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The Negative SEO Survival Guide: What It Is And How To Defend Against

How do you become a victim of a negative SEO campaign? All you need to do is rank high in the search engines for your keywords or industry, and bump your competitor's site off the top spot. That's enough to make you a target.

Search engine optimization can be tough. It takes time, effort and money, and just when you think you are getting somewhere, Google changes the rules.

Unsurprisingly, not every business has the patience or grit to work their way up the ranks the honest way. Or maybe they were never willing to make the effort or investment in honest search engine optimization tactics in the first place.

But these players still recognize the importance of ranking high.

So what do they do?

They take shortcuts. 

They use shady tactics to knock down the honest competition off the rankings and steal their spots.

This is negative SEO, and it’s one of the biggest issues facing businesses in the online marketing world.

It's not always your competitors who are to blame. Some SEO practitioners who should be trusted to do the right thing intentionally practice negative SEO to score speedy results for their clients, often because they’ve promised the #1 rank in just three weeks, or some such fake guarantee.

Others inadvertently use these negative SEO tricks because the search world is a complicated place and they simply don’t know any better. 

Here's the thing: negative SEO is cheap.

Conduct a search on Fiverr for “negative SEO” and you'll find tens of thousands of willing workers for only $5.

The threat is real. 

If you are serious about building your brand online and defending it from the competition, you need to not only know about negative SEO but be willing to act.

Read on to learn:

  • What negative SEO is

  • How to identify the negative SEO players

  • And, how to respond fast in the face of danger. 


What is negative SEO?

Negative SEO involves the use of black hat SEO and malicious tactics to attack the competition and sabotage their search engine rankings for important keywords. 

Think of negative SEO as the dark side of search marketing. Negative SEO attacks range from building hundreds or thousands of spammy links to your website, copying your content and distributing it all over the internet, creating fake social profiles and ruining your reputation online and even hacking your website to undo all your good SEO work

To say negative SEO is shady business doesn’t even begin to cover it. A negative SEO attack can lead to your traffic plummeting, which can ruin your business's online reputation and hurt your bottom line.

What sites are most vulnerable to a negative SEO attack?

How do you become a victim of a negative SEO campaign? All you need to do is rank high in the search engines for your keywords or industry, and bump your competitor's site off the top spot. That's enough to make you a target.

Newer sites or startups with smaller backlink profiles tend to be the most vulnerable to negative SEO attacks. The reason is simple: Many new site owners are eager to get any new links so they allow low-quality links to populate their profile without thinking about where those links come from, or why those other sites linked to them in the first place. 

If you're a local business with less than 300 referring domains, you should also watch your back. The smaller your backlink profile, the more damage any low-quality or unnatural links will do. If half of your links are spammy and you’re new, Google crawlers will assume you are trying to cheat your way to the top. 

If you think your competitors wouldn't stoop that low - consider this:

An online survey of small and medium businesses found that when asked if they would hire a service to conduct negative SEO on a rival, almost half (47%) said yes and asked for payment details. A further 31% registered their interest.

Types of Negative SEO

There are lots of negative SEO tactics, and the list is growing as search engines become more complex and malicious SEO practitioners have to find ever more sophisticated ways to keep pace. 

Here are the most common negative SEO tricks:

Posting fake bad reviews on Google My Business and social media

This is one of the simplest ways to damage a brand or website's reputation, leading to drops in traffic and rankings. Spammers create fake social media profiles to post spammy negative reviews on your social media pages or Google My Business. This can hurt your search ranking, but worse, it can harm consumers’ perception of you.

Forceful crawling

Google loves a speedy website. Speed is a ranking factor for search and ads on mobile and desktops. That’s why negative SEO practitioners could focus on slowing down your site to cause damage to your site's rankings or even de-list it. How? By forcefully crawling the site, taxing the server load, and even crashing the site. 

Click Fraud

This is a more sophisticated negative SEO attack involving specially programmed CTR bots, which look for your website’s main keywords and branded terms. It clicks on the listing and quickly bounces back to the search engine request page. Google assumes you are trying to game the SEO system to get higher rankings, and penalises your site.

Hacking, malware and viruses

The most efficient, yet costly tactic, is hacking a website. Hacking a website means the attacker could get into the backend and undermine a site’s SEO performance in whichever way they like. For example, they might inject it with thousands of viagra and pharmaceutical terms, in what's known as on-site negative SEO. You can also get penalized if Google sees link farms coming from your IP or site.

