SEO is a competitive industry, and sometimes people cross the line.
Is your website suddenly loading slowly or constantly crashing? Is your site getting visitors from all kinds of unusual referrers? Are you getting bombarded with bad online reviews? Has your site dropped several spots in the search rankings?
If so, you might be a victim of negative SEO.
What Is Negative SEO?
Negative SEO is the act of using black-hat SEO tactics to sabotage websites and sink their search rankings. If you’re new to SEO, then you might also be new to the term “black hat SEO.” This term encompasses aggressive tactics meant to game Google and other search engines.
Unfortunately, it’s startlingly easy to make other sites look guilty of black hat SEO — and put them squarely in Google’s crosshairs.
Types of Negative SEO Attacks
Negative SEO could involve a single tactic used to tank your rankings, or your competitor may use a combination of tactics. Here are the most common types of negative SEO attacks:
Hacking a website – This is self-explanatory! Hacks are most often the job of, well, hackers who want to hijack an established website for spammy purposes, but it’s also possible that a competitor could have paid a third party to hack your site as a negative SEO tactic.
Building spammy links back to a site – Comment spam, forum spam, and other spammy tactics are often carried out by bots, which makes them cheap and hard-to-trace—and that means it’s an attack that’s perfect for negative SEO.
Stealing a website’s content and creating a duplicate of the site – Just like being hacked, if this happens to you, the most likely explanation is that someone is trying to make a quick buck through some kind of spammy scheme, but it’s also possible that it could be part of a negative SEO campaign against your business.
Creating fake reviews of a business – As reviews become more important to local businesses, this is a tactic that’s increasing in popularity. Your competitors (or someone they pay) may fill Yelp, Google, and other review sites with fake reviews of your company.
Removing your site’s best backlinks – You’ve worked hard to build backlinks for your website, but a competitor can easily undo this work by contacting website owners posing as you and requesting that your links be removed or changed.
How Real is the Danger?
Make no mistake — negative SEO can destroy weeks, months and years of hard-earned search rankings. It’s a legitimate danger that must be taken seriously. Although black hat SEO tactics are increasingly more difficult to execute these days — and even though these tactics are widely shunned throughout the professional world of SEO — there will always be digital marketers who’ll resort to these methods.
That said, the chances of suffering a negative SEO attack are small.
If your website is experiencing performance anomalies, there’s probably another explanation. Still, you should always take preventative measures to protect yourself from negative SEO, and you should always take seriously the signs of an ongoing attack. Below, we review some important safeguards that can arm your website against negative SEO.
How Can You Protect Your Website from Negative SEO?
1. Use Google Analytics to Watch for Traffic Spikes
Spikes in website traffic might be caused by an online sale, a catchy social media campaign or a number of other welcome things. But a large, unexpected surge of visitors is a classic warning sign of negative SEO — and traffic spikes might be the most easily noticeable red flags.
One negative SEO tactic is to spam blogs, forums and comment sections with low-quality links to a targeted website. The results can be damaging because Google will crawl these links and potentially penalize the targeted site for its sudden spammy link profile.
Here’s the good news: Google Analytics makes it easy to track visitors. Don’t just look at your overall daily visits; pay attention to how much traffic you get from referrals, SEO, paid advertising, email, and all the other channels you’re using. Look for changes that can’t be explained by your ongoing marketing.
If you do notice unusual traffic, then run a Referrals report and see exactly where your visitors are coming from to determine if you’re a victim of comment spam.
2. Also Look for Traffic Slumps
If you notice a sudden drop in traffic rather than a surge in traffic, then you need to dig into Google Analytics to find the cause.
First, check your SEO traffic trends. Go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels and then click on Organic Search in the table. Change the date range to show the previous 6-12 months to get a birds eye view of your SEO traffic trends. Again, if you see a sudden drop, then you have a problem.
Next, check your rankings using a tool like RankRanger. Various factors cause traffic and rankings to fluctuate, but a sizable fall in the search rankings should be cause for concern. Follow the steps below to keep digging in and determine the root cause.
3. Routinely Search for Duplicate Content
Quality content is a hallmark of good SEO.
Websites that have unique, relevant and substantial content tend to rank better than sites that don’t. On the flipside, Google frowns upon websites with thin or duplicate content.
That’s why another negative SEO tactic is to “scrape” content from websites and copy it onto scores of junk domains. This can be especially damaging with newer content. If Google indexes the content on junk domains before indexing the originating website, then the originating website loses the SEO value.
This one is easy to detect. Use a tool like Copyscape to make sure your content only exists on your website. If you find your content on someone else’s site, email the site’s webmaster and request that it be immediately removed. You can also fill out Google’s Copyright Removal form and effectively lay claim to your content property.
4. Audit Your Site Links
Regularly reviewing your link profile can also stop negative SEO in its tracks. It’s normal for a link profile to grow over time as people learn about your business. However, link profiles normally grow at a somewhat steady pace. For there to be a sudden jump in your backlink volume is cause for alarm.
5. Watch Your Online Reviews
Few things drive away customers like a flurry of bad online reviews. And with reviews and ratings often getting above-the-fold real estate on Google, they’ve also become a target of negative SEO tactics.
Was your business bombarded with a string of terrible reviews on Yelp, Google or some other profile or directory site? If so, you might be the target of a competing business (or an extremely disgruntled customer). Google and other review sites let you flag reviews that you think are fraudulent. Don’t hesitate to use this feature if you’ve been targeted by fake reviews.
6. Don’t Ignore Site Performance
Is your website running slower than usual? Is it frequently crashing or getting stuck? And does your website seem to lag no matter where you are or how you’re viewing it?
If this is the case — and if your website’s performance is really, really bad — then that could be the result of an attack on your website’s server. Hackers sometimes launch forceful crawling and DDoS attacks to effectively render websites unusable, resulting in high bounce rates and frustrated customers.
Tech-savvy marketers can sometimes address website performance issues, but your best bet is to contact your webmaster or hosting provider. Your host provider can likely offer a fix without any additional work on your part.
The Bottom Line
SEO is a tireless industry, and sometimes the competition gets a little too heated. For that reason, you must always be vigilant against negative SEO.
Black hat tactics aren’t as effective nowadays at lifting websites in the rankings, but they’re more efficient than ever when sabotage is the goal. The damage from negative SEO can be greatly mitigated by detecting attacks early and taking corrective actions.