Is negative SEO real? Should you be worried? Is there anything you can do to stay safe? This post is an attempt to answer these questions.
The threat of negative SEO is remote but daunting. How easy is it to for a competitor to ruin your rankings, and how do you protect your site? But before we start, let’s make sure we’re clear on what negative SEO is, and what it definitely isn’t.
Negative SEO is a set of activities aimed at lowering a competitor’s rankings in search results. These activities are more often off-page (e.g., building unnatural links to the site or scraping and reposting its content); but in some cases, they may also involve hacking the site and modifying its content.
Negative SEO isn’t the most likely explanation for a sudden ranking drop. Before you decide someone may be deliberately hurting your rankings, factor out the more common reasons for ranking drops. You’ll find a comprehensive list here.
Negative off-page SEO
This kind of negative SEO targets the site without internally interfering with it. Here are the most common shapes negative off-page SEO can take.
One or two spammy links likely won’t hurt a site’s rankings. That’s why negative SEO attacks usually involve building links from a group of interconnected sites, or link farms. Typically, most of these links use the same anchor text. These exact-match anchors may be completely unrelated to the site under attack; or they might include a niche keyword to make the site’s link profile look like the owner is manipulating it.
A while ago, this happened to WP Bacon, a WordPress podcast site. Over a short period of time, the site acquired thousands of links with the anchor text “porn movie.” Throughout 10 days, WP Bacon fell 50+ spots in Google for the majority of keywords it ranked for. This story has a happy ending though: the webmaster disavowed the spammy domains, and eventually, WP Bacon recovered most of its rankings.
Scraping your content and copying it across other sites is another way a competitor can ruin your rankings. When Google finds content that is duplicated across multiple sites, it will usually pick only one version to rank. In most cases, Google is clever enough to identify the original piece… unless they find the “stolen” version first. That’s why scrapers often automatically copy new content and repost it straightaway.
How to stay safe:Copyscape is an essential tool if you’re determined to find instances of content duplication. If you do find scraped copies of your content, it’s a good idea to first contact the webmaster asking them to remove the piece. If that’s not effective, you may want to report the scraper using Google’s copyright infringement report.
There are examples of desperate site owners trying to crash a competitor’s site by forcefully crawling it and causing heavy server load. If Googlebot can’t access your site for a few times in a row… you guessed it — you might get de-ranked.
How to stay safe: If you notice that your site has become slow, or, worse, unavailable, a wise thing to do is contact your hosting company or webmaster — they should be able to tell you where the load is coming from. If you know a thing or two about server logs, here are some detailed instructions on finding the villain crawlers and blocking them with robots.txt and .htaccess.
Negative on-page SEO
Negative on-page SEO attacks are way more difficult to implement. These involve hacking into your site and changing things around. Here are the main SEO threats a hacker attack can pose.
You’d think you’d notice if someone changed your content, but this tactic can also be very subtle and difficult to spot. As the attacker adds spammy content (usually links) to a site, they often hide it (e.g., under “display:none” in the HTML), so you won’t see it unless you look in the code.
Another possible negative SEO scenario is someone modifying your pages to redirect 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 to increase their own site’s PageRank, or to simply redirect visitors to their site when they try to access yours. For the site under attack, such redirects aren’t just a temporary inconvenience. If Google finds out about the redirect before you do, they can penalize the site for “redirecting to a malicious website.”
Even if the hacker has no negative SEO in mind, the attack per se can hurt your SEO. Google wants to protect its users, which is why, if they suspect a site has been hacked, they may de-rank it, or at the very least add a “this site may be hacked” line to your search listings.