Some people will do anything to beat their competitors – even if it means cheating and peeking at people’s shoes under the desk. That was in your school days,but competitive streak can still result in conflicts in the SEO world too.
Digital marketing also suffers no shortage of creative villains who are willing to bring down competitors that have worked hard enough to make their site visible in search engines and resultant been rewarded with crazy conversions and sales.
As a suite of tactics, the use of negative SEO has been around since the industry began. However, the dark arts of SEO used today have become even more sophisticated as the marketers who hire them are often well-informed. Luckily, Google too has become more advanced and is able to deal ruthlessly with those that try these kinds of underhand methods.
With there being so much talk lately regarding negative SEO, you might want to keep yourself in the know to ensure you understand what you need to do in case of an attack on your site. This knowledge can be life-saving especially if you’re dealing with a site that brings you the most income to your basket.
This article will shed some light on various aspects of negative SEO including its description, how to know when you’ve been hit by an attack, and most importantly what to do to recover your site.
What is Negative SEO?
Negative SEO involves all types of activities carried out by someone with the intention of lowering your site rankings in search engines. This can happen in numerous ways,although the common types of negative SEO attacks are link-based. This means interfering with your link building process to make it look unnatural in the eyes of Google and ultimately earning you an unfair penalty.
But you may ask, how does negative SEO work?
Well, we already know that Google penalizes a site if it engages in certain malpractices including what it terms as one of the gravest – manipulative link building. This may result in unnatural links penalty at the hands of Google Penguin algorithm.
In an interesting twist, Google does not admit that negative SEO is easily executable arguing that there’s a very slim chance of getting any such attack affecting your rankings on its search engine results.Sure, it requires a significant amount of time, resources and ability to execute a successful attack against another website. However, brushing it aside as something webmasters shouldn’t worry about a lot is not Google’s best advice to date. Negative SEO attacks occur quite rarely but still do and learning what you can do to overcome them should be encouraged, even by search engines.
Considering that anyone can link to anyone without reason, Google doesn’t penalize you for obtaining links from sites you don’t have contacts with. In essence, the bigger your website gets, the more random links it obtains and the less value Google puts on them.
However, should Google notice a pattern in your link building, whether initiated by you or coming from a source they believe to be you, you’re likely to suffer a penalty and ultimately a significant drop in your rankings.
Warning Signs You’ve Been Hit by Negative SEO
If you’ve spotted a change in your SEO performance recently, then the following warning signs could signify you’ve fallen victim to negative SEO tactics.
- Change in on-site appearance
This is easily the clearest warning that someone is interfering with your website and possibly its SEO. Try to identify whether there’s a shift in its overall design, content placement, and change of navigation bar settings. The reason behind this is often a goal by your competition (usually a hacker) to change your on-site content. As a result, Google may think that you have published something totally unrelated to what you’re currently ranking for and therefore decreases your site ranking through a penalty. Another reason that could cause the changes in on-site appearance is when one of your team members has made changes without alerting you.
- Unable to sign in to your web hosting account
Another warning sign to look out for is when you can’t log into your CMS or web hosting user account. Experts of negative SEO may hack either or both of these places to give them significant control of your site before they can perform a successful negative SEO campaign. So, if you notice that you can’t log on to these crucial accounts, an attack could be in the offing.
- Spammy links in your back link profile
Backlinks emanating froman irrelevant site is another signal of a negative SEO attack. If you have spotted a bunch of new and low-quality links to your profile (such as porn and gambling links), there is a huge possibility that you’ve been hit by an SEO attack.
- Zero indexed pages in Google
Do you know how many ranking pages your website has on search results? If unsure, take some minutes to conduct thorough research of your website by using the search command “site:yoursiteurl.com” on Google.This will give you a comprehensive list of all pages that are currently indexed by Google.
If your site has, say 100 pages, but Google has indexed only a couple of them, then it may be a sign of a potential negative SEO attack.
Common Negative SEO Tactics
- Illegal Content Duplication
Web scrapping has over the last few years become more advanced than ever. Now, all one needs to do to get a complete copy of your content is to point a scraper to your site. After your content has been copied, it’s then uploaded on another site rather illegally. Obviously, this can have a systematic effect on your site.