If malware attacks, Google may warn users that “this site may be hacked” before forwarding, causing your performance to drop. 

Creating toxic backlinks 

Links are one of THE most important search ranking factors out there, so anything that attacks your backlink profile could cause serious damage to your search rankings. The whole point of link building is to build a profile of relevant, high quality links to your website. 

One thing negative SEO practitioners might try is generating toxic unnatural links with spammy anchor texts that point to your website. This can be done using link farms, automated software, and PBNs (public blog networks).

One or two spammy links likely won’t hurt your rankings. That’s why negative SEO attacks usually involve building low quality links from a group of link farms, or interconnected sites. Typically, most of these links use the same anchor text. They might even include a niche keyword to make the link profile look like the owner is manipulating it, not a negative SEO attacker.

This happened to WordPress podcast site, WP Bacon, when they acquired thousands of links with the anchor text “porn movie” in 10 days. Over the time, the site fell more than 50 spots in Google for most of the keywords it ranked for.

The webmaster cleverly used a disavow tool to disavow the spammy domains, and eventually recovered most of its rankings.

Removing a site’s links using fake removal requests

Another way attackers might target your link profile is to pretend to be you (or someone associated with you, like an SEO agency) and get in touch with the webmasters to remove the links pointing to your site. All the link building you've spent time on is undone.

These link tactics are the most common type of negative SEO attack.

Creating duplicate content and website

Finally, attackers could create duplicates of your site or parts of its content, hotlinking, and spreading the fake sites across the web. When Google finds content that is duplicated across multiple sites, it will typically pick one version to rank. Google tends to be smart enough to identify the original piece, but there's a risk that they might find the “stolen” version first. This could result in websites or specific pages getting filtered out in the search results. 


How to determine if you’ve been the target of negative SEO

Preventing a negative SEO attack is almost impossible but spotting the attempt early enough to reverse the damage is something that's in your power. It all comes down to monitoring your website statistics closely.

BUT... Not all signs point to a negative SEO attack. Sometimes your website’s backlink profile might already contain toxic links, or you might have some genuine negative reviews. These things happen, and it doesn’t mean you have a competitor out to get you. 

There are some real reasons your website drops in rankings, that are not linked to negative SEO. Here’s a few common ones:

  • An update in Google’s algorithms/Core Algorithm Update

  • Getting filtered out by Google’s algorithmic filtering

That leads us back to the question: how do you know if YOU have been the victim of an attack?

A sudden drop in traffic and/or individual keywords

Your rankings drop significantly over a short time for no obvious reason. Regular ranking checks will make sure you are the first to know should your site get de-indexed. Use a tool like Rank Tracker to schedule automatic checks to occur daily.

If your site suddenly drops from search results, a Dropped note will show in the Difference column. When this happens across lots of keywords, it means you might have a penalty or de-indexation. Check the crawl stats in your Google Search Console account and look at your robots.txt.

Site slows down

You notice that your site has become slow, or, worse, unavailable. This could be because competitor site owners are trying to crash your site by forcefully crawling it and causing heavy server load. Contact your hosting company or webmaster to find out where the load is coming from.

Backlinks profile

You notice spam links in your backlink profile, or links you don't recognise. An unusual spike in the number of links acquires is reason enough to look into the links, and find any that you might need to disavow.

Google provides backlink data for free in Google Search Console. Click on “Links to Your Site” under search traffic to access your links. But we recommend a paid tool like Ahrefs or Open Site Explorer by Moz that can provide more details about the links, such as if it is dofollow or nofollow, anchor text, etc.

Manual penalty notification

If you receive a manual penalty from Google and you have been implementing White Hate SEO on-site, it's likely your site has been victim to a Negative SEO attack.                     


How to secure your website against Negative SEO attacks

Set up Google Webmaster Tools Email Alerts

Google can send you email alerts in different scenarios:

  • Your website is being attacked by malware

  • Your pages are not indexed

  • You have server connectivity problems

  • You get a manual penalty from Google

Start by connecting your website to Google Webmaster Tools. Log in to your account and click “Webmaster Tools Preferences”, then enable email notifications and choose to receive alerts for all types of issues.

Watch your backlinks profile

This is the most important way to prevent attackers from winning. You need to know when someone is creating links or redirects to your website.

If you have a good SEO agency, they will take care of this for you. If not, we recommend you use MonitorBacklinks.com. It’s one of the easiest tools to use and will send you email alerts when your website wins or loses important links. No need to manually check your backlinks. By default, your settings are ready to send email notifications when your website receives new backlinks.

