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Negative SEO: A Guide to Prevention and Recovery

HostPapa Blog / Marketing  / Negative SEO: A Guide to Prevention and Recovery
28 Jun

Negative SEO: A Guide to Prevention and Recovery
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(Last Updated On: June 28, 2019)

Negative SEO involves someone sabotaging your search engine rankings to damage your business. Perpetrators want to reduce traffic to your website and steal your sales.

It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it’s something that every small business owner should be aware of. You can take comfort in the fact that negative SEO techniques are fairly easy to spot, and like with so many harmful things, early detection can really help mitigate the damage.

After a detailed look at what negative SEO is all about, this article will explore six of the most common tactics. We’ll wrap up with a handy table that gives you prevention and recovery tips for each of the negative SEO strategies discussed.

Negative SEO Defined

Normally, SEO is meant to grow a company’s online presence by improving its placement in search results. The goal of negative SEO is the opposite. Experts in negative SEO employ unethical tactics intended to sabotage a business’ search engine rankings.

Their reasons may vary, but they usually involve a desire to gain a competitive advantage. There are people who sell the same products or services as you. If they get jealous of your customer base, they have two options:

  • They can employ legitimate marketing techniques to lure your customers away.
  • They can steal your customers by driving them away from your website.

All too often, competing business owners choose the second option. They attempt to hurt your sales by reducing traffic to your website. If the strategy works so well that you go out of business, as far as they’re concerned, it’s for the best!

When an unscrupulous person goes down this path, they’ll usually employ a variety of tactics, like creating untrustworthy backlinks to your website, distributing your content to other sites, and removing your highest-performing backlinks.

If you’re like most small business owners, you would never even consider dabbling in such shady business practices, but you wouldn’t put it past your competitors. All that’s required is a willingness to ignore their conscience; what’s not required is any knowledge of how to execute a negative SEO attack. That can be easily outsourced!

If your competitor searches on a freelancer job site using terms like “link farm,” “negative SEO,” and “site hacking,” there are opportunistic specialists that will jump at a new project—destroying your site’s search engine rankings.

In the next section, we’ll look at six of the most common negative SEO techniques being used right now.

Keep reading to learn how to avoid negative SEO

Image credit: Everys

Common Negative SEO Tactics

One of the most frustrating things about negative SEO is that you can be targeted without the perpetrators hacking your website. Such practices are referred to as negative off-page SEO, and they often involve manipulating a website’s backlinks, duplicating its content so it appears less unique to search engines, and otherwise damaging the company’s online performance. This section will explain some of the most common off-page techniques.

Less common is on-page negative SEO, which involves ways people can damage your search engine rankings from within your website. The first step in this tactic is hacking your site, and since that’s harder to do than the off-page negative SEO tricks, it’s much less common. Nevertheless, the last part of this section describes some of the ways people can wage a negative SEO attack from inside your website.

Let’s start with the most common negative SEO tactic of all—generating a flood of unsavory backlinks. 

Creating Untrustworthy Backlinks

Backlinks tell search engines that others approve of your content. When Google’s algorithms, for example, assess your backlinks, a high number indicates that your content has value, so it should get a higher ranking in search results.

But not all backlinks will have a positive impact on your ranking. The links that help you are those from high-authority websites that people trust. The ones that will hurt your rankings are those from sites that have a bad reputation.

While it’s important to keep them to a minimum, a couple of undesirable backlinks won’t kill your position in search results. It takes a whole bunch of bad backlinks to do that. There are things called link farms that can provide all those backlinks, and people practicing negative SEO use them to a great effect.

A link farm is a hub of interconnected websites, linked to each other to increase all the sites’ positions in search results. Once a fairly innocent way to increase site performance, people would purchase links from these websites, sit back, and enjoy their easily obtained ranking improvement.

But then, Google’s search algorithms were updated, and anyone who continued to engage in such artificial link building techniques, saw their site get pushed to the bottom of the search results. That’s when link farms became a tool of negative SEO.

Now, since everyone knows the damage that a bunch of spammy backlinks can cause, people use them as a way to hurt your site’s rankings. The backlinks that were once used for positive SEO purposes are now being sold to people who want to attack your site and hurt your business.

Duplicated content is really bad for SEO

Duplicating Your Content

Most website owners strive to create unique content because they know it’s favored when search engines rank their site.

When you write an original article for your site and publish it, no other site has that text, so it’s viewed as unique content. But what if someone takes that article and publishes it on other websites? Now, your article is no less original, but to search engines, it’s not unique anymore.

While search engines are capable of detecting content duplication, and they may be able to identify your site as the original source, you can’t count on it. If the duplicated version gets indexed before yours, it’s your content that will be seen as the duplicate, and links to it will plummet in search results.

Removing Your Best Backlinks

While a high number of sites linking to yours can improve your SEO, Google also goes to great lengths to determine the value of your backlinks. Factors weighed include things like the linking site’s authority, the link’s context, and for how long the link has been published.  Backlinks that meet the requirements are seen by search engines as high-quality links and count more when they rank your site.

It’s those high-performance backlinks that negative SEO experts will go after!

Executing a particularly ugly form of negative SEO attack, someone can get your most effective backlinks removed. The person doing it to you will contact the owner of the site that hosts the link and request that the link is removed. Coming up with a reason that sounds legitimate isn’t that hard, and that’s how people trick site owners into believing it’s a valid request.

Posting False Reviews

Earning a respectable number of positive reviews is the key to local SEO. If you can get your number of good reviews in the double and triple digits, you’re bound to see a jump in your search rankings.

While search engines reward sites that have positive reviews with a high ranking, they punish sites that have a lot of bad reviews. Negative SEO specialists know that, so they use bots to create a flood of bad reviews, sending your site to the bottom of search results.

