Sources predict that the U.S. SEO industry will be worth about $80 billion by 2020. SEO efforts are increasingly becoming difficult and expensive as new strategies emerge, and keywords become more competitive. Companies are willing to spend thousands of dollars every month to grow or maintain their SEO ranking.
The online space has become so competitive that some rival websites are willing to sabotage each other over visibility.
Negative SEO is a malicious black hat practice to lower a site’s ranking by using de-ranking SEO techniques. It is basically reverse engineering SEO techniques to hurt ranking. Negative SEO has taken many victims over the last few years, and even Google acknowledges that it’s a significant cybersecurity threat.
How Does Negative SEO Work?
Before we get into preventive measures, it’s essential to learn how negative SEO works. Negative SEO is deployed using a combination of three common practices; backlink manipulation, hacking, and fake social profiles.
The attacker builds thousands of spammy links to your website. The links could be from blacklisted websites or questionable sources like gambling or porn sites. In most cases, unrelated words like ‘Viagra,’ ‘porn,’ ‘play online’ are used as anchor text for the bad links.
It is a common negative SEO practice to create fake online profiles on social media and forums. The attacker pretends to be you or your affiliates to destroy your social media reputation.
A much more technical approach involves hacking the website and inserting malicious code. If Google detects malware in your site, the site is quickly de-listed. The malware could also mess with the site’s functions such as redirecting visitors and making multiple server requests to slow down the load speed.
In a bid to ruin your reputation with customers, an attacker could publish bad reviews of your business. There are hundreds of online platforms that use public opinions and reviews to rank businesses and brands. This could be an open avenue for spammers to attack your reputation with consumers and search engines.
The attacker may target the site’s user experience, inject bad links, or ruin your relationship with the online community. A successful attack requires a combination of all three techniques.
Some attackers have boldly stated on black hat forums of bringing sites down using bad links over a few months. However, negative SEO takes a lot of work, determination, and patience to execute properly. In addition, it demands familiarity with SEO practices.
Who is Attacking You?
A negative SEO attack can come from a marketing competitor, an online rival, or computer hackers trying to exercise their skills.
It is not uncommon in the past for hackers to attack websites just for the fun of it. Black hat forums are full of stories of hackers attacking sites just to build a reputation or for the thrills. Although they are few, such attackers are still out there.
The possible source of a negative SEO attack is an online rival or market competitor. If there is a heated rivalry between two websites, it could result in online confrontations and sabotage. Typically, a rival would hire a computer savvy to do the dirty work.
Rivalries can also be seen on YouTube and social media platforms. In some cases, parties involved often try to build their influence by defaming and slandering each other.
It is difficult to call out an attacker unless they confess. Many cases of negative SEO attacks are still shrouded in mystery as to who is responsible. Regardless of where a potential attack could come from, you need to protect yourself.
How to Protect Yourself from Negative SEO
There are several techniques you could use to prevent negative SEO attacks, or at least detect them before it’s too late.
Track Your Backlinks
You need to know when you gain or lose a backlink to your site. Spammers will often try to link your site using low-quality links. They may also devise ways to delete some of your most important backlinks.
There have been many cases of spammer contacting the backlink hosts and asking them to delete particular links. Keep a close eye on your backlink profile to identify any suspicious activities.
It’s actually quite easy to monitor your backlinks. Use tools like MonitorBacklinks to keep track of your backlinks. Many other tools will send you alerts immediately a link is added or removed. From there, you can verify whether it’s a legitimate action.
Set up Google Search Console
Formally known as Google Webmasters Tools, Google Search Console is a free webmasters service provided by Google to check indexing status and optimize visibility.
The search console is a versatile and detailed tool that has the following functions.
- Monitor and edit robot.txt
- List internal and external links
- Report on Google crawling status
- Send notification alerts for manual penalties
- Check for security issues on your site
- Check sitemap
- Provide SERP and click-through rate analysis on keyword-driven traffic
When it comes to detecting negative SEO, you should set up the tool to alert you of penalties, de-indexed pages, malware detection and server connectivity issues.
Also, keep an eye on your SERP ranking. Any unusual behavior like sharp drops or sudden peaks could mean that something is wrong.
Google also has a free link disavowing tool within the search console. The tool shows you a list of all the links pointing to your site. It lets you create a bulk list of bad links to disavow.
For more detailed statistics on your site’s traffic, you will need Google Analytics. This tool is a bit more technical than the search console.
Google Analytics describes the user behavior on your site, such as pages per session, session duration and source of traffic. It gives you a bigger picture of leads generation and bounce rates. Using Google Analytics, you’ll be able to verify your traffic by tracking their source and visualizing their navigation and experience through the site.
