Once upon a time there were plenty of ways to trick search engines into placing a site higher in the SERPs and these were known as black hat tactics. These days increasingly sophisticated algorithms are designed to look for and discount sites that use such methods in the interest of making the web a fairer and more useful place for us all. The side effect of this though is that we’re seeing more and more incidences of negative SEO taking place against larger websites.
Now before you panic too much, according to Matt Cutts, head of the spam team at Google, if you’re a small business, you don’t have too much to worry about when it comes to defending against negative SEO.
“There are a lot of people who talk about negative SEO, but very few people who try it and fewer still who actually succeed,” he said back in 2012 when Google introduced the Penguin algorithm that was designed to pick up black hat techniques and low quality websites. This is all very well and yes, it probably is unlikely that you’ll be targeted, but there’s always a chance that an unscrupulous competitor could decide that they have the technical knowledge to take you down, so it pays to be safe.
With that in mind, today we’ll be looking at exactly what negative SEO is and how you can protect yourself.
Firstly though, let’s take a look at black hat SEO, what it is and how to make sure that you don’t inadvertently carry it out. SEO practices can be divided into three camps – for the most part SEO professionals are only concerned with carrying out white hat SEO. This conforms to all of Google’s rules and doesn’t participate in any practices that could in any way be construed as cheating.
Then we have black hat SEO which includes:
- Buying links and participating in link schemes.
- Duplicate content.
- Keyword stuffing
- Hidden text on links (from the user)
- Doorway pages
A common tactic in the past and probably the easiest one to carry out has been keyword stuffing. We all know that keywords are an important part of any SEO’s job, but stuffing refers to the practice of inserting keywords over and over again so that you’ll be better ranked for them. The problem with stuffing is that it offers nothing of value to the reader and the resulting text is often nonsensical and doesn’t read at all well. Only a few short years ago it was very common practice for savvy clients to request a certain keyword density when ordering web copy of any description and even with low densities, it was often difficult for a writer to craft a piece that was valuable to the reader because of this.
Now, it’s not common at all as Google changed the algorithms specifically to penalise sites that carried this out. All of the tactics mentioned above are now banned and you could easily find your site plummeting down the SERPs if you even inadvertently participate in any black hat tactics.
With anything that’s labelled good or bad there’s always a grey area in which people feel that they are not breaking any rules and SEO is no exception.
Grey hat techniques include:
- Article spinning
- Buying up old domains
- Buying up expired domains
- Google bombing
Personally, I feel that article spinning belongs firmly in the black hat camp but there are always differences of opinion in the community when it comes to what’s black and what’s grey. For safety’s sake it’s better to stick firmly to white hat techniques if you’re not sure though. Article spinning is the practice of taking text from a site and using software to make it unique for the search engines. If you’ve ever played with the software you’ll know that it rarely makes a good job of it and the text generally reads very poorly. These methods were often used in the content mills of old, in which unskilled writers were paid a pittance to generate articles.
When it comes to buying up old and expired domains, I should point out that it’s the purpose behind it that’s seen to be slightly nefarious, which is of course to put up pages full of links which point to your own domain. Google bombing also refers to links and the practice of again, creating a large volume of links so that a site will be found better in search.
White hat just simply means that you’re playing by the rules. You’re writing all of your own content, or have a professional do it for you, and this content is valuable to the reader in that it contains good information, uses good spelling and grammar and doesn’t overuse keywords.
White hat link building is of course quite difficult (especially since the guest posting for SEO ban) but white hat SEOs go about it without paying for links or participating in schemes such as those that allow you to swap links with others. Google has put a lot of work into ensuring that everyone knows that white hat is the only way, and as a result we’ve seen a reduction in web spam.
What Does This Have to Do with Negative SEO?
The reason that I’ve outlined all of this first is simple – if you’re the target of negative SEO then it’s likely that some of these black hat tactics will be used against you in order to push down your search ranking. Negative SEO is basically the practice of attacking a site using tactics such as those above, or infecting a site with malware. Probably the most common form of attack is to get a large volume of spam links pointing to your site though.
Other forms of attack include:
- Sending 1000s of requests per second to your web server in order to cripple your site performance.
- Removing high authority links to your site by pretending to be you and asking for them to be taken down.
- Hacking a site in order to remove content or disable it.