Experts in negative SEO employ unethical tactics intended to sabotage a business' search engine rankings

Crawling Your Site to Slow It Down

A heavy server load can drastically slow your site down. Performance could get so bad that the site crashes. If that happened because of a legitimate spike in business, you could see it as a good thing, increase your bandwidth, and move on.

Sadly, a sales rush is rarely the reason behind a sudden drain on web server resources. It’s far more likely to be someone crawling your site.

Running frequent crawls of a website is an important part of keeping it at peak performance, but it’s a huge resource drain. Hackers will figure out ways to continuously crawl your site, burdening the server to the point that it slows way down or crashes.

Crawling is also how Google organizes your site in its search index. If Google can’t crawl your site because it’s too slow, that can negatively affect your ranking.

Hacking Your Site

A more complicated form of negative SEO involves people trying to hurt your search engine rankings from within your website. Once they have access, there’s all sorts of trouble they can cause.

One thing they’ll do is alter your content, and they’ll be tricky about it, hiding spammy links on your website as invisible text. No one will see it unless they look in the HTML, but search engines will spot it and penalize you.

Another tactic is to modify your robots.txt file as a way to get your site deindexed. By simply adding a disallow rule, hackers can tell Google to ignore your website. They may also change your redirects, so that visitors will be sent to your competitor’s site instead of yours.

These negative SEO scenarios can be a real thorn in the side of an average small business owner, but there are things you can do to protect yourself, as covered in the next section.

How to stay away from negative SEO

Image credit: Pop Web Design

Responding to Negative SEO

This section provides a convenient table that lists all the types of negative SEO we’ve discussed with corresponding prevention steps and recovery tips.

Negative SEO Tactic Prevention Recovery
Creating Untrustworthy Backlinks Monitor your backlinks with tools like Ahrefs. Also, you should consistently monitor link profile growth with a tool like SEO SpyGlass, which graphs the number of links in your profile. That makes it easy to spot a weird spike, which will tip you off to any unsavory backlinks you have gained recently. If you see backlinks that you don’t like, have them removed. Contact the webmaster and make your request, or you can reach out to the company that’s hosting the website. If you first identify yourself as the owner of the linked-to site, most companies will cooperate and remove the bad links.

If that doesn’t work, you can disavow the links. Google provides the Disavow Tool where you can identify the offending link, effectively asking that the search engine stop factoring that web page into your site’s search engine profile.

Duplicating Your Content A vigilant ongoing search for copied content is the key to preventing this form of negative SEO from having any real impact. You can use tools like Copyscape.com to track down your stolen content. You simply enter the URL of your content and the tool will present a report that lists every other instance of that content on the web.

Find your stolen content early. That way, you can have it removed and regain the rankings that your original content earned.

When you come across your content on someone else’s site, have it taken down. You should get in touch with the webmaster or the company that hosts the site and request that the content is removed. If necessary, use the WHOIS directory to find the right person to contact.

If you can’t get the duplicate content removed, you can submit a Google DMCA request, which will instruct Google to exclude links to the stolen content in search results. DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and it’s one of the most powerful tools at your disposal when defending your intellectual property rights.

Removing Your Best Backlinks It’s critical to preserve your highest-quality backlinks. You should regularly verify that they’re still there. Tools like Monitor Backlinks can be a huge help. If one of your highest-performing backlinks disappears, contact the site owner. Don’t be surprised if they tell you the link was removed at your request. That’s when you can explain to them that the person who requested the link removal lied about their identity. Once you clear up the misunderstanding, the linking site owner will probably replace the backlink.
Posting False Reviews Set up a weekly review of your Google My Business listing. If you’ve been a victim of this type of negative SEO attack, the evidence will jump out at you. You’ll see multiple negative reviews, and they’ll probably seem bot-created—

all one-star, with a single word like “Bad” or “No.”

Creating fake reviews goes against Google’s policy. When you find a fake review of your business, report it to Google to have it flagged for removal.
Crawling Your Site to Slow It Down Preventing this form of SEO attack involves regularly monitoring your site performance. If you see it drop and you don’t know why, your hosting company will be able to look into it and tell you where the increased load is from.  Whether you’re handy with server logs or you get help, once the offending crawlers have been identified, it’s simple to block them with robots.txt and .htaccess.
Hacking Your Site The best way to repel hackers is by beefing up your website’s security. Install the Google Authenticator Plugin to set up two-step password verification. Create a strong password. Install antivirus software to prevent malware. A tool like WebSite Auditor will help you spot changes, like an increase in outgoing links. If your site is the victim of a bogus redirect, deindexing, or any other form of negative SEO in which the perpetrator gained access to your website, correct the problem fast, then remove the access that allowed the hacking to occur in the first place.

If you fall prey to negative SEO, you know who’s doing it, but you can’t make them stop, it might be time to hire an attorney. Send a cease-and-desist letter to the offender or their hosting company. It can be very effective in getting the results you’re after. A lawyer can help you draft the letter and will be there to file a lawsuit if necessary.

This is how you can prevent negative SEO

Positively Eliminate the Effects of Negative SEO

We’ve looked at what negative SEO is and how people wage negative SEO attacks. There’s no getting around it, negative SEO is a lousy thing to have to put up with. But if you take certain precautions, you can minimize your chances of becoming a victim. 

And, if someone does succeed in sabotaging your search engine rankings, you don’t have to take it. The tactics are easy to detect, so you can squash them before any real damage is done.

Have you ever been a victim of negative SEO?

María Bustillos

María is an enthusiast of cinema, literature and digital communication. As Content Coordinator at HostPapa, she focuses on the publication of content for the blog and social networks, organizing the translations, as well as writing and editing articles for the KB.

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