Monitor Your Keyword CTR
Use Google analytics tools to monitor the click-through rate of your keywords for any unusual activities such as steep spikes. Surprisingly, this could be a reason for high bounce rates.
It’s common for spammers to use bots to visit only one page of your site and leave immediately. To search engines, a high bounce rate is an indication of poor UX or irrelevant content that is misrepresented using unrelated keywords. The false bounces ultimately lower SERP ranking.
Contact Google and begin disavowing misbehaving links if you suspect malicious traffic and false bounce rates.
Fortify Your Website’s Security Measures
Hackers are always finding new ways to gain administrative access to websites. Although cybercrime is on the rise, web designers and cybersecurity firms are keen to keep up with the tricksters. Always ensure that you follow all security directives from your server host by applying all the latest security patches, and updating add-ons and features.
If you use hosted CRM software, ensure that security and encryption are up to standard.
You may need to run penetration and vulnerability tests regularly and after updating features to identify and patch new security holes.
Check for Duplicate Content
Attackers can easily make copies of your web content using scrappers, and publish it to hundreds of sites. It is a rather simple attempt at ruining a site’s ranking, but unfortunately, it works.
Google may penalize you for having duplicate content. The main page could also loss ranking value.
Use plagiarism tools like Copyscape to check whether someone has published your content on other sites. If you find duplicate content, you could file a cease and desist order with the hosting company or a DMCA complaint with Google.
If enough evidence supports your case, the copycat site could be temporarily shut down or de-listed.
Track Your Mentions on Social Platforms
Spammers can sometimes create hundreds of fake personal and business profiles on forums and major social media platforms. It is crucial to monitor any mentions of your name, company, or website on social platforms to curb the growth of fake accounts.
There are several tools you could use to do this. Most of them are customizable to send emails or other forms of alerts to inform you of any mentions. Follow up on the mentions to find the source, and if it happens to lead to a fake profile, take appropriate action to see that it is deleted.
Observe the Site’s Speed and Performance
If your site’s performance and speed suddenly drop, you have to act fast to figure out the problem. Speed and user experience are key ranking factors.
If the problem is heavy server loading, you might be a victim of forced crawling or a DDoS attack. Attackers can target particular functions of a website to slow it down. One way is using bots to send thousands of service requests every minute or flooding the network with heavy traffic to make resources unavailable.
Severe attacks could lead to crashes and downtime. Work with your web host to pinpoint such attacks and devise defensive systems.
Monitor Google My Business
Google My Business gives business owners control of the details shown in business search results. It allows the business owner to post images, video, and text detailing the business location, opening hours, contacts, directions, and so on.
This feature is a great way to increase visibility and boost local SEO. It is available on the Local Pack for search queries as well as on Google Maps. The Local Park is at the top right or first section of the result page that lists the business details from the search result.
This section also includes reviews. Any member of the public with a Gmail account can write a review and leave a star-based rating on your business. A malicious spammer can use this feature to write bad reviews in an attempt to tarnish your business.
Google customer reviews sent strong signals to search engines. Good reviews communicate authority, credibility and trustworthiness. Besides being part of SERP ranking factors, potential customers will not visit a poorly reviewed site – also affecting conversions.
One or two bad reviews are nothing to worry about. But if you are suddenly flooded with hundreds of bad reviews, a negative SEO attack could be underway.
Fortunately, Google allows you to flag fake reviews and report them. You have to fill out a form detailing some evidence of the fake reviews. If Google is convinced that they are indeed fake reviews, they are taken down immediately.
Monitor your Google My Business closely and scroll through your reviews regularly.
Avoid Making Enemies Online
If you can help it, keep away from unnecessary online rivalry. In any business niche, competition is unavoidable. But don’t allow business competition to escalate to personal grudges.
Don’t argue with your customers, your team members or engage in provocative exchanges with your competitors. In short, don’t give anyone an extra reason to take down your business.
It is impossible to control how other people will react or what they can do, but you can at least play your part in avoiding serious online conflicts.
Negative SEO attacks are not very common. Spammers usually lack the patience to put in all that effort and time. However, don’t take comfort in that; do not ignore the risk.
Sites that have fallen victim to negative SEO find it difficult and expensive to recover. Sometimes the damage that’s done is irreversible.
Although Google is aware of the problem and is actually good at isolating and reporting unusual ranking behavior, that alone is not enough. You still have to take caution to identify attacks before they become a problem.
It is likely that if you notice one form of attack, other areas of your site could be under attack as well. For instance, if you get a stream of negative fake reviews, the spammer may also be slandering you or your business on social media. A single instance of attack could be part of a larger scheme.
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