SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)
Charlotte Tomlinson

Digital Marketing Manager working on SEO, PPC, content and paid social media campaigns

What is negative SEO? How do you spot it and protect your website from it? These questions and more are answered in our guide to negative SEO in 2017.

Negative SEO is a topic that regularly comes up on digital marketing blogs, on Twitter and in SEO forums.  But does it still happen in 2017 and if so, should you be worried about it?

Before answering these questions, let’s first of all take a look at what negative SEO actually is, and the kind of tactics it uses.

What Is Negative SEO?

Boiled down to its key concept, negative SEO is the act of carrying out black hat and unethical practices against a competitor website with the explicit intention of sabotage by getting them penalised by Google. This, in theory, allows a site to rise above their competitor.

The Most Common Negative SEO Tactics

Negative SEO attacks can take a number of different forms, both off-page and on-page. The below list is in no way exhaustive but it will give you an overview of the most common forms of negative SEO.

Off-page negative SEO is essentially trying to wreck a website’s backlink profile. There are a few techniques used to do this, such as:

  • Creating hundreds or even thousands of spammy links to a website. This typically involves the use of link farms such as a PBN (private blog network) which is a network of sites created solely for link building. Attackers try to carry out negative SEO by linking to their target website from the link farm. Google then flags the target site for potentially being involved in spam activity. The attacker might also make things worse by using exact match anchor text for your target keywords to make your link profile look even more spammy.
  • Trying to get your best backlinks removed. This is a particularly sneaky form of negative SEO that has been around for a while. Some webmasters claim to have received emails asking for links to be removed despite there being no reason for them to do so because they are within Google’s guidelines. The following email is an example of the type of message that might be sent out:

Dear Webmaster,

Our client’s site x has links on your page y.

Due to recent changes in google’s algorithm we no longer require these links and request that you remove them.

Thank you,
Some SEO Company

Some on-page methods include:

  • Hacking your website so the attackers can modify your content by adding spammy links for example, or redirecting your pages to theirs. This isn’t a threat for most small businesses, but if your site enjoys high authority and link popularity, it could be someone’s sneaky way of increasing their own site’s authority. They may simply redirect visitors to their site when they try to access yours.
  • Creating false duplicate content. This essentially involves copying your content and distributing it onto various other websites, often multiple times. You may think that Google Panda would be able to combat this, and that Google is smart enough to realise where the content originated from. Well, they are but if the scraped copy gets indexed before the original, that’s when problems can occur.

How To Spot A Negative SEO Attack

There are a few things to look out for which could signify that a negative SEO attack has taken place on your site. Of course, all of these could also be signs that you have been carrying out unsavoury SEO practices yourself. However, if you are confident that you have never used any black hat SEO techniques, and you notice any of the following, it’s definitely time to investigate!

  • Manual Penalty Notification. This is the most obvious sign that you have been penalised by Google because they have detected activity which is against their Quality Guidelines. They will notify you by sending you a direct message in Google Search Console. Google penalties can also be algorithmic, and you’ll only spot these when you notice a drop in your traffic or rankings.

negative seo

  • A sudden drop in organic traffic is a key sign. Regularly monitor your site traffic in Google Analytics, and if you spot any drastic falls, it’s time to investigate.
  • Drops in individual keyword rankings go hand in hand with reduced traffic. It’s a good idea to track your rankings for your main keywords using a ranking tracker such as Authority Labs. They should remain pretty static (or hopefully steadily improve!) – so if you notice them nose-diving then that’s a cause for concern.
  • Removed links. With regards to link removals, if you check in Ahrefs, for instance, the report will tell you any backlinks which have been removed. There could be a perfectly acceptable reason for a removal, such as deleting a page or a content update. However, if you are losing links and there are no obvious reasons why, this could be a sign of negative SEO.

What Should You Do If You Believe You’ve Been Affected?

Unfortunately, it’s hard to actively prevent a negative SEO attack if someone is very determined. However, as long as you remain vigilant and act quickly if you spot anything untoward, then you can mitigate any adverse effects. What you do next depends on what you suspect has taken place.

  • If you notice spam links, the best thing you can do is reach out to the sites and request them to remove the links. Make a record of your attempt to do this. If you’ve received a manual penalty, you will also need to submit a reconsideration request to Google. Look out for:
    • A significant number of new links that are uncharacteristic of the website
    • Lots of links with exact-match anchor text for competitive keywords
    • Links from low authority domains or low quality blogs that could be in blog networks
    • Anything that looks dodgy! Use your common sense…
  • When removing links isn’t possible, submit a disavow file using the Disavow Links Tool. You can also use the Bing Disavow Tool. This will essentially tell Google and Bing to discount the links when assessing your site.
  • For links that have been removed, reach out to the sites in question and ask them why the links were removed, and get them to reinstate them if possible.
  • It’s also a good idea to inform search engines about webspam. To report webspam to Google, use this form. Google also has a form that allows you to report paid links. Although not all links that are done for negative SEO are paid for, you could technically use this form to report low-quality websites that are buying links and therefore performing negative SEO against you.
  • You can use Copyscape to help you stay safe from scrapers. Just enter the URL of your content to discover whether there are any copies of it out there. If you find copies you could contact the site and ask them to remove the content, or you could report it to Google via their copyright infringement report.
  • With regards to hacking, protecting your site is worth a whole blog post in itself. This resource from Google should be your first port of call if you think you’ve been hacked. There are also various guides out there on how to help protect your site from being hacked. Check this one out.

