For many years negative SEO was a theory tossed around by SEO professionals, but recent Google algorithm changes appear to have made it a reality.
Negative SEO is the opposite of positive SEO. While good SEO techniques seek to raise a site’s visibility in search engine results, Negative SEO is focused on reducing a site’s ability to rank well. For obvious reasons, Negative SEO is a black hat technique primarily used by competitors to maliciously attack a site that out-ranks them. It is sometimes referred to as Reverse SEO.
For many years Google’s Webmaster Guidelines stated, “There is nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” Four or five years ago they modified that to read, “There is almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” Recently, they removed that reference.
The primary tactic used with Negative SEO is to flood a site with links from poor quality sites or “bad neighborhoods.” The links can be poisoned further by placing them on unrelated sites and using completely unrelated text in the links.
We did have our own experience with negative SEO late in 2011, which made us question Google’s statements prior to that about the viability of malicious tactics that could negatively affect a site’s rankings. We currently own and maintain several dozen web sites that we use to test various theories about search engine optimization. One such site is a site focused on the sport of paintball. We purchased that site a few years ago. The site contained absolutely unique, high-quality content and had a Google PageRank of 2, which is average for most sites. While PageRank is no longer an indicator of a site’s ability to rank well, it is an indicator of when penalties are applied. The site is very clean, ranked fairly well and received a few thousand unique visitors per month. We never did any backlink building to the site.
In November of 2011 we noticed an unusual number of backlinks showing up as trackbacks. When we investigated these links we found that articles were being published daily on a large blog network. While each article was focused on paintball, none of the articles were posted on web sites focused on paintball. These were all WordPress blogs that were part of a network of sites scattered around the world.
While most people would think that free backlinks are a good idea, receiving too many in a short period of time can raise scrutiny due to an increase in link velocity, which can raise a red flag that artificial linking is taking place. In our case, we noticed a large number of trackbacks showing up in the WordPress. When investigating the pages providing the links, we found articles about paintball, but embedded within the articles were four or five links to various paintball sites. Each of these links except one always contained nonsense text in the hyperlink. One link always contained a legitimate paintball-related phrase and always pointed to the same site. That would make it fairly obvious that the one site with the legitimate link was likely the culprit behind the attacks. The links to the other sites each contained unrelated phrases, such as, “Garlic is as good as ten mothers”, ‘A gardening we grow”, “Not now, dammit!”, ‘Brain dump”, and dozens of other phrases.
We knew that the paintball site was under attack by a paintball competitor. The first step was to send a message to the site owner of the site that we believed was responsible. We asked them to cease targeting our site with the malicious links. After receiving no response, we then sent a message threatening to report them to the major search engines for spamming our site, although we knew that such an act would probably not result in any actions being taken by the search engines. We received no response.
As an intentional experiment, we watched the paintball site closely to see if the Negative SEO attack had any affect on traffic or rankings. From the middle of November until the end of December when the attack ceased we tracked links from hundreds of articles. Each article was unique, but obviously written by the same author and posted in different sites within the same blog network. The result was that we lost about 90% of the traffic to that site and the PageRank dropped to zero, which proved to us that Negative SEO does exist and can have a huge impact on a site’s rankings.
This particular blog network was hit on March 19, 2012 when Google de-indexed thousands of sites that it suspected were part of a blog network. Since then, most of the sites with the malicious links were de-indexed, but a few do remain. As Part 2 of this experiment, we are watching the paintball site to see if the traffic recovers as the malicious pages linking to the site are removed from Google’s index. We plan to report these results in a few months.