In the early days of the internet, Black Hat SEO techniques like link farming and keyword stuffing were common, but today Google’s algorithms discourage these manipulative practices and penalise sites that use them. Positive white hat SEO that increases ranking slowly through organic traffic and genuine links has become the norm. However, as it’s grown less and less profitable, or possible, to trick Google’s algorithms into ranking a substandard site, a new type of black hat SEO has evolved.
Today’s negative SEO is directed against competitors’ websites. Sites targeted with black hat techniques may be penalised by Google since it’s not always obvious where these elements originate. They may lose their page ranking or become entirely non-indexed. A negative SEO attack can seriously damage a company’s online reputation, especially if it isn’t discovered right away and the site remains invisible to customers for an extended period of time. Google partially addressed the issue at the beginning of 2017 with the Penguin 4 update which changes the penalty for spam links to avoid demoting the entire site. However, hackers and online criminals still have many way to attack a website through negative SEO and given the immense competition for keywords, there is increasing incentive to do so.
Five Types of Negative SEO
These are five common ways spammers can use negative SEO to attack a company’s reputation.
- Link Farms – A search on Fiverr will turn up thousands of so-called ‘SEO Experts’ willing to target sites with millions of spam links for as little as $5 USD. Before the 2017 update, this type of negative SEO was extremely common. Groups of interconnected sites called ‘link farms’ spawned links using almost exactly the same anchor text and often including a keyword that appeared relevant to the site. Motives for this type of attack can vary. In some cases, the links may be a promotion technique for another low quality spam site, a way to jump on board a legitimate company’s reputation; in others they are a deliberate reputation attack. Either way, they can erode the website’s ranking enough that new customers will have a hard time finding the company. It’s definitely harder to accomplish this type of attack after Penguin 4, but it’s still possible. If the spam links initiate a manual review of the site, Google may still be unable to tell that they aren’t coming from in-house.
- Content Duplication – In this type of attack, spammers will scrape content from another website and duplicate it all over the web. Google won’t rate several copies of the same page and it may not always be obvious that the original website version is the most legitimate, especially if the copies are created just after the content was posted.
- Site Overload – If an attacker forcefully crawls your site it will become slow and/or unavailable. Customers will not be able to visit and it may be devalued by Google if crawl-bots are unable to access it several times in a row.
- Fake Social Media – Desperate attackers may go so far as to build fake Facebook or Twitter profiles to misrepresent your company. These accounts may have a name that is similar enough to the company account to mislead customers and damage your reputation, or they may purport to be dissatisfied customers spreading malicious, unfounded complaints.
- Hacking – Negative SEO is most commonly off-page, but if all else fails, skilled attackers will resort to hacking into your site where they can adjust on-page factors enough to hurt search engine rankings. Since you’d notice a direct content change, this usually involves inserting hidden links or redirecting the page to a malicious site. This could be a direct attack, or it could be a promotional technique for a spam page; either way it will get the site devalued if Google notices the spam before you do. Malicious hackers who gain access to your site can also add a disallow rule to the robot.txt file so that Google will fail to index the site altogether. Even if they don’t make any of these changes, just having the site hacked can be enough to hurt the company’s reputation since Google will de-rank compromised sites or add a ‘this site may have been hacked’ warning to the result list.
Protect Yourself Against Negative SEO
It’s not always possible to prevent negative SEO attacks, but by monitoring the site regularly, you’ll be able to spot problems early and prevent the most serious reputation damage. These are some of the warning signs that your company may have been hit with negative SEO:
- A Sudden Increase in Links – If you regularly monitor the site’s backlink profile (Google’s Webmaster Tools can help with this as well as other specialised software), you should watch for a sudden increase in the number of links or the number of referring domains. Either of these are warning signs that you may have been hit with negative SEO.
- Foreign Links – A high number of foreign language links or links that have no relationship to your field are a red flag that someone is targeting your site.
- Duplicate Content – Using Copyscape regularly will help you track down scraped content immediately. From here, the first step is to ask the site hosting the content to remove it. If this is unsuccessful you can report the copyright infringement to Google.
- Website Slow or Unavailable – If the website isn’t working properly, it’s important to contact the webmaster and track down the source of the problem.
- Ranking Drop – If you notice a sudden drop in the company’s page ranking, a complete site audit is in order. There are many legitimate reasons why this might happen, a mistake on your site, an algorithm change from Google, or a competitor promoting their site through positive SEO, but it may also be the result of a negative SEO attack. Either way, you’ll need to get control of the situation and get the site’s ranking back as soon as possible.
- Penalty – A Google penalty notice is probably the worst way to find out about negative SEO, but the good news is it may be easier to fix an outside problem than one you’ve created yourself. If you can track down nefarious links and disavow them immediately, you can ask Google for a re-evaluation and regain a big part of the company’s reputation within a few weeks
Negative SEO is only one of the many reputation threats on the internet. Business owners who want to build a strong reputation need to take as many precautions as possible to keep the site secure and spot problems before they result in search engine devaluation.
Reputation Defender offers professional assistance with reputation management for companies and individuals. We can help your organisation protect against or recover from a negative SEO attack. Visit our website, or contact one of our experts to learn more.