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Negative SEO is the practice of implementing SEO measures that are aimed at the devaluation of other websites by search engines such as Google. In the worst case, negative SEO can lead to exclusion from the search engine index. Theoretically, it is an offense if malicious SEO is being practiced intentionally. However, the chance to identify those responsible for negative SEO is rather low.
Negative SEO techniques include any measures which violate the Google webmaster guidelines. If you were to compile a list of opposites of each directive, you would have a comprehensive list of negative SEO examples:
- Spamming: Massive setting of backlinks through link farms always using the same anchor text.
- Provoking a bad neighborhood: Linking only to spam sites such as in the area of illegal gambling, pornography, or loans.
- Creating duplicate content: page content of a website can be copied, multiplied to an extreme and reused on the Web. This manipulative technique is also called content scraping; however, in this case it is not used for the alleged improvement of one’s own rankings, but to harm another website directly.
- Spamming with forum links: automated setting of forum or blog links, while repeatedly using the same link text such as a keyword over and over.
- Harming of reputation: Manipulation of the Autocomplete feature by a kind of Google bombing which causes an increase in searches for a particular shop in combination with a negatively connoted additional word such as “fraud” or “prison.” A reputation can further be harmed through fake press releases which provide content discrediting the website in question. Site attackers can also create many negative reviews in review sites.
- Use of link text with the relevant website’s URL: In this case, the site could be brought into disrepute as a brand in search engines if these links direct to fraudulent websites.
- Hacking of the robots.txt file, thus barring the crawler from visiting other page content. A hacker exploits vulnerabilities of a website such as login forms and gains access to the backend or worse, directly to the server.
- Hacking of the website and inserting the metadata noindex,nofollow across the whole website.
This list does not contain instructions for negative SEO. It merely provides a summary of possible actions. Any SEO or search engine optimizer who wants to use negative SEO to harm a competitor should be aware of that fact that * negative SEO can be considered defamation and thus may be punishable.
- Any energy invested in negative SEO would be of much better use if invested in positive SEO measures for your website.
Recognizing negative SEO
Although the indexing speed of search engines has increased significantly, for example, through Google Caffeine, SEO measures always require a certain amount of time before the effect is visible in the SERP. This fact also applies to negative SEO. For this reason, deliberately damaging SEO is usually detected very late. However, you can reach definite conclusions concerning negative SEO through regular reports of important KPI such as visibility, popularity of the domain and link profile.
If you monitor key metrics at specific intervals, you will be able to detect changes more quickly, identify the problem accordingly and if necessary take corrective measures. A duplicate content checker can be used to detect duplicate content, for example.
Newer websites can be more easily influenced by negative SEO. The reason for this is that new websites have far less incoming links and therefore do not have the necessary trust signals as compared to strongly linked and older projects. Moreover, online shops are usually more affected than informational websites. Likewise, more competitive sectors are more vulnerable than niches. One might assume that wherever a lot of money can be earned on the Internet with SEO, the biggest potential danger to become victims of negative SEO also exists.
According to Google, a site will not lose ranking or get removed from the index because of negative SEO.
Although there is a consensus in the SEO scene that negative SEO can do little harm if you do a thorough job of healthy linking, there are still some actions that can be undertaken if you suspect adverse SEO activities:
- Google disavow: Google provides a tool in the Google Search Console to invalidate inbound links.
- Contacting the operators of the applicable sites and demanding them to remove spam links.
- Creating trust signals through link building with quality content.
- Preventive care for strong domain popularity, a healthy link structure and clean OnPage optimization.
Examples that have become public
In 2011, an online retailer for wooden toys was blackmailed by unknown persons. They used so-called “bad links” to harm the company and demanded money to stop the actions. The blackmailer linked many terms from the spam environment to the shop, such as Viagra or pornography. At the same time, more than 500 user profiles were used from forums in order to link from there to the shop. The online shop lost up to 75 percent in revenue due to the loss of visibility in Google.
In 2013, a Berlin-based online shop for cigars received public attention after it was discovered that many malicious links were placed on the shop’s website. In this case, the attacker apparently used the effect of Google’s Penguin update to start negative SEO using anchor texts which contained only the keyword “money.”
Importance for search engine optimization
Negative SEO not only affects the victim financially and creates moral damage, but also contributes to discredit search engine optimization in general. At the same time, negative SEO exposes the vulnerability of search engine providers. Search engine operators actually want to curb spam and provide users with the best possible, non-manipulated search results through large algorithm changes such as the Penguin update from Google. However, criminals can exploit this powerful tool against spam for actions in the field of negative SEO. Therefore, Google has an appropriate tool for the devaluation of backlinks, the disavow tool. But it can take weeks for devaluation of links to take positive effect on the rankings of a website. Meanwhile, online shops continue to lose revenue. Negative SEO illustrates once again how dependent primarily e-commerce sites are on Google and how fragile the rankings can be. Webmasters must test their websites even more thoroughly in order to respond to possible changes right away. Search engine providers such as Yandex (according to their own statements) use special algorithms to detect negative SEO.