Another way to check for bad links is to check the value and trend of your website’s Authority Score. A drop in the score may tell you that there is something wrong with your backlink profile.

What happens if you're too late and your site has been inundated with low-quality links from black Hat SEO? Take these three steps:

Create a list with the backlinks to remove

Check links that were recently created to your site, and list the low-quality ones you want to remove. Add tags and check these to decide which ones are really hurting your rankings. Create this list as soon as you receive email alerts with new backlinks you didn't earn, or that look like spam.

Try to remove spam links

Once you've identified the backlinks you need to remove, contact the webmaster and request that your link is removed. If your link is not removed or you don’t get an answer, contact the company that’s hosting the website and ask them to remove the spam links. Most hosting companies will try to help you.

Create a Disavow File

If nothing else works from this list, your last resort is to use the Google Disavow Tool. The disavow tool is for when you have received a manual penalty. Create a disavow file to submit to Google Webmaster Tools.·       Regularly update your disavow file if you get a new spam link that you do not have a chance to remove.

Note: There's been some confusion around using the disavow tool. According to John Mueller from Google, using the disavow tool is for when your site has lost rankings and you suspect that it’s because of links that you’re responsible for, like paid links. John Mueller said it’s not necessary to use the disavow tool for random low quality links that you have nothing to do with, but SEO experts have disagreed.

Protect your most valuable backlinks

Remember we said that attackers might get in contact with webmasters pretending to be you and request to remove links?

You can do two things to stop this:

  • Always use an email address from your domain (e.g. John@johnsplumbing.com) to prove that you work for the website.

  • Use a tool to keep track of your best backlinks and add tags to your most valuable ones, so you can verify if they get removed. ·       

Secure your site from hackers and malware

Security is important for your site - it's one of your most valuable assets. For Wordpress sites, you can install the Google Authenticator Plugin and create a 2-step verification password. Other things you can do are create a strong password with numbers and special characters, create regular backups of your files and database, and install antivirus to prevent malware.

In order to detect security breaches, set up notifications in Google Search Console and regularly run audits to fix technical issues. 

You can also use The FTC Complaint Assistant to report a hacking.

Check for duplicate content

Use Copyscape.com to check the web for duplicate content. Add your site, or the content you want to check, and the tool will show you if your content is being published somewhere else.

What do you do if you spot copycat content?

Monitor social media mentions

Play an active role in monitoring your social page dashboards. There are lots of sites offering social listening tools, like HubSpot, Hootsuite, and Social Mention, so you are alerted whenever your name is mentioned. Address any concerns directly and quickly to avoid bad word from spreading. If you find social reviews that are spam, report the profiles to the platform and try to get them removed before they gather followers.   

Mention.net is a great tool to keep track of who's talking about your brand. You'll be informed whenever someone mentions your name on a website or social media channel. Simply create an account and set up alerts.

Report fake reviews

According to Google, reviews impact your SERP performance and fake reviews can hurt it. So you need to stay on top of them and take action as soon as you spot one. Monitor your online reviews and if it's definitely fake, report it to the site where it was published.

Speed up your website loading time

Google Analytics Alerts send you an email when your website loading time slows down, so you can quickly ascertain when and why it’s happened.

There could be a lot of reasons that aren't negative SEO related, such as you may need to enable caching, remove resource-hogging plugins or add-ons, or optimize your image sizes.

Closing thoughts

Negative SEO is real, and numerous websites have had to deal with this problem. The best you can do, as a business website owner, is to stay informed on the different types of negative SEO, be vigilant, and use the latest tools and monitoring to protect yourself. Whatever you do, don't go down the path of retaliation. Black Hat SEO attracts high penalties from Google, and that's even harder to recover from.

Here's a summary of the things you can do to guard against negative SEO:

  1. Create alerts from Google Webmaster Tools. 

  2. Track your backlinks profile

  3. Protect your most valuable links

  4. Use the disavow tool

  5. Secure your website from malware and hackers

  6. Check for duplicate content

  7. Monitor mentions of your brand name on social media and websites using Mention.net.

  8. Speed up your website

Not sure how your website is tracking online? Want to improve your online visibility the white hat way? We're here to help. Claim your free SEO audit to see an in-depth report on your current online performance, including SEO, PPC and social media. You'll also get a 6-month multichannel game plan to supercharge your performance, results and revenue. It's completely FREE with no obligation.

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