Negative SEO: Have Mercenaries Been Hired to Torpedo Your Search Rankings?
Recently, an individual contacted my company, threatening to build thousands of links to my website if we didn’t pay him $250.
The questions you may be asking are: Why is that a bad thing? Why wouldn’t you want thousands of ‘free’ links to your site? Aren’t links good for SEO?
Schemes like this, unfortunately, are an aspect of an emerging trend we’re seeing when it comes to negative SEO. Campaigns like these are used to point thousands of poor-quality, spammy links at a competitors’ website in an attempt to cause their search engine rankings to plummet. The reason these links can damage search engine visibility is due to Google’s Penguin algorithm, which detects and penalizes websites with too many manipulative, spammy inbound links (which is seen as an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings).
Years ago, link building was all about getting as many inbound links as possible, without regard for their quality or relevance. More was always better, and as such, an entire industry sprung up to accommodate peoples’ insatiable desire for more links. The resulting mass of spammy content published around the Web for the sole purpose of acquiring links started to clog Google’s search results. Users started complaining to Google that their search quality was diminishing, and Google took action. That’s when the Penguin algorithm was released.
In one fell swoop, Google reversed the effectiveness of quantity-based link building schemes. Now, rather than helping rankings, they would have the opposite effect.
Unfortunately, it was also now possible to negatively affect competitors’ search engine visibility by performing the same tactics that used to help rankings. This opened the door for mercenary-like companies to emerge; thus, the field of “negative SEO” was born.
What Google Says About Negative SEO
So, what does Google have to say about campaigns like this one? Are negative SEO threats something webmasters should be worried about?
It’s clear that Google takes the idea of negative SEO seriously, as is evidenced in a 2012 Google Webmaster video. In the video, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, speaks to how they have been aware of this potential abuse for years, and have built safeguards into their algorithms to prevent ‘person A from hurting competitor B’ through spammy backlink schemes.
But while they’re aware of the potential of such a campaign, they believe it shouldn’t be a major concern for the owners of small websites.
Cutts says, “In my experience, there’s a lot of people who talk about negative SEO, but very few people who actually try it, and fewer still who actually succeed.” He goes on to say, “I know that there’s been a lot of people stressed about this. Whenever we dig into what’s actually going on, there’s been a lot of discussion but very little in ways of actually people trying to do attacks.”
While Google states that the vast majority of ‘mom and pop’ businesses need not be concerned about such schemes, they have provided a simple way to help protect webmasters from the effects of negative SEO: The disavow tool.
The Disavow Tool
In an effort to provide webmasters with a way to notify Google of illegitimate or unwanted inbound links to their site, Google began offering the disavow tool within Google Webmaster Tools. It allows website owners to send Google a list of links (or entire domains) that should be ignored when it comes to their site’s link profile.
In a recent video, Cutts spoke about the tool, and clarified its main purpose. From the beginning, Google has maintained that the tool was meant primarily for webmasters who had done some ‘bad SEO’ (i.e. manipulative, spammy link building) and had manual action taken against them in the search results. If these website owners had done their best to clean up their link profile, and yet these spammy links still existed, they could use the disavow tool to clean up their link profile.
Cutts clarified in this video, however, that webmasters don’t have to wait until they have manual action against them to use the tool. He encouraged website owners who are worrying about their link profile to use the tool at will.
What to Do if You’re a Victim of Negative SEO
If you believe you’ve been a victim of a negative SEO link campaign, the first thing you should do is check your Google Webmaster account. If manual action has been taken against your site, you should have received a message in your Webmaster inbox notifying you that ‘some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines’.
If it doesn’t appear that any manual action has been taken, use the disavow tool to tell Google to ignore these links.
To use the tool, simply sign into your Google Webmaster account, and under ‘Search Traffic’, click ‘Links to Your Site’.
Under ‘Who links the most’, click ‘More’ and then ‘Download more sample links’. Now you’ll have a complete list of links to your site, and you can use this to choose which ones you want Google to ignore. Save these links to a .txt file, and then upload them on the Disavow links page.
Is Google Doing Enough?
It seems to me that with the introduction of the disavow tool, Google is doing its part in putting some power back into the hands of website owners. And, as Cutts’ stated in his 2012 video, Google’s algorithms have always had some built-in safeguards to reduce the impact of such attacks.
But just how effective is the disavow tool? Many have claimed that the disavow tool doesn’t have any apparent effect. Others have claimed that the disavow tool is just a way for Google to let others to the work for them in identifying spammy websites so Google can remove them from their index.
If you receive an email threatening to harm your site through a negative SEO campaign, I’d encourage you to ignore the email, and then keep a close watch on your inbound link profile via Google Webmaster Tools. If you notice a sudden increase in the quantity of inbound links to your site, and they appear to be from spammy domains, take action by emailing the owners of the websites involved, and/or by discrediting the links through the disavow tool.
Back to my story about the threat we received. While we weren’t worried about the effects of such an attack (we ignored the email), it made me wonder how smaller, mom and pop business owners may react when faced with such a threat. I hope this article, and the resources below, offer some guidance for anyone else who receives this threat.
What do you think? Do you think Google is doing enough to prevent negative SEO campaigns? Have you used the disavow tool, and if so, has it worked to get your rankings back?