By now, every digital marketer understands what search engine optimization (SEO) is all about, and with good reason.
SEO is an essential part of running a successful business in the digital age, as it’s the key to making sure your customers can find your products, services, and content.
But there’s a darker side to SEO, too — a side you might not be aware of until you’re already experiencing the consequences.
Negative SEO is an aggressive tactic that unscrupulous marketers may use to sabotage a competitor.
Here’s what you need to know to ensure it doesn’t take a bite out of your company’s progress.
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What is Negative SEO?
As you likely already know, standard search engine optimization is about boosting the authority and search ranking of a given domain.
If done correctly, the targeted domain earns higher SERP rankings, more traffic, better conversion rates, and better brand recognition.
Negative SEO is the exact opposite of that — a series of malicious tactics and strategies designed to lower the ranking, authority, and brand reputation of a domain or company.
The domain in question typically belongs to a competitor, but there are also black hat service providers out there willing to conduct negative SEO attacks for a fee.
5 Types of Negative SEO Attacks
Since a competitor won’t have readily available access to your website in most cases, most negative SEO attacks involve off-page strategies.
Examples include (but aren’t necessarily limited to) creating toxic backlinks to dilute your link building efforts or making your site appear less original by duplicating its content elsewhere.
However, very aggressive attacks may include attempts to hack into your website and directly alter its content or structure in harmful ways.
Here’s a close look at some of the most common off-page and on-page tactics to know and be on the lookout for.
1. Website Hacks
Although this is one of the most difficult, costly ways to hurt a site’s search rankings, it’s also one of the most effective.
After all, the best way to improve SEO is to make direct positive changes to a site’s content, layout, or settings to make it more search engine-friendly.
Therefore, the best and easiest way to hurt that site’s SEO would also be to make on-page changes to achieve the desired result.
A hacker with negative SEO on their mind can do a lot to hurt your site before you’ve even noticed.
They can mess with your content in ways that damage your standing with Google or plant links that hurt your efforts.
They can even alter your robots.txt file in such a way that Google crawl bots are commanded to ignore your site altogether.
2. Creating Toxic Backlinks
Good-quality backlinks send powerful signals to Google that the linked site is an entity people trust enough to vouch for it and recommend it to others.
However, toxic backlinks — links originating from link farms, untrustworthy spam sites, or even just sites that have no clear connection to the linked content — can have the opposite effect.
The goal of a negative SEO campaign that includes creating toxic backlinks is to get Google to penalize your site.
Some negative SEO practitioners will even take things a step further and try to have your positive backlinks removed.
For example, they may assume your identity, reach out to someone who’s linked to you, and ask that the link be removed.
3. Creating Duplicate Content
Original content is critical for snagging top search engine rankings and boosting your search engine credibility.
Take that originality away, and search rankings for your painstakingly created pages can plummet.
Victims of negative SEO attacks may find their content scraped, duplicated, and reposted across multiple other websites, diluting its originality in the process.
This forces Google to filter the identical pages and make a judgment call on which should rank, and it’s not always the original.
4. Fake Social Media Profiles
Legitimate, carefully maintained social media profiles boost brand awareness and cultivate a positive business reputation.
So one way to attack your company’s credibility is to create fake profiles in your name and misuse them in an effort to hurt your online presence.
Fake profiles may be used to spread false information, fake news, or spam. They may also be used in other ways that leave others with a bad impression of your brand.
5. Spreading Negative Reviews
Naturally, any business active online in the digital age knows how much impact even one bad review can have on a company’s reputation.
Now imagine you’re the target of an attack that includes the posting of multiple negative reviews around the web.
Negative SEO practitioners may also simply choose to flood your website, seller pages, and social media profiles with negative reviews.
How to Catch and Stop Negative SEO Tactics
The first step in combating negative SEO is understanding when you’ve been the victim of an attack.
Signs like the following can be dead giveaways:
- Sudden unexplained drops in web traffic.
- Sudden spikes or decreases in your backlink catalog.
- Drops in your rankings for specific keywords.
- Warning messages from Google about your web practices.
- Many copies of your content showing up around the web.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when combating a possible attack, recovering from a previous one, and preventing negative SEO from affecting you again in the future.
1. Fortify your site against hacks
In cases where a negative SEO practitioner actually hacks into your site to mess with its coding, it can take a while for you even to notice anything is wrong.
But regular site audits can help you detect any potential issues early before they have a chance to hurt your SEO efforts.
You can also configure Google Search Console to notify you of any security breaches or problems with your site indexing.
Make sure you protect yourself with security measures like powerful passwords, antivirus protection, and two-factor authentication, as well.
2. Maintain your backlink catalog
If you’re not already keeping track of your backlink catalog, it’s officially time to start.
Choose a tool that takes the guesswork out of the process, and check it often to ensure everything’s as it should be.
You’ll know immediately if you lose positive links or gain negative ones.
And if you do notice your backlink catalog suddenly contains many toxic backlinks that need fixing, submit a disavow file containing all of them to Google Webmaster Tools.
This lets Google know those links shouldn’t be counted toward your ranking.
3. Take steps to protect your content
The easiest way to determine whether any of your site’s content has been duplicated is to employ a trusted tool like Copyscape.
If you locate any duplicate content, email the owner of the website where it appears and ask that it be removed.
Be sure to CC an appropriate legal party when you reach out, so they know you mean business.
If it’s an entire website duplicating yours, report it to Google immediately and ask them to pull it down.
Protect your site’s best content with canonical tags to ensure Google knows you’re the original creator.
Add a copyright notice and updated Terms of Service to your site that clearly states your content is not to be copied or redistributed for good measure, too.
4. Report fake social profiles
When and if you do happen to notice fake social media profiles under your company’s name, report them right away before they have a chance to draw followers and hurt your reputation-building efforts.
There are also tools out there that can help you keep track of your social media mentions.
Check out your mentions right away, so that you know right away if anyone out there is using your company’s name or spreading misinformation.
This is a good practice to adopt anyway, as it also helps you engage with people who are generating legitimate buzz for your brand.
5. Keep track of your reviews
As with your social mentions and backlinks, you should already be monitoring your reviews.
Again, early detection is the key to stopping a negative SEO campaign in its tracks before it has a chance to make a mess of all your hard work.
If you do spot any negative reviews of your products, brand, or company from people who are claiming a connection to you they don’t have, report them to Google and to the platform in question.
And, of course, you should always respond to authentic negative reviews with attempts to make things right.
As you could see, the best way to protect yourself from negative SEO is to employ solid security practices, monitor your site’s analytics, and track links and social signals from around the web.
Then take immediate action before the perpetrator’s tactics have a chance to do any damage.
As frustrating as a negative SEO attack can be if it happens to you, it’s a sign that your company is doing something right and making waves in your industry.
But ongoing vigilance, frequent audits, and similar tactics can help make short work of any attempts to hurt your forward progress.
You can boost your search engine rankings and elevate your content even further by making content optimization part of your ongoing SEO strategy.
Click on the link above and check out our quick start guide to getting started! You’ll learn more about how content optimization works, find out why it’s essential, and learn key tactics to get you started in the right direction.