Google does everything in its power to reduce the effectiveness of black hat SEO and discourage disreputable agencies from using this type of strategy. However, while the use of black hat SEO to promote a website is decreasing in popularity, using negative SEO tactics to attack other sites is increasing.
Negative SEO techniques pop up in a variety of unseemly forms. Some are mild and develop over time, while others are immediately noticeable.
Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself from these unsettling marketing strategies.
What is Negative SEO?
Negative SEO is a tactic employed by some sites to harm the rankings and organic traffic of another site in search engines.
When it comes to defining negative SEO, getting specific can be tricky because there are so many different tactics employed by black hat scammers. However, if you understand the basics of white hat SEO, then you should be able to figure out how people can use these strategies to attack others.
Here are 4 types of negative SEO.
Types of Negative SEO
1. Link Farms and Spammy Backlinks
One of the most common forms of negative SEO is the use of link farms to create a bunch of low-quality, spammy links that lead to a website. This is also a clear example of black hat professionals using Google’s guidelines to intentionally harm the website they build links to.
When this happens, within a matter of days or weeks, spammers build a series of negative SEO backlinks by writing similar content with the same anchor text on dozens of low-quality websites.
From the search crawler’s perspective, it looks like your website is trying to develop a link-building campaign (and doing it very poorly). The spammers go out of their way to make the links seem poor and unnatural, so your website will get flagged for penalties and drop your rankings.
An example of this happened to Jacob King on his website for his podcast, “WP Bacon.” King noticed that thousands of links started coming in with the text “porn movie” and other adult film-related keywords. The original keyword “porn movie” alone made up 20 percent of his link profile just 10 days after King noticed the negative SEO campaign. What’s worse, in that time, “WP Bacon” fell more than 50 spots for the majority of its ranking keywords. Traffic plummeted, new listeners dropped, and “WP Bacon” was left to pick up the pieces.
Make no mistake, negative SEO is a severe threat to your website and can decimate years of search efforts within a few days.
The Solution: Link Monitoring and Disavow Files
Like any disease, it’s best to catch a negative backlink campaign before it spreads and wreaks havoc on your website. Without proper monitoring, it might take weeks before you realize the drop in traffic and rankings was caused by suspicious backlinks harming your SEO. The longer these spammers have to build their campaigns, the more damage they can do to your pages.
You must be proactive and keep an eye out for this type of activity. For that, Alexa offers a Competitor Backlink Checker as a part of our Advanced Plan that allows you to review the backlinks pointing to your site. It also includes the Alexa Rank of the linking sites, so you can see if they have a low authority and are likely to be a spammy site.
Prevention is key when it comes to someone trying to point bad links to your brand, so this report is helpful in keeping an eye on your backlink profile. (This tool also allows you to find competitor backlinks, so you can use it to learn about your competition, too.)
If you do find that spammers are running negative SEO campaigns against your brand, submit a disavow file listing the attacking domains. submission through Google Search Console instructs Google to ignore all links coming from bad domains, so they don’t affect your rankings. Even though this solves the problem, it isn’t a one-time fix. You need to monitor and disavow spammy links as they appear continuously.
2. Scrapped Content Duplicated Across the Web
The first negative SEO strategy takes advantage of Google’s fight against bad links and causes websites to get penalized through the search engine’s Penguin updates. The second negative strategy takes advantage of Google’s Panda updates.
In this case, content scrapers take your content and repost it as their own. While Google is typically good at identifying original versus copied content, it’s possible that your website will be punished for the copied posts instead of the spammers.
There are two reasons why spammers will scrape your content:
- A low-quality website wants to buff up its content by stealing it from others.
- A spammer wants to scrape your content before Google crawls it, so your website is punished for duplications.
While the first reason is less malicious (though clearly ethically wrong), the latter can destroy your SEO when your content is repeatedly stolen to discredit your work. Often, the content is spread across link farms to confuse search engines further and convince Google that your content should be punished.
In a world of content marketing where it takes hours and days to write quality SEO content and blog posts, this type of attack can be particularly disheartening for content creators who see their work immediately discredited and used against them.
The Solution: Google’s Copyright Infringement Report
The first step when you discover duplicate content is to reach out to the webmaster.
It’s entirely possible that the website’s editor or administrative staff didn’t realize the content was stolen, especially if it works with several contributors and guest editors. Bringing the stolen content to their attention could actually prevent that website from getting penalized for duplicate content in the future, because they may identify a content provider who is contributing stolen content.
