Back in the late '90s (way back when), SEO was in its infancy.
It was almost like the Wild West -- anything goes.
Since the rules were loose, both white hat and black hat SEO tactics began to develop.
While white hat tactics are an ethical way of improving your organic traffic and search rankings, black hat tactics go against guidelines set by search engines in an unethical way.
Black hat SEO typically refers to exploiting a search engine's ranking factors to increase one's own rankings. This includes things like cloaking, link farming, etc.
As Google's ranking algorithm has become more sophisticated, and black hat SEO yields less and less value, some marketers have pivoted to a much more aggressive tactic: negative SEO -- which focuses on decreasing one's competitor's rankings.
Below, let's learn more about negative SEO from what a negative SEO attack looks like and how to avoid it.
Let’s make one thing clear, first: Negative SEO is a bit of a misnomer -- unlike modern SEO, very little optimization is involved in negative SEO. This practice refers to a competitor who uses unethical organic ranking tactics to lower your rankings in search engines.
Essentially, a competitor will use negative SEO to attack your traffic, in hopes of improving their own. A negative SEO attack is typically only detectable when a site’s rankings and incoming traffic drops.
Wait, did you say 'negative' SEO attack?
A negative SEO attack is when a competitor uses mostly off-page tactics such as building unnatural backlinks or duplicating site content to negatively impact your search rankings (we’ll talk about how this happens in just a minute).
Sometimes a negative SEO attack will involve on-page tactics by hacking your site to modify content in a way the hacker believes will hurt your ranking, or even adding links from your site back to their own domain to boost their rankings.
So, you might be wondering, "How does someone do a negative SEO attack?" Below, let's review negative SEO tactics and how to avoid them.
Negative SEO Tactics
- Building unnatural links.
- Distributing duplicate content.
- Hacking your website.
- Generating negative reviews.
- Creating fake social profiles.
1. Building unnatural links.
One of the ways that a competitor can use negative SEO to attack your site is by building unnatural or "spammy" backlinks.
Spammy links, or "bad links," are links coming from websites that have been reported as not trustworthy, not owned by a human (or one with good intentions), and is simply not serving a clear purpose or audience online.
Basically, this means they’ll send thousands of spam links to your site. If they send low-quality links to your site, they’ll usually use an interconnected group of websites that are used solely to link back and forth to other sites.
Their goal is to get your site penalized by Google for spammy links.
The second method that a competitor using negative SEO might use to impact your backlinks is to remove your best backlinks. This means they’ll reach out to a site that’s intentionally linking to you, pose as you in their outreach, and request they remove the backlink.
What to Do About It
With these tools, you can monitor when your site gains or loses backlinks. If you suspect a bad link has been added, you can try to remove it by contacting the webmaster and requesting they remove it.
To fix many bad links, you can use Google's disavow list. When you submit links to Google Webmaster Tools through a disavow file, you’re effectively telling Google that all links listed in this file shouldn’t be counted when ranking your site in their index.
Another method you can use to detect unnatural links is to check your website speed. If your website is suddenly taking a long time to load, you'll want to ensure it's not because someone is sending thousands of requests per second to your server.
2. Distributing duplicate content.
When there's duplicate content on multiple websites, Google filters the content which can result in a loss of rankings of your web pages. Duplicate content forces Google to choose which one of the identical pages should rank, and they might not choose the original page.
While some similar content is inevitable, several identical web pages might negatively impact your rankings.
If someone wanted to attack your site, they could take your site content and redistribute it on several websites.
What to Do About It
There are several ways you can avoid this.
- You can use tools to track if your site content is duplicated. Sites like Copyscape.com can detect if the content on your site is being used anywhere else.
- Contact the site owner and CC a legal party in your outreach. If you manage a site for a business, loop in your company's legal council to ensure your message is taken seriously by the recipient.
- Update your site's Terms of Service to clearly state that republishing content that originated on your domain is strictly prohibited. It won't deter everyone, but it gives you the leverage you need against bad actors when they target your site.
- Add canonical tags to your highest-performing content. Canonical tags -- usually denoted as <link rel="canonical" href="[URL]"> -- signal to Google what the original URL of this content is. By adding it to your own content, you're giving pages a "self-referring canonical" so that any future duplicates are less likely to rank for the same keywords.
If you’re worried about being targeted by negative SEO tactics, you might consider these strategies to avoid duplicate content. As a note, adding canonical tags to your site is the most important strategy.
3. Hacking your website.
While most of these negative SEO tactics are off-page, sometimes a competitor will hack your site and use on-page methods to impact your rankings.
They could hack and alter your code, so you can’t tell something’s wrong unless you’re looking at the backend of a certain webpage.
Another way they could hack your site is by editing your robots.txt file. This file tells a search engine crawler how to interact with your site, including what pages not to crawl and index. If a hacker can access this, they can use your robots.txt file to tell Google to ignore your most important pages -- or the whole site.
What to Do About It
One way to avoid this is to set up Google Webmaster Tools email alerts. These email alerts will tell you if your site is being attacked by malware, pages aren’t being indexed, or when you suffer a manual penalty from Google.
Additionally, you can protect yourself from hackers by using two-factor authentication, strong passwords, creating backup files, and antivirus protection.
4. Generating negative reviews.
While having a variety of reviews can actually help your SEO, an overwhelming amount of negative reviews can impact your business's reputation.
One negative SEO tactic a competitor can use is to flood your site with negative reviews because they're easy to manipulate.
What to Do About It
To avoid this, you should monitor your reviews and make sure you use them as an opportunity to respond and interact with your audience.
If you've spotted a fake review from someone who's misrepresenting their identity or the connection to your business, you can flag them right on Google.
5. Creating fake social profiles.
Another tactic a competitor can use to impact your rankings is to create fake social profiles in your company's name. This is done to ruin your reputation and spread false information.
What to Do About It
To avoid this, when you come across fake profiles report them as spam before they start to get followers.
You can also use tools to track your social media mentions so you'll be informed when anyone mentions your name or site on social media. Most social media automation tools should have this capability, so you'll be alerted when a fake social profile is created.
Although negative SEO can seem like a scary concept, search engines are becoming increasingly vigilant against negative SEO, so it's becoming less and less dangerous. The important thing is that you monitor your SEO health on a regular basis to make sure you notice an attack before it impacts your site.