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What Is Negative SEO?

March 17, 2020

By Natalie Boyd

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a dynamic method that is forever changing to keep up with the modern demands of information seekers. Today, ranking on the first page of a Google search is a mighty feat that requires thoughtful keyword research, content development, social strategy, campaign measurement, and on-site optimization.

In other words, a fairly time-consuming, holistic, and positive approach to SEO will help your site climb to the top by catering to the specific needs of your audience.     

Not surprisingly, there are a few bad apples unwilling to make the effort or investment in the proper development of their websites. Instead, they prefer shortcuts—negative SEO tactics—aimed at knocking down the honest competition and taking those coveted top spots through deceit. Some practitioners intentionally practice negative SEO to score fast results for their clients, while others inadvertently fall into these tricks because they don’t know any better.   

For ethical businesses like yours, knowing how to identify the negative SEO players in the market and respond quickly is paramount to maintaining your competitive positioning.  

What Is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO, also sometimes called “black hat SEO,” involves the use of malicious tactics on your site to tarnish your reputation with Google and steal search engine rankings for important keywords to be used on a competitor’s site. In the past, negative SEO may have been as simple as hijacking your site with questionable banner ads. However, today’s negative SEO has become much more complex and sophisticated.  

Examples of Negative SEO

  • Link farming: Bad actors can point low-quality links to your website from sites created solely for the purpose of housing useless, spammy, unrelated links.
  • Posting duplicate content: Copying and pasting your content and publishing it on multiple sites all over the internet is one of the easiest methods spammers use to penalize your site.
  • Modifying content: This involves running invisible scripts from the header or footer templates.
  • Creating fake social media profiles: Spammers often choose to attack through social media, creating accounts on Facebook or Twitter with a company’s name and publishing negative reviews or posting low-quality posts to ruin their reputation.
  • De-indexing the site: This involves changing your robots.txt file in the server to remove you from search.
  • Forcefully crawling: Slowing down websites is an easy way for negative SEO practitioners to cause damage. By forcefully crawling the site, taxing the server load, and ultimately crashing the site, negative SEO practitioners can decrease or de-rank your site.
  • Committing click fraud: A specially programmed CTR bot looks for the site’s main keywords and branded terms, then clicks on the listing, only to quickly bounce back to the search engine request page. The site gets dropped once Google surmises the site’s owner may be trying to “game the system.”
  • Adding malware: If malware attacks your site, Google may warn users that “this site may be hacked” before forwarding, causing traffic to plummet.

Want to skyrocket your search engine rankings? Download our 15-Point Essential  Technical SEO Checklist today!

What Does Google Say About Negative SEO?

The online community of webmasters and marketers was shocked and concerned by Google Webmaster’s admission to the existence of negative SEO back in 2012. Since then, Google Webmaster Matt Cutts reassures us, “In my experience, there’s a lot of people who talk about negative SEO, but very few people who actually try it. And, fewer still, who actually succeed.” He also went on to say that small businesses shouldn’t worry about being targeted for negative SEO because it’s a tactic that is only reportedly used in very niche markets of bigger, highly competitive businesses.

Is Google Doing Anything About Negative SEO?

Of course, Google is doing all sorts of work on the back end. They can’t explain exactly what happens in each update, though, because spammers would immediately get to work figuring out ways to exploit the new algorithms.

The “link disavow” feature rolled out in October 2012 was Google’s public answer to concern about negative SEO. This tool notifies webmasters of manual spam activity or unnatural links and allows the option to deny backlinks from linking to their site and/or domain. By addressing the problem at the root through a simple text file of URL listings, Google makes it easier to keep tabs on fraudulent activity. 

However, Google also wants you to remain confident in their ability to reward the good sites and punish the bad. “Most sites will not need to use this tool,” they clarified. 

How To Secure Your Website Against Negative SEO Attacks

Google’s assurances are not enough for the proactive web owner. Fortunately, there are several ways to proactively protect your website. 


1. Enable email notifications from Google Search Console.

Now all information and issues pertaining to your website can be kept in the forefront of your mind. Once you see what is going on, you can employ more advanced strategies to prevent negative SEO, including monitoring website backlinks, disavowing (or removing) suspicious backlinks, and securing your website from malware/hackers.


2. Keep an eye on your backlinks.

Online visibility management platforms like Semrush help you monitor your backlinks through an email summary of changes. Building backlinks to negatively impact websites from low-quality websites is a favored tool of negative SEO practitioners.

3. Closely watch your important backlinks.

Again, a tool like Semrush is invaluable. Mark your most important backlinks and ask to be alerted when they are removed. You can contact the webmasters of the sites and ask to have valuable backlinks restored, so you do not lose search status.

4. Safeguard your website from hackers and malware.

With all the high-profile hacks and costly data breaches in the news these days, it’s never been more important to bolster the security of your website against vicious malware attacks. Fortunately, there are easy and affordable steps you can take to do just that, such as:

  • Using a strong administrator’s password
  • Employing two-factor authentication when available
  • Maintaining an up-to-date website
  • Installing security plugins (if you're a HubSpot user, read about the tools built-in security here)
  • Establishing an automatic backup system

5. Look out for content thieves and copycats.

Copyscape can help you find other copies of your content elsewhere on the internet if they exist. 


6. Keep an eye on your social media mentions.

Play an active role in social media administration through your social page dashboards. HubSpot, Hootsuite, and Social Mention offer social listening tools that alert you whenever your name is mentioned on social media. When mentions are made, be sure you address any concerns directly and promptly to keep bad publicity from spreading.

7. Speed up your website loading time.

Google Analytics alerts send you emails when your website loading time slows down, so you can identify when and why it’s happening. You may need to enable caching, remove resource-hogging plugins or add-ons, optimize your image sizes, get rid of excess code, or take steps to block spammer activity.


Final Thoughts on Negative SEO

Negative SEO happens. The best you can do, as a business website owner, is to stay informed on the different ways in which it occurs, remain vigilant, and use the latest tools to protect yourself. 

Want to increase your search engine rankings the good old-fashioned way? Download our 15-point Essential Technical SEO Checklist today!

This post was originally published in December 2014 and has been updated.


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Topics: SEO, Inbound Marketing, Digital Strategy