First, your traffic will likely reduce as search engines will some of the targeted incoming traffic to the new website containing your content. The impact of this will tend to be higher if the duplicating website employs other tactics like keyword stuffing which often brings in significant results albeit in the short term.
The second and most damaging effect of illegal content duplication shows up when Google recognizes duplicated content during crawling and indexing. Normally, Google’s system will only index one copy of the reproduced content which means if the copying website gets theirs indexed before yours, your site is likely to be penalized for duplicated content.
- Forceful Crawling
Forceful crawling is another negative tactic that bases its concept on the fact that web hosting will always place limitations on a site’s computing power allocation. What these attacks do is to introduce an illegal crawling service that’s masked in order to use up all the bandwidth allocated to your site. As a result, your site slows down and your site loading speed suffers.What’s more, it stifles other critical services like Google’s indexing crawlers to leave most parts of your site crawled.
The bandwidth used up by such illegal crawling makes your site unresponsive and gives it slow loading speeds which discourage your customers from accessing your services. Your host might even conclude that your site is abusing the fair usage policy especially if you are on the shared hosting platform. This will trigger a take-down of your website.
- Deploying spam links
Link farms serve to increase traffic by linking several web pages to another page (in this case your site) in order to drive up oncoming traffic from these other pages. The blackhat version of this service will do more harm than good and is devastatingly efficient due to its numerous deployment options.
For example, the attacker may decide to create a network of low-quality link farms;these sites normally generate low-quality traffic that’s not even related to your site’s services. They can also include your optimized anchor text without your permission. The links are then used to spam your site with irrelevant keywords such as ‘porn’ thus driving down your relevant keywords ranking. If Google detects that these spammy links are artificially increasing your site’s traffic, your site could be penalized thus affecting your overall ranking.
- Fake social media profiles
Social media accounts are notorious for spreading links quickly. This plus the freedom to create accounts as one wishes has led to the rise of social media backed blackhat campaigns targeting specific websites. The trick lies in creating fake social media profiles and using them to spread malicious links. In the end, these profiles completely diverts your site’s inbound traffic to other sites or stink bombs your site with misguiding links and completely fabricated content including non-existing promotions. Google Algorithm automatically penalizes websites that use such means to obtain traffic or inflate their ranking.
Such fake social media profiles can also be used to ruin your brand’s online reputation by posting inappropriate content to your potential audience.
- Content and code changes
Gone are the days when one could comfortably say that their site is safe and secure. Even while using security tools, there’s still a chance that your website or your host has a day-zero vulnerability that’s yet to be discovered. This plus the ever-increasing number of illegal scripts out there offer hackers the perfect opportunity to take control of your site. They can then make changes to your code without your consent or knowledge including affecting your site’s traffic flow.
Remember those red screen warnings that show up when you try to access an unsecured site? Well, that’s what search engines do to sites that have been identified as having been hacked and thus not secure. This barge of humiliation can kill your site’s following in just a few hours as no one will be willing to proceed to a site giving such a scary warning.
- Removing your best backlinks without your consent
Negative SEO tactics rely on social engineering to effectively play around with target sites. A blackhat technique that’s been doing rounds for a while now involves impersonating you, and then contacting the websites that provide quality backlinks to your site and requesting them to remove them. While this might not get you penalized by Google, it will have a similar effect; your site will lose traffic hence its ranking and consequently your earnings from the site.
- Linking with toxic domains
Toxic domains are those that have already been penalized due to past history of engaging in malpractices like manipulative SEO. By taking advantage of an indexing service, one of your competitors may link a toxic domain to your site without your knowledge. As a result, the redirected domain will point to your site and consequently extend its penalty to your domain.
How to Protect Your Website from Negative SEO
If your site has just recently been hit with a negative SEO attack, then this is possibly the section you’ve been looking forward to as you try recovering it after the hit. While the process is never the easiest depending on the extent and nature of negative SEO directed to your site, recovery is completely doable.
