Negative SEO has been a problem, a thorn in the sides of many webmasters, and the online death of no small number of sites, for several years now. Google has taken a few steps towards solving the problem, but it still remains. Negative SEO exists, it’s on the rise and it’s hard to fight. Small sites suffer from ambitious competition. Sometimes it seems as though Google is deliberately ignoring the problem, trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Is 2014 going to be the Year of Negative SEO?
It’s Hard to Trace
One of the biggest problems with negative SEO is that it’s hard to track, in more ways than one. For example:
It’s hard to identify whether a site is being attacked with negative SEO or if it’s commissioning the actions without the knowledge of why it’s wrong. After all, negative SEO is just imposing a legitimate SEO penalty on a site that didn’t actually take the actions to earn it. If the site did take those actions, then the penalty is legitimate. If the site claims they didn’t take those actions, there’s very little way to tell whether they’re lying to cover their mistake, or if they’re legitimately the target of an attack.
It’s hard to identify the companies responsible. In small niches with only two or three active companies, it’s easy enough to guess which of the competitors are causing the problem. Even so, it’s still just a guess. Without proof or tracking evidence, Google can’t exactly penalize a company using negative SEO. The only way to get proof would be if the company came out and admitted their actions, or if the negative SEO company – if there is one involved, which there might not be – releases their customer information.
It’s also surprisingly hard to notice negative SEO attacks in action, unless you’re already keeping a close eye on your links. The basic way of performing negative SEO – a massive influx of bad links – is obvious as an attack and isn’t very effective. The best way to perform negative SEO is to do it gradually, so it looks like the target site is trying to pass one under the nose of Google. Unfortunately for legitimate small businesses, that kind of traffic is hard to differentiate from organic link building, at least without checking the contents of the originating site for every single link.
Google’s Penalties Grow Harsher
Meanwhile, Google is stepping up their penalties for bad link building, thin content and black hat SEO. It’s easier than ever to run into a search penalty, even if you’re not deliberately using a black hat technique.
When looked at from the outside, this seems like a good move. Google is penalizing the people who use bad techniques and try to artificially inflate their ranking. Unfortunately, this couples with all of the above reasons to fear negative SEO. Harsher penalties, without any sort of protection, means negative SEO is just that much more effective.
So as Google attempts to improve the quality of legitimate sites, they’re creating a playground in their shadow. Negative SEO users are finding it easier and easier to create penalties directed at other sites, which makes it harder for legitimate small businesses to succeed as startups. It’s already hard enough to create a website and get it ranking; with the threat of an outside force attacking you at the foundation, every day becomes a risk.
Negative SEO Continues to Work
Really, this is the largest problem of all. Negative SEO just keeps working. Yes, the oldest techniques – spamming thousands of links on shady sites or in comments and forum posts – has decreased in utility for those negative SEO users, but that’s not entirely a good thing. It means webmasters subject to such an attack may be lulled into a false sense of security. They figure these links, while bad, aren’t actively hurting their site. Then, when Google tightens the screws on Penguin just a little bit more, their ranking drops like a stone.
Meanwhile, slow and steady bad link building continues to work. It looks just like the target site trying to slip on by, and incurs a penalty. It’s harder to detect and, from the perspective of the small business, impossible to prevent.
The crux of the issue, right there, is that negative SEO cannot be prevented when used against a small, newly-created site. Larger sites with established audiences and reputations can resist some such attacks, but a small site relies on every hit, every click, every conversion. When the only way to combat a negative SEO attack is to disavow the links, it’s a reaction, not a preventative measure. Their traffic still takes a hit, and they have to climb back up. Many businesses can’t make the climb; the hit was too much and their infrastructure was too fragile.
Google Offers Little Protection
The only real tool Google has released to help fight negative SEO is the disavow links tool. It is, as mentioned above, a reactionary tool. When you notice spam links coming in, you disavow them. If, over night, you find 5,000 bad links come in, you have to locate and identify them, create a disavowal document, list the domains you want purged, submit it to Google and wait for them to process it.
Meanwhile, every minute is a chance for the Google algorithm to update search and drop your site, nuking your traffic while you wait for Google to process an application you already submitted. Meanwhile, the attacker can continue creating more and more links on diverse domains. At the absolute best, when the links do no damage and Google responds quickly, it’s a huge waste of time. At worst, it can destroy a business.
The Best Defense is a Good Offering
If you’re a small site owner and fear negative SEO, there’s really only one thing you can do; be proactive about growth in a legitimate way, and be watchful for any signs of spam links.
• Build a deep library of quality content as quickly as possible. The more pages you have, the more chances you have at valid incoming links and the harder it is for mass spamming a single page to bring you down.
• Build organic links. You don’t want to buy links; that’s playing into the hands of a negative SEO user. You need to do everything you can to build links organically, however. Any site in your industry is fair game.
• Keep a close eye on your link profile. The moment you see a spam link, investigate. If it’s a one-time event, you may be able to contact the webmaster and get the link removed. If it’s the beginning of a trend, you need to disavow domains proactively to minimize the threat. Don’t wait until it’s a huge problem.
Building a strong site that can resist a few bad links is the only real way to combat negative SEO, and even so, there will be a time in the site’s infancy where it’s incredibly vulnerable. The only option is to get through it as quickly as possible.