effect your brand in the SERPs. Negative reviews for example. Been working on displacing negative Trip Advisor reviews which were ranking #3 for the brand term with titles like ‘Don’t use XXXX’.

Geo's Friend says:

Negative SEO is not a phantom menace – As Geo mentioned in the first comment, there are niches that are constantly shaken by negative SEO blasts.

The “cleaning” niche in UK is one such example. It is the type of niche that is dominated by “burn & churn” spammy websites and a few big brands. Basically people create a lot of new websites and new websites are especially vulnerable to negative SEO as they don’t have any authority or backlink diversity.

So I was trying to rank this new website for “carpet cleaning” queries and in a month time there was some significant progress. A week later this website was blasted with 1000 comments using anchors such as “gay carpet cleaning” “porno carpet cleaning” “violent carpet cleaners” and exact match. We suffered a heavy blow on our ranking but decided not to disavow the links but dilute them. It worked and the site was able to recover really well.

Another site that I was trying to rank for “carpet cleaning” term received SAPE links placed in the footers of “russian brides websites” with exact match anchors. This negative SEO scheme destroyed the ranking completely and this website did not recover after the disavow.

And at the moment I’m looking at few more websites in the cleaning niche and they have suffered some heavy blows by such tactics. They had links from just under 30 domains and were blasted with exact match comments which basically destroyed them (One of these websites is so badly damaged that it has to be killed).

So what kind of stuf the negative SEOs are using?

Phone SEX, porn, gay http://members.sitegadgets.com/stargazer/links.html

Exact match madness
http://www.efrum.com/story.php?title=cleaning-service-london-1

http://amispencer.com/blog/2008/07/22/believe-it-claiming-your-dreams/ – take a look at comment 143 to see a fine example of malicious link.

Of course there are many more ways to harm a website.. Google created negative SEO industry…now people who used to spam like idiots just went to the other side and sell negative seo services.

Tsvetan Vuchkov says:

Hey guys I did write quite a big comment more than a week ago and I gave some examples of spammy links. Can you check what happened, because I suspect it got filtered automatically.

Hi Tsvetan,

I was able to find and approve your comment. Thanks for posting that! It does seem that negative link building can do some damage to certain niches of sites.

It seems I’ve suffering from tyranny of location. I haven’t seen much data or stats dealing with negative SEO in the US, but it seems like the UK is suffering.

I do still continue to believe that the average established business that’s doing the right things online can’t be knocked off by negative blog comments and this might not hold true for new sites.

Tsvetan, the link you posted to comment 143 is a nofollow link, which is intersting in it’s own right.

Local clients in service niches might be especially vulnerable to this, but many of these tactics wouldn’t derail a larger site. I’ll revisit my post and make an update! Thanks everyone.

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