What is negative SEO and how do you avoid it?

by bold-lichterman

Hackers have their Trojans. Sneaky SEOs have their techniques to try to get Google to penalize their rivals in the market. This is called negative SEO and it is a formidable weapon that can act both on the positioning of your site and on your reputation. Here’s how to prevent it.

What is negative SEO?

Did you know about Black Hat SEO, the practice of artificially increasing a site’s ranking in search engine results? Here is now negative SEO, which draws on Black Hat methods to try to bring down the position of a competitor site, by making the victim of Google penalties.

Commonly, there are two Black Hat techniques used in negative SEO. The first is that of duplicate content, a method that aims to manipulate the positioning of the competitor site. For example, imagine that an SEO manages to duplicate the content of your page by copying the content to another page. Hop, Google spots it and penalizes the sites that host the duplicate content. You should know that for Google, duplicate content is nothing more than plagiarism! And heavily sanctioned plagiarism, what’s more …

The other technique is that of toxic bonds. This NSEO attack is terrifying because it can have dramatic consequences on your positioning, as it involves pushing Google to penalize a site by creating negative backlinks that point to it. The risk is the Penguin penalty, a nightmare for SEOs. Over the course of Penguin’s updates, Google is also trying to mitigate the threats that this sanction poses to sites that are victims of a negative SEO campaign (a possibility that Google has taken some time to admit). Wondering what it looks like? Here is a “beautiful” example of negative SEO which is based on the technique of toxic bonds.

Help, I’m inundated with toxic bonds!

Although it takes time and resources, the negative SEO technique of toxic links is quite simple to implement, because it is often robots that automatically generate these links. The targeting of sites is random and can lead, in the majority of cases, to a mass addition of NoFollow links in comments. As NoFollow has no SEO weight, it’s a lesser evil. Okay, but your anchor profile is tainted and so is the cleanliness of your link profile. Also, if the robot manages to post comments on sites that allow DoFollow links, the case is much more serious. It is your positioning and your reputation that are at great risk.

Let us take a concrete case. Let’s put your page in first position on the query “four cheese pizza”. To force Google to penalize you, an SEO will go to any site and post a comment, with an optimized “four cheese pizza” anchor, and a link to your page. That’s all: an optimized anchor, always the same, and a bogus comment like “very interesting article”.

The process is repeated on as many sites as possible, regardless of their theme: culture, news, cooking, science, angling, video games, etc. This is what Google calls “forum comments including optimized links in the post or signature”, and it comes under the Penguin penalty. You just have to hope that these links are in NoFollow, failing to be caught in the anti-spam nets. But that unfortunately depends on the site settings.

One day, you open your Analytics tool to see the sources of the clicks generated by your backlinks, and you come across some very strange referring domains. Usually, these areas are more related to pizza, catering, even Italian gastronomy; but there, high-tech sites mingle with beauty blogs. A few more searches are enough to see that these are toxic links that your site would have done well.

Meanwhile, Google Penguin is on the prowl, and on the next update you might see your site plummet in the results. In addition, readers who click on these links have a good chance of being disappointed because the page in question has nothing to do with the article being commented on. Also, webmasters do not appreciate this kind of techniques. Black Hat SEO, very little for them. You end up with a list of emails to kindly (or not) let you know that spamming other people’s sites isn’t going to do you much good, and rightly so.

Negative SEO, positioning and reputation

The risk represented by negative SEO, in reality, is twofold. To the possible drop in your positioning, which is bad enough, we must add a more insidious consequence: the bad reputation. The Web is no longer “the unpretentious village” sung by George Brassens: it is a rich and varied world in which information is disseminated at full speed, especially if it is negative. Generally, it even tends to spread all the faster the pejorative it is.

However, it is still possible to point out to Google the existence of those annoying backlinks that you don’t want. The big danger is your reputation, which could be tarnished by this attack by letting the community think that you are ready to use the most questionable techniques to obtain results.

Note, all the same, that it is commonly accepted that negative SEO has less impact (if at all) on a high-profile site, if it is permanently installed in the landscape and that it does not is not used to breaking Google rules. Rather, it is still young sites that are considered to be at risk.

How to defend against negative SEO?

In war, the best defense, they say, is attack. However, this statement does not apply to SEO, because an attack strategy would amount to using negative SEO against those who try to harm you. What you want is not to shoot down your belligerents, but to circumvent the consequences of their nuisances. Here are two methods to combat toxic bonds.

The cleaning phase

Start by listing all the links created during the negative SEO attack to make sure you remove them all. To be effective, this procedure requires daily verification with dedicated tools (Ahrefs, Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer, Backlink Watch or others). Concretely, it is a question of listing the referring domains where the links were posted and of contacting them one by one to ask them to delete the offending comment. We just have to hope that the pages on which the links were posted are “real”, animated by webmasters of flesh and blood.

While waiting for the deletion to take effect, use the tool Disavow Tool from Google which allows you to disavow a link pointing to your site. That way, the search engine will not take it into account and you will at least avoid seeing your positioning suffer from this attack while waiting for the conclusion of your cleaning phase.

GIF 1

The communication phase

Now move on to the counterattack: Does anyone want to damage your reputation? You will therefore ensure that it is protected. Take the time to notify your community of the negative SEO action that has been taken against you, via an explanatory tweet, a post on Facebook, etc.

You can also write a blog post and post it on your site, to tell about this experience and ensure that it is shared as much as possible within the community. It is, moreover, an effective method of prophylaxis: you help your colleagues and friends to protect themselves against a possible NSEO attack.

The object of the game is to reassure your community about your SEO techniques, which you intend to keep clean. No, you didn’t suddenly choose the dark side of the Force!

GIF 2

We can only hope that Google develops more effective methods to combat these abuses, which is not a given given the success of certain Black Hat strategies. And fingers crossed that as many sites as possible opt for extensions that block spam.

Andrea BensaidAndrea Bensaid is the founder of the SEO agency Eskimoz, based in Paris and with 10 years of SEO experience. He supports businesses of all sizes in their web visibility strategy. Find it on:

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