You may be interested to learn that there is such a thing as negative SEO. Along with black hat techniques, there are techniques competitors *may* use to influence your rankings; and not in a good way. Before getting into that, it should be noted that it is always, always, ALWAYS more worthwhile to invest in your own assets and optimization rather than waste time working on attacking your competition in some of the ways listed below or engaging in black hat tactics. The results are often short lived, time consuming and frankly, a waste of resources.
Black Hat SEO
Black hat for the uninitiated is the use of techniques that violate Google, Bing, Yahoo and other web indexes’ (and some social networks’) quality guidelines but offer limited improvements in rankings. In the past this may have been the oh-so-popular keyword stuffing; in which webmasters would fill the keyword tag (deprecated, please ignore) with their target keywords and variations. Or the popular, circa 2002, block of exact-match links in the footer. Often with a color profile to match the background.
Prior to Panda, it was cloaking and link wheels/circles that were the trick. In these schemes, ranking manipulation would come by means of serving search engine robots one set or type of content while offering users something different (cloaking). There is some debate about what cloaking in 2013 looks like but that is another debate all together.
Link wheels and link networks (circles) were used to provide instantaneous or quick value to website via blog, micro-sites or similar web properties that would point to either a target website or a tertiary site that would then pass on the gathered value to yet another site. This was particularly hard to catch because the networks often contained some valuable information or maintained ‘quality’ in the eyes of engine robots. I mentioned some of the details of how Google handled these in this previous post.
For obvious reasons, you can see why it is called black hat. It’s the dark side of the Force. However, there is another element that some businesses have begun to investigate as a method for handling ‘complicated’ situations. Instead of tempting fate by trying to game the search engines using one’s own site, why not attack your competitor(s); either indirectly or via some hidden method?
This is the essence of negative SEO. These types of stupid business practices have existed, and been practiced by some, for a while. My first experience with this was in handling negative press releases (remember when those were great for SEO?!) published via PR.com, PRWeb.com and a few others. On the PPC side there is click fraud. I, and many others, have experienced click fraud. Click fraud is seen when you or an agency is running some type of paid campaign and receive an abnormal amount of clicks on your ad(s). Google got wise to these attacks early on and often ignored the clicks after a while, if certain conditions were met, resulting in a refund of the click or impression charge. This type of attack impacts not only the funds in a campaign, but if unchecked, it can impact the quality score; all of which will make it harder for your true audience to see you.
While working on some of our clients’ sites and checking the index statuses recently, I started noticing slips in the number of indexed pages. Upon further investigation, I found this notice at the bottom of a search for one of the keyword phrases:
The first link takes you to Google’s view of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which falls under the U.S. Copyright Office and is meant to protect intellectual property that appears online. Along with this link there is a second link that contains the reported violation, the reporting individual or group and all identified “infringing” URLs (example: http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=409433).
In most cases, the use of this opportunity would be great when infringement is legitimate, like this one. However, this becomes another case where the system can be easily abused. The process takes weeks, if not months just to obtain the proper information needed to respond and counter. Furthermore, due to the nature of these types of complaints, which Google is not fast to rectify, the issues often go unresolved. All the while quality content remains excluded.
In the chillingeffects.org example above, the infringing URLs contain content taken from public sites, such as the Social Security Administration which allows for republication and syndication, but the original work was the first to ‘claim’ infringement.
Ajaz Mirza offers a short list of what to look out for, aside from blatant complaints when it comes to negative SEO:
- Backlink Profile Drops
- Scrapped Content
- Site Load Time
- Irrelevant Keywords Appearing in Google Analytics
- and the always popular: Fake Reviews
Google’s view of Negative SEO and the Disavow tool
Negative SEO and black hat tactics will always be around, just as long as there is SEO of course. But as technology and methods change there are more ways to protect yourself from these tactics. Although it is not their responsibility to ensure the safety of a website or your online reputation, Google offers a number of tools to help fix/identify issues that black hat tactics create, such as the disavow tool. While Bing Webmaster Central will notify you when malware is detected or some negative issue has been identified.
If you maintain a steady eye on your data, you will normally see the oddness these attacks create and can quickly remedy them before they get out of hand. If you are involved in a highly competitive space it is important to invest in your web presence, otherwise you run the risk of letting the world create your online presence for you; worser still, your competitors.
UPDATE (June 3, 2013):
Google has always stated the negative SEO, while not impossible, was very hard to accomplish successfully. However, during the flurry of activity coming out of the Google camp with the latest Penguin update, the thought of negative SEO has changed.
According to Search Engine Watch’s article Google Confirms Negative SEO Exists (http://sewat.ch/14ast8A), “Now Google has changed their stance once again, simply saying that Google works hard to prevent competitors from utilizing negative SEO. The change was noticed on the “Can Competitors harm ranking?” help page at Google Webmaster Tools.”