- Changing your site’s robot.txt file so that search engines won’t crawl the site.
- Setting up fake social media accounts in your name in a bid to damage your reputation.
Whilst Google has stated in the past that true negative SEO is very rare, it’s more recently changed its position slightly to state that it does happen. However, you also have to consider if you see your site take a drop in the SERPs if it’s something that you or an agency may have inadvertently carried out.
For example, as Marie Haynes points out in a Moz article, in the past many people purchased link building packages for a minimal amount (around $100) which basically just gave you a lot of directory listings which of course count as backlinks. The problem with this was that often, the directories were extremely poor quality and as such, the backlink could count as a toxic link.
If this is something that you’ve done in the past (and we all make mistakes when we’re learning so don’t beat yourself up) then it’s worth your while going through your backlink profile using Webmaster Tools or Open Site Explorer and removing them. This can prove difficult as often such directory sites don’t have any means for contacting the owner. If this is the case, then you should disavow the links using Google’s tool.
Checking for Negative SEO
If you feel that your ranking has dropped and you haven’t done anything that could cause this, then you might want to check for negative SEO. Firstly then, you’ll need to carry out a comprehensive link audit to check for toxic links. Remember though that good links are healthy and add to the authority of your site, so you really don’t want to be removing those. If you have a lot of links, then you may want to invest in a tool which will grade the links for you such as Link Research Tools. This is quite an expensive tool but it is the best one out there for identifying bad links quickly without the fuss of going through everything manually. However, you can also download the links from Webmaster Tools and go through it manually, or use Moz’s Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO, both of which have free and paid versions.
You should look for:
- The quality of the site that the links are coming from based on Alexa ranking, PR and DA
- Links from directories
- Links from blog networks
- Links from paid posts
- Blog comment links
It’s useful at this stage to also study the link profiles of your closest competitors to see how closely your link profile matches theirs. When it comes to the links, sites that are not indexed, have a poor DA and PR (and are not brand new sites) should be discarded immediately. To quickly see the DA and PR scores of a site, install the Moz toolbar and/or the SearchStatus toolbar which will then show the scores of every site that you land on in the toolbar.
Links are the best indication of a site’s quality and it’s how search engines determine if a site is trusted or not. Whilst of course the quality of a site’s content does have some bearing, it’s difficult for search engines to determine site quality off the back of that alone.
There’s no getting away from it, examining and cleaning up your backlinks is a laborious and thankless job, but it does have to be done if you’re to protect your site. Once you’ve identified the bad links, then you can contact the site to ask for it to be taken down and if you don’t get a reply, then you can disavow the link.
Malware and Hacking
Your site should be protected at the server end by ensuring that your host runs the latest server software and employs anti-malware and firewall protection. Choose your host based on this over price and ensure that it offers good support. I’ve found that low cost and free web hosts are not worth the bother as they rarely offer decent support, even if they do offer good security.
If you have a WordPress site, then these are attacked frequently due to their popularity and you should consider using a specialist WordPress host such as WPEngine, which has an excellent reputation; Go Daddy also offer managed WordPress packages too. This is because managed WordPress hosts perform all of the updates for you as soon as they become available to ensure that your site remains secure.
You should also updates themes and plugins as soon as updates are released – vulnerabilities are by far the biggest threat when it comes to people accessing your site, and easily preventable, so whatever platform your site is built on, ensure that software is kept up-to-date and you’re halfway to solving a potential problem.
DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks are much more difficult to mitigate, but the implementation of server monitoring software can help to pick them up quickly before they do too much damage. A CDN can also help to spread the load if you come under attack, so is worth considering.
Social Media Accounts
You should visit all of the social media platforms and sign up for an account in your business name even if you don’t really intend to use them. This is the simplest way of stopping others from pretending to be you in order to damage your online reputation. You can also put social listening tools in place so that you can pick up and respond to any negative mentions on social media.
Reputation management is something you should consider to be an ongoing job just as checking your backlink profile is.
There’s a slim chance that you could be hit by negative SEO and so it’s worthwhile learning how to protect yourself. If you find yourself on the end of a manual penalty because of negative SEO then you’ll have to take the above steps to eliminate bad links anyway. So with that in mind, start practising good SEO habits now and you’ll be much better placed to deal with it if the worst does happen in the future.