What is negative SEO?
Negative SEO is a malicious practice designed to harm a website’s rankings in the SERPs by damaging its link profile through unnatural linking schemes and black-hat SEO techniques that can trigger manual actions from Google.
The problem with negative SEO is that it can hit your site overnight, without notice, causing you not only heartache and SERP drops but also a significant financial loss because fixing the issues that affect your site is a time-consuming, costly endeavor.
You must know that negative SEO is nothing new, and although Google states that effective negative SEO is very rare, it still can happen. In fact, it’s because it does happen that Google no longer says as it used to that “There is nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” Instead, today Google expects you to do all the work:
“Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you're concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don't control the content of these pages.”
How do you know when a competitor uses negative SEO against your site?
Negative SEO attacks are unpredictable, but there are ways to monitor your site’s SEO health to prevent malicious intent. The key signals to look for include:
- Unnatural links to your site
- Sites that duplicate your content without permission (scrapers or others)
- Fake online reviews on Google local, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.
- Hacked website(s)
These are not the only types of negative SEO attacks that can damage your site, but they are the most common and the most dangerous. To protect your site against them, you should monitor its SEO health. Here are some of the best tools to use to stay safe.
- Link audits: using a tool like the Backlink Audit by SEMrush, you can easily see the sites linking back to yours and identify those that potentially harm your rankings.
- Content scrapers are hard to find.
- Using Google search for “your titles” you can address whatever comes up (make sure you repeat your search with the omitted results included).
- Using the Copyscape or the Grammarly Plagiarism Checker, you can find duplicates of your content, then act.
- Whenever you find a site that duplicates your content, ask the webmaster to take it down.
- When you cannot convince site owners to take down content that infringes your copyright, do what Google advises you to do:
“You can request that Google remove the infringing page from our search results by filing a request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”
- Fake online reviews: sometimes disgruntled competitors will stoop to about anything to take you down. The most dangerous fake reviews are those published on your Google My Business listing, but you could also be affected by fake reviews posted on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, and the like. Whenever you find fake reviews, flag or report them. All review sites allow you to address such problems. Can fake reviews really affect your rankings? According to the 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors by MOZ, they count for 13% of how Google decides to rank your site in the SERPs. Fake reviews can also affect the online reputation of your business.
- Hacked site: malware attacks and hacking can damage your site’s trustworthiness, triggering Google manual actions that will affect its position in the SERPs. Signs that your website has been hacked may include:
- Changes in design appearance.
- Undesired content added to your web pages.
- Undesired ad and link injection to your pages.
- Hidden content changes in the HTML.
Sure, these are just four of the main issues you could have when a competitor or any other ill-minded person launches a negative SEO attack on your business website.
Catching negative SEO attacks in time to prevent Google penalties
Although negative SEO attacks are hard to predict, there are things you can do to “catch” them in time, before they cause costly or irreparable damage to your site and online reputation.
- Regular technical SEO health website audits can help you identify problems in time. Audit tools include Moz Pro toolset, SEMrush, BuzzStream, Website Grader, Google's Webmaster Tools (set up the alerts to be notified in time if there are any problems), and so on.
- Do not delay fixing an SEO problem: the later you address an issue like unnatural links, the more difficult it will be to get back in Google’s graces. For links, you can use Remove'em or similar tools. Don’t ignore the solutions offered by Google (described above).
- Flag fake reviews and counter them with verified reviews. Use a platform like TrustYou to monitor positive and negative reviews all over the web. You can also use other media-mention monitoring tools to search for instances where your brand appears on social media and blogs: Hootsuite Social Media Tool, Reputology, Hootsuite Insights, Brandwatch, Google alerts, and the list goes on. Monitor, monitor, monitor!
- Don’t ignore content scrapers: fight back. Duplicate content may not attract manual actions from Google, but it can still affect your rankings.
- Negative SEO attacks are not limited to linking schemes, hacking, scraping, and fake reviews. Competitors may also try to slow down your site by setting up traffic bots, building fake social profiles in the name of your brand, modifying your .htaccess or robots.txt files, etc.
Whenever you notice a significant drop in rankings despite your best efforts, you can easily suspect negative SEO. Sure, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, don’t expect Google’s albeit sophisticated algorithms to understand what went wrong without a little help from your technical SEO team. Fight back.