By now, you have probably heard of negative SEO, even if you’re not completely sure of the specifics. Some of you may have even been victim to an attack, possibly without knowing it. It’s a definite threat, but many in the highest positions in the SEO community still doubt it exists, including the people at Google who might be able to put a stop to it.
How Negative SEO Works
Negative SEO works on the basis of PageRank and the associated link factors. Links have always been important to Google; so much so that it uses them to help determine the value of a site as a primary ranking factor. Years ago, when SEO was a new industry, there wasn’t a lot of nuance to the process. Does a site have incoming links? It must be good! A site with more links was probably more valuable than a site without as many links.
When this system grew exploited, Google started adding penalties to bad links. Instead of every link building your ranking, links from spam domains or spam sites would lower your ranking. Of course, rather than keep those links to themselves or drop them altogether, black hats repurposed their links and changed the targets. Why boost yourself when you can knock down the competition?
A Base in Old Black Hat Techniques
Part of the reason negative SEO is such a big potential industry is that so much of the infrastructure already existed. In fact, everything was already in place. For old black hat beneficial SEO, the webmaster needed a few dozen or hundred spam domains, the ability to add a link to all of them, and a target site. The target site would receive those dozens or hundreds of incoming links, Google would see the number of links and assume the site was worth linking to, and their ranking would rise.
Compare to negative SEO; the webmaster needs a few dozen or hundred spam domains, the ability to add a link to all of them, and a target site. The target site would be a competitor of the site the webmaster owns. That competitor would receive dozens or hundreds of incoming links, and Google sees those links all coming from a spam domain. Obviously, the webmaster is attempting old black hat link building, unaware that it’s a search penalty. Ignorance is no defense, so the webmaster is penalized.
The Desire for Ongoing Profits
Everything necessary for negative SEO was already in place, up to and including the contact information and payment methods for the people providing the service. All that was required was the rebranding from a positive service to a negative one.
Black hat SEOs put time and money into building these massive infrastructures. Some negative SEO networks extend to thousands of domains. This makes it very difficult to control; it’s impossible to identify a URL at a glance and determine it shouldn’t affect the ranking of a site, and besides; that’s hardly a solution. Google penalized the sites for a reason. To remove the penalty as a means to combat negative SEO just gives those domains some potential value back.
Why No One Believes
Part of the ongoing problem with negative SEO is that it doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously as the problem demands. No one at Google has taken a moment to realize that entire small businesses can be wiped off the map by the single action of a competitor. Sure, you can recover from negative SEO; all you really need is to disavow those links and continue building your own beneficial SEO. The problem is that initial hit, particularly against a small business that has very little leeway in profits to survive, can drive businesses into an unrecoverable downward spiral.
The other problem is that negative SEO is almost entirely confined to new, small sites. Any site that has been established for over a year probably has enough incoming links and enough positive momentum to survive a negative SEO attack. Any site large enough to be a widespread brand name is virtually untouchable. So any site in a position of power has no means to demonstrate the truth of negative SEO.
Google’s Ineffectual Solutions
Google seems to be aware of the problem, as a low key background issue that’s not worth the press and attention. The most overt sign of their acknowledgement is the disavow links tool, which ostensibly helps to rid your site of the effects of a botched link building campaign. It’s just about the only tool a site has to combat negative SEO. Scan your link profile, identify all of the spam domains in their hundreds or thousands, feed them into Google’s tool and hope Google processes them before they destroy your search ranking.
That’s it. There’s no other solution. There’s no other way to combat negative SEO other than spending more time and money on your own positive SEO, which, as we all know, simply can’t be rushed. Google pushes back against any form of quick, artificial inflation in SEO. The only way to proceed is with slow growth.
A Matter of Trust
Negative SEO is only as effective as the target site is untrusted. That’s why it’s such a threat to new sites, sites that haven’t had time to grow a reputation and build into their own niche. Sites Google trusts, sites that have existed and demonstrated their good faith, are much more resilient against negative SEO attacks. Meanwhile, new sites are particularly vulnerable.
Yet, again, this is a metric that’s impossible to streamline. You can only do so much to improve your trust; the rest comes with organic link building, publishing good content and time.
A Reasoned Fear
There’s another reason negative SEO seems to stay out of the spotlight; the idea among top-tier SEO professionals that to prove it exists is to give it power. Their logic is that the primary reason negative SEO isn’t a huge, visible threat is that too many people are skeptical about it and too many people don’t know how to pull it off successfully. To experiment, to verify claims, to prove it exists is to give it immense and immediate power. Suddenly there would be an explosion of negative SEO attacks. Sure, Google would be forced into action and required to find a solution, but until they rolled one out, the problem would be rampant.
Google claims to be closing loopholes related to negative SEO. Have they? It’s impossible to tell. Without knowing what works and what doesn’t – without testing and verification – there’s no baseline from which to show the changes. The best we can hope for is a slow decline in the rumors of the threat of negative SEO, and a drop in the number of sites claiming to be affected. Until then, negative SEO will remain an industry.