For years now, negative SEO has been a topic of fierce discussion. Some few may still claim it doesn’t exist. Many believe it does, though it’s hard to find definitive proof. Owners of large sites don’t care, as their trust with the search engine protects them. Small businesses are left high and dry. Spammers, they figure, are punished appropriately. Everyone else is left alone.
Google knows about negative SEO. Matt Cutts has been seen discussing it on his own blog and Hacker News as long ago as 2012. It’s a sure thing to assume they’ve known about it longer.
If negative SEO exists, what has Google done to prevent it?
The first line of defense against negative SEO, and the reason it’s so hard to pin down, is trust rank.
Essentially, it works like this. You create a site and get it indexed with Google. Google watches your site and how you develop your SEO. You have three options on a sliding scale. At one end, you have white hat techniques; doing everything right according to Google. In the middle, you have a complete disregard for SEO. You get some things right, you get some things wrong, but it’s ignorance rather than malicious intent that holds you back. On the other end of the scale, you have black hat spam techniques.
As long as you’re in the middle or higher, towards white hat, you’re alright in Google’s book. They build trust in you, believing you’re at worst well-meaning but off track. Obviously, the more you lean towards white hat, the more Google trusts your page.
Trust acts like a shield or barrier between your site and a penalty. A few spam links show up, and that shield absorbs the blow. Maybe Google disregards them entirely. Maybe Google notes them down but lets them slide. Maybe Google marks down a “strike one” but does nothing detrimental to your site. The point is, they don’t actively harm you; Google trusts that you didn’t build them with malicious intent.
New sites have less trust than older sites. Spam sites have less trust than new sites. Therefore, the best targets – the most susceptible sites – for negative SEO are those that already have a history of spam. The site in question might think their spam is just a drop in the bucket, while a negative SEO attack turns that bucket into a deluge.
This is also why it’s so hard to identify a real negative SEO attack. Look at most of the existing case studies. Someone claims they started a negative SEO campaign against www.badsite.com in April, and in June the site was knocked to the second page. But if you look back, all the way back in the previous November, you can see that www.badsite.com was already building spam links. It’s possible – and likely, according to Matt Cutts – that Google already knew about and was penalizing the site. The negative SEO attack was akin to breaking into a murder trial to tell the judge about the defendant’s parking tickets.
The problem with trust rank is that Google ostensibly wants to protect small, new sites and businesses. They don’t want you to be vulnerable when you’re new, and they claim you aren’t. Sure, spammers can get what’s coming to them, but the innocent sites that simply haven’t had time to earn Google’s trust are suffering. Google has done nothing about it.
The Disavow Tool
The disavow links tool is potentially a solution, but it’s really not. Ideally, in a perfect world, the disavow links tool would be powerful. You identify the links you don’t want counting against you, you flag those links in a file, you submit the file to Google and within hours or days, those links are removed.
The problems with the disavow tool are many. First, what does it mean by “removed” in reference to those links? Google certainly doesn’t step in and tell the offending site to remove the links from their pages. They are only removed in terms of their ability to pass PageRank to your site, positive or negative. The links you disavow still exist on the spammer’s page and they still show up in Webmaster Tools; they are never truly gone. In fact, you have no way whatsoever of determining whether those links are actively counting against you or not. Disavowing them only makes it questionable. If your rank goes up after disavowing them, was it causation, or just an unrelated correlation?
Google’s documentation of the disavow tool shows comments explaining each link and why you want it disavowed. The problem is, Google doesn’t care about those comments. They’re strictly there for your organization. Google processes the disavow file completely automatically. Use them to explain to yourself why you’re disavowing a link, or don’t use them at all, it doesn’t matter in the least.
Be sure to check the links you disavow before you submit the file. Look for one thing; the nofollow tag. Are those links set to nofollow already? If so, don’t bother disavowing them. Functionally the only thing the disavow tool does is add the nofollow attribute to those links internally within Google.
Oh, and when you’ve disavowed a link, keep it in your disavow file forever, unless the link is actually removed from the originating site. See, if you were to submit a smaller file with fewer links, any link you left off the list from a previous list might be crawled and restored to functionality. You can’t submit an addendum to your disavow file; it has to be the whole thing, every time.
One more thing. When you disavow a spam site for sending spam links your way, those links are nofollowed, but what happens to the spam site? Absolutely nothing. It might be logical to think that Google keeps track of domains that show up in the disavow file often enough, but that’s not the case. Google doesn’t pay attention to them at all.
Pulling Its Weight
Google has some work to do before they can fully combat the threat of negative SEO. The practices they have put into place don’t do anything to protect a site as it’s growing and being established, and they do very little to protect a site later should a spammer dedicate an attack.
See, the thing about trust rank is that, like a shield, it can only block so much. A trash can lid might block a super soaker, but it won’t do much against a fire hose, and against a tsunami it might as well not exist. Your trust might protect you from a few bad links, but if the negative SEO attack goes on long enough, Google might question whether you’re not actually responsible after all.