We cover some of the most effective recovery methods you can employ for your site’s negative SEO management.
- Use Google Webmaster Tools email alerts
When it comes to negative SEO, prompt actions can mean everything if you’re to salvage your site from complete ruin. As such, getting information regarding any changes happening to it in real-time should be a priority for you.
A simple yet effective way to gather this crucial information is by using Google’s Webmaster Tools which, if set properly, can provide you with the following alerts:
- Server connectivity issues
- Site penalty
- Attack on your website
- Lack of page indexation
As you can see, most of these issues can serve as signs of a negative SEO and therefore when managed early enough can enable you fight off a potential attack.
So, how do you get automatic notifications on activities and changes happening on your website? Assuming you’ve already connected it to a Google Webmaster Tools account, you only need to log on to the account and hit on “Webmaster Tools Preferences.” You can then choose to receive “All issues” and enable email notifications then click ‘save.’
- Secure your site from hackers and malware
When it comes to internet marketing, security is extremely crucial and should never be overlooked. Remember, a single lethal malware attack is enough to claim all of your site’s data in a flash.
However, securing your site can easily be done in a few easy but effective steps.
If you run a WordPress site, the first thing you need to do is to install the Google Authentication Plugin which allows you to create a 2-step verification for passwords.This means every person trying to log on to your site has to receive a unique code generated by Google to get access the site.
Google recommends that you create a strong password that combines numbers and special characters and make a habit of creating backups regularly. For sites that allow users to upload files, there’s a need for an antivirus to stop malware attacks.
Find a detailed guide on site security and the tools you can use to secure it here.
- Keep track of your backlinks
If you need to keep spammers off your website, keep checking for any changes in your backlink profile. Most of the tricksters will perform a negative SEO attack by directing low-quality links to your site. As a result, you need to be aware when someone is creating redirects to you.
You can observe your incoming link using Webmaster Tools or a variety of link audit tools that can help you identify harmful links. One of these tools is Monitorbacklinks.com which sends you email alerts when your website records any changes in its backlinks makeup. The tool is important because you do not need to check the backlink profile each morning – it keeps you updated. You can you other seo tools like Ahrefs to monitor your back-links Profile
With Monitorbacklinks.com, you just need to create an account which will ask for a domain and connect it with Google Analytics. Though the tool may take some time to compile your data, you’ll get a list of all backlinks pointing to your website when you click the Backlinks tab on its dashboard.
If you spot hundreds or thousands of links, you need to look for sites not indexed by Google, flagged backlinks with a warning sign, sites with a spam score above 3, and those having over 100 external links on the page. The tool is set to send you email notifications whenever your site records new backlinks.
Links from one of the following is almost always frowned upon by Google and other search engines:
- Link farms
- Irrelevant websites like betting sites
- Private Blog Networks (PBN)
- Websites with high spam scores (>3)
The important thing to remember is that Google uses backlinks for reputation – they determine how trustworthy your site is. Google’s goal is to offer high-quality links and relevant answers to questions by users. As such, you need to avoid associating with the bad guys on the internet as that puts your website at risk of a Google penalty.
- Removing the low-quality links
Google recommends that you send a request to them to have any bad links removed from your site’s link profile. On the other hand, you can try sending polite emails to owners of the sites sending these links to and ask them to remove or perhaps adda “nofollow” attribute to them. For higher success using this method, ensure that your email states who you are, your position, the page in which you found the links, a deadline for removal, and contact info.
If the parties ask you to pay to remove the link or show any kind of refusal, go ahead to make a disavow request to Google.
- Creating a disavow file
If the deadline you set on the links to be removed by particular site is not met, the next step to follow is to create a disavow file. With this method, you’re telling Google that you do not want to associate your website with some of the links pointing to your site.
Google gives webmasters the power to disavow links but warns that its tool needs to be used appropriately. You need to only disavow links that are negatively affecting your website. One or two links from websites of a different industry should not worry you, even if they look strange. For instance, a link with anchor text of a gambling site is probably designed to hurt you unlike one with the text “read this.”