If you find that content was stolen maliciously, and the webmaster refuses to believe your content is the original, then turn to Google’s Online Copyright Infringement form. You can report scraped content to make sure Google acknowledges you as the true publisher and doesn’t hurt your SEO through a duplicate content penalty.
3. Hacked Websites and Malware Attacks
When you think about hackers breaking into your website, what images come to mind? Perhaps you picture masked criminals gaining access to your website to shut it down.
While this is definitely a real threat, there are also more subtle hacking techniques used to create negative SEO.
If hackers break into your website with the goal of implementing negative SEO techniques, then it’s unlikely that you would even notice. They might target pages that are rarely accessed (like old blog articles) or make subtle changes on your latest pages that do damage to your site.
A few of these tactics include:
- Adding low-quality or disturbing content to your pages.
- Replacing your content with duplicate content from other sources, so you get penalized.
- Adding or replacing links to drive to their pages or that drive traffic to unethical websites.
- Removing links and images from your pages.
- Hiding content changes in the HTML, so webmasters would only notice it if they check the code.
If you have been creating content on your website for years and post frequently, then you might have a website that is a target for this tactic because you have so much content. You may also have a problem if you have a website you haven’t accessed in a while, or you have web pages that receive relatively low traffic levels. It’s easy for these subtle hackers to change those websites and put a negative effect on your SEO.
The Solution: Regular Website Audits and Admin Monitoring
When you regularly audit the performance of your website, it’s possible to keep track of noticeable changes on your pages.
Alexa’s SEO Audit tool helps you keep an eye on your site. It reviews technical issues and offers easy steps you can take to correct them to get back on track. Also, Alexa’s Site Overview helps you keep an eye on your traffic and Alexa ranking, so you can see what changes are happening.
You don’t have to be an expert at fighting a black hat technique like this. A few warning signs you should look out for include:
- A spike in traffic to a few pages that have remained consistent over the past few years.
- A sudden influx of backlinks to previously dormant pages, or backlinks from websites that would not normally link to you.
- Keyword rankings increase for unsavory or irrelevant keywords.
These negative SEO tactics could also be the result of a disgruntled employee or contributor.
Spammers might not be competitors trying to get a leg up, but rather upset employees who want to get back at an employer. If you recently let an employee or contractor go but didn’t completely revoke their access, then they could subtly be wreaking havoc on your website.
4. Fake Reviews Across the Web
Negative SEO tactics don’t just target your website; they also go after other pages on the web.
Some business owners have noticed a flood of bad reviews hitting Google, Yelp, Angie’s List, and other accounts. While the attacks on third-party sites are often used to discredit businesses, the results on Google can have a direct impact on your local SEO.
These low ratings also directly impact your sales, as businesses tend to see a significant dip in sales whenever they lose a star in online reviews. This is even worse when paired with a drop in traffic because of lower SEO.
The first step in determining whether negative SEO is to blame for your sudden drop in ratings is to check the reviews. Unless you are in the middle of a major PR crisis, then it’s unlikely that you would suddenly see a spike in reviews – especially negative ones.
There are a few qualities to check for when determining whether a review is fake:
- The review typically only has one star and a one- or two-word review (e.g.., “bad” or “hate”).
- The reviews typically occur within a few hours or days of each other.
- The reviewers typically don’t leave reviews for other companies or have a long history of reviewing other pages.
On the flipside, most normal reviewers offer authentic feedback for companies or use review sites to warn others why they should avoid a business.
Businesses should be able to see what other reviews they leave, which is usually a mixture of positive and negative feedback. Expect to see both good and bad reviews. But if you see a series of one-word negative reviews, that is likely a sign of a negative SEO attack.
The Solution: Flag Fake Reviews
Most review sites let businesses flag fake reviews. While you should respond to legitimate negative reviews politely and honestly, there’s no point in being courteous to fake reviewers. By flagging the fake reviews, Google and other review sites can identify spammers and stop them before they can damage the reputation of other brands like yours.
Monitoring Is the Key to Negative SEO Protection
Negative SEO is a real threat and will continue to be as more black hat spammers turn to attack others instead of using shady ways to promote themselves.
While there is no surefire way to protect your website from an attack, you can monitor your website and immediately stop an attack when it begins. With the right tools, you can quickly undo the damage caused by negative SEO techniques without seeing a major drop in traffic, sales, and customer engagement.
To arm yourself with the SEO tools you need to keep an eye on your site, while improving your SEO, and creating strategies to legitimately rank above competitors, sign up for a free trial of our Advanced plan.