What Does Google Have To Say About Negative SEO?

Google has consistently played down the potential threat of negative SEO. Back in 2012, Matt Cutts stated that with the introduction of the Disavow Links tool, negative SEO is, at worst, an annoyance. While Google acknowledges that negative SEO attacks can and do happen, they insist that they are uncommon and that they are able to weed out culprits. They also advise webmasters to be vigilant and to report instances of web spam and use the Disavow Tool where necessary.

Having said that, Google’s stance on negative SEO has subtly changed over the years. At one point they stated that there is “almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index,” and later said “Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” While Google does acknowledge that negative SEO can happen, they insist that they have the requisite measures in place to deal with it.

Is Negative SEO Still Taking Place in 2017?

In 2017, there are still regular reports from webmasters that believe negative SEO has been carried out against them. Here is one example:

negative seo

Other examples have cropped up too. Recently, Wix wrote a blog on how they believe negative SEO was used against them during their SEO Hero contest in order to make them slip down the rankings. There are also numerous other case studies and examples that have been flagged (although many don’t have 100% solid proof that negative SEO has taken place). All in all though, the evidence suggests that negative SEO does still happen in 2017.

Finally, Should You Be Worried About It?

Marie Haynes wrote a very helpful blog post back in 2014 that still holds true. In it, she insists that “for the vast majority of you who are reading this post, you DO NOT NEED TO WORRY ABOUT NEGATIVE SEO”. Her opinion is that only sites in very competitive, high-money niches such as casinos, payday loans, insurance etc are likely to be affected by a link-based negative SEO attack. Also, sites which have previously carried out unnatural and manipulative link building may be more likely to fall victim of an attack. Google finds it harder to tell the difference between their own unnatural links and the attack links on such sites.

Either way, regularly checking your backlinks, ensuring your site hasn’t been hacked, checking that your content isn’t being scraped and exercising due diligence, like submitting disavow files for bad links, is common sense for any webmaster. Doing these things means that (hopefully!) you’ll have no reason to be worried about negative SEO.

6 responses to “A Guide to Negative SEO In 2017”

  1. Robert Deans says:

    This is such a hot topic at the moment, it really has split the SEO community right down the middle. Google’s Pierre Far has said categorically that bad links do not carry any negative weight, however Danny Sullivan claims Pierre is mistaken and that links can carry negative weight!

    • Thanks for the comment Rob, Negative SEO is definitely a hot topic at the moment. No-one seems to have come up with any real concrete evidence at the moment (unless someone can point me in the direction of some) that proves that Negative SEO is possible. I think that any site that has an already dubious link profile could be a fairly easy target. The fact that Google is going full out on this and with sites dropping from the index not long after the warning shows that they aren’t messing around.

      If Negative SEO is possible at the moment Google needs to be addressing it fast before we become polluted with companies that offer to get you to number one by blasting spammy links at the competitors above your site

  2. I reckon there are 2 parts to the “negative SEO” story: getting punished for black hat SEO activities that you have been doing yourself, and then black hat activities inflicted upon you by your competitors as a campaign of SEO Sabotage. It is the latter that is worthy of some further discussion here.

    Wayne’s blog post has generated a number of phone calls into the office (thanks, Wayne…) that would appear to identify certain sectors that may appear to be subject to these Negative SEO Sabotage attacks.

    Pay Day Loans
    ———————–

    One example worth investigating further might websites optimising for the key phrase “Pay Day Loans”

    It’s a unimaginably lucrative business, lending money at 1737%. And it is truly an “anything goes” industry, particularly for high earning affiliates. Make money now, get the rankings and don’t worry about long term consequences.

    Of course it is impossible to tell whether long standing pay day loan companies are crashing out of the results because of their own black hat activities, or because of competitive SEO sabotage, but the phone calls into the office are claiming sabotage.

    Rand Fishkin has produced a whiteboard about this topic, and his advice is if you are under competitive attack (lousy link building, fake Google reviews, etc) then be sure to inform Google Webmaster tools.
    http://www.seomoz.org/blog/negative-seo-myths-realities-and-precautions-whiteboard-friday

  3. Ian says:

    Hi!! Thank you for this, great article
    I dealt with it few month ago. I got hundreds of weird Indian backlinks from my competitors.
    SerpStat and Disavow saved me. Do you approve these tools?

    • Charlotte Tomlinson Charlotte Tomlinson says:

      Hi Ian!

      Thanks for your comment – I’m glad you found my post useful 🙂
      Sorry to hear you suspect you were subjected to a negative SEO attack. The Disavow tool is a life-saver in those situations!
      I must admit I’ve never used SerpStat before, but I’d be interested to hear about your experience with it. I tend to use Search Console, OSE and Ahrefs to get a full list of all a site’s backlinks.

  4. The idea that somebody could actually care enough about my website to attack it with negative SEO is ludicrous, but thanks for keeping me informed. Just in case.

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