A simple breakdown of how to use a disavow tool entails coming up with a list of all oncoming links that you think are doing your site more bad than good. You can arrange them in a spread sheet, outlining whether you need to disavow specific URLs or entire domains.
Thereafter, paste these domains/URLs in a notepad and perhaps add additional comments for your reference in the future. When you’re sure everything is correctly recorded, you can now go ahead to upload your disavow file in your Webmaster Account.
You should be able to see the effects in a couple days or weeks after Google has removed the bad links from your site. For more information the disavow process, click here.
- Protect your best backlinks
As mentioned earlier, spammers could choose to target your best backlinks. A simple way they do it is by faking your profile and contacting owners of websites from where oncoming links originate asking them to remove your backlink.
You can do two things to prevent this:
- Always use an email address associated with your domain name when talking to webmasters and not the common ones like Gmail or Yahoo. This is proof that you are the one talking and not someone else impersonating you. Emails from domains look like [email protected].
- Use tools like Ahref that help you monitor your site’s backlinks so you can keep track of your best links. Should you notice any odd activities happening around your links, be sure to contact webmasters owning sites where your quality links are and notify them of these latest developments so they can ignore communications from unauthorized parties.
- Use Copyscape for content duplication attacks
In case you experienced reduced organic search visibility or a drop in SERPs, it could be a case of content duplication negative SEO. Here, competitors copy and paste your content, word-for-word and publish it on another site. This confuses Google as both sites are talking about the same thing. In some cases, Google may decide to punish both sites by making them share the ranking power. Even worse, duplicated content reduces authority and may lead to your site being removed entirely from Google index.
To recover from content duplication negative SEO attack, you can use Copyscape to know who has duplicated your content. An easy way to do this is by putting the URL of your page on the Copyscape search box to find out other URLs with the same content. If needed, you may have to create new and unique content or report the new site to its web host or DCMA for a copyright infringement.
Once done with the overhaul, you need to report the site to Google so that it’s aware of their negative SEO and punish them rather than you. This kind of negative SEO is impossible to prevent since your website content stays public.
- Take a keen look on your social media mentions
It’s not uncommon for spammers and other bad guys to create fake accounts of your brand or website name. In most cases, they will try to steal your audience and conduct smear campaigns geared towards soiling your reputation.
Try to remove these profiles by reporting them as spam before they take your followers. If you also need to know other people using your brand name, use tools such as mention.com. This tool notifies you when someone mentions your name on social media or website for you to decide whether to take action.
To begin this process, create an account on Mention.com and hit the “create alert” option. Name the alert and be specific on the keywords you need to be monitored.
This tool allows you to use multiple languages. You also have the option to specify the sources you need to follow. The good thing is you don’t have to deal with alerts for every mention, because you can add the domains you would like this tool to ignore. Lastly, click the “create my alert” button to confirm the keywords and alerts for your company name in social media, blogs, news,and forums.
- Monitor your site’s up time
Is your website taking too long to load yet you haven’t added anything to it just recently? Try to ensure that it’s not because someone is sending thousands of request to your server. Consider acting with urgency to prevent spammers from succeeding in putting down your server.
There are numerous tools to help you in monitoring your website loading time, one being Pingdom.com. This tool gives you alerts when your website goes down or if under attack. You need to create your account and activate email alerts to get notifications regarding any activities that could be interfering with up time.
If you notice persistent down times and can’t understand what could be causing it, contact your hosting provider; they might be in a better position to explain causal factors and how they can help.
- Be cautious about your own SEO strategies
As noted earlier, negative SEO could occur due to your own doing. You need to keep an eye on your techniques to avoid being a victim of a Google penalty. Below are some of the things you need to avoid:
- Do not link to penalized websites
- Do not use too many low-quality links; focus on quality over quantity
- Avoid using your site around money keywords and anchor texts alone. Make sure that at least 60% of your anchor texts has your website name (brand anchor texts).
- Never sell links on your website without the “nofollow” attributes.
- Avoid buying links for SEO and if you have to, steer clear from “private” blog networks sellers.