Negative SEO: Does It Really Exist?

Digital Marketing


The term ‘negative SEO’ has been thrown around with increasing frequency over the last few months. Negative SEO negatively impacts rankings by acquiring bad links, blatantly purchasing links, or creating an otherwise unnatural and manipulated looking link profile. Some companies even go so far as to try and negatively impact the rankings of rival websites by scraping and duplicating freshly posted content, in the hopes that their bots will catch the content before the search spiders so, and therefore get the competing website flagged for duplicate content.

Scary right? But, do these tactics actually work? How can you protect your website from them? And, can you recover if you’re the victim of negative SEO? Join me as we explore these questions and how they can affect you.

Negative SEO Is Harder Than You Think

In his 2012 Whiteboard Friday video, Rank Fishkin of Moz, looked at the claims from some self-styled Negative Search Engine Optimizers (SEOs). Although it’s hard to verify the tactics they used, the tactics included: setting up fake WordPress ‘splogs’ (spam blogs) to repost content, soliciting fake Google Reviews on sites like Fiverr—which makes it look like the site they are trying to take down is manipulating Google Reviews. Finally Mr. Fishkin mentioned the especially nasty tactic of setting up fake emails to request that good links are taken down. This tactic is essentially negative SEO because it undoes good SEO and natural linking. One of the most noteworthy details is that the sites these negative SEOs targeted were hardly following whitehat SEO practices (whitehat SEO refers to SEO strategies that focus on a human audience rather than only search engine rules).

The truth is, negative SEO is possible—but it is much harder to do than you might think. For the average webmaster, it would be almost impossible to target an established website and have a significant impact on it. For example, if a website already has a lot of high-quality incoming links—that is to say a good natural link portfolio with plenty of deep links, a consistent posting schedule and a sitemap that tells Google how often it should be crawling its site—then it would be very hard to undo all of that work. In other words, if a site has a strong backlink portfolio, it’s possible to protect yourself against a potential attack.

That’s not to say that with resources, time, and a systematic program of link building and buying a third-party website couldn’t be devalued over time. But in the case that it even worked, there is no guarantee that Google would not notice something strange going on. Also, in that scenario, and for your peace of mind, there are mechanisms to recover from algorithmic penalties. And, manual penalties can be reviewed if the webmaster complains and can show that they’ve attempted to clear up their bad links.

Ultimately, negative SEO is difficult to do, time consuming, expensive, and has a high chance of doing nothing useful to knock out the intended target’s website. As such, it’s a practice that most businesses and web marketers not only deem highly immoral but also a waste of investment and resources.

SEO Problems Caused by the Penguin Update

Google rolled out the Penguin update in April 2012, which quickly affected a huge number of sites, penalizing those with exact-match anchor text located in low-quality articles, poor-quality links coming from blogs that auto-approve posts and comments, and a poor ratio of on-site activity versus incoming links. A lot of the evidence suggested that Penguin was going to increase the effectiveness of negative SEO, by penalizing poor links or high ratios of exact match anchor text in link portfolios.

All of these factors are things that a webmaster could do to target another site, but sites with a lot of high-quality brand signals won’t suffer from a simple negative SEO campaign. After all, if that were the case, sites such as Wikipedia, which are scraped, cloned and linked to by an awful lot of low-quality, unrelated sites, would not rank well. Wikipedia ranks number one for a huge number of queries, which goes to show how important having a good base of high-quality content and incoming links from a variety of sources can be.

Despite Google’s Penguin update and all its subsequent iterations, negative SEO luckily remains difficult to pull off, especially on sites with strong link portfolios or brand signals.

You Can Recover from Negative SEO

Of course, none of this is to say it doesn’t or cannot happen to you. If you think you have been hit by negative SEO, the first thing that you should do is log into your Google Webmaster Tools account. There is a high chance that the explanation for your ranking problems will be clearly visible. If you have a manual spam action penalty, read the notice and then generate a list of the incoming links that you have, and conduct a proper audit on those links and any others you can pull from using tools such as Open Site Explorer or SEO Majestic. This will help you identify which links need to be removed or disavowed.

If you don’t have a manual spam penalty but your traffic has tailed off, it is still worth using a backlink-checking tool such as to generate a list of your incoming links and then disavowing any low-quality, unrelated or spammy links that you find. Once you have done this, wait to see whether your site recovers. It is always a worthwhile exercise to clean up your outbound link profile, because if Google thinks that you are spamming or selling links, your site is likely to be penalized.

Some sites recover slightly from a Penguin penalty when they clean up their act, only to be penalized again when Google updates the algorithm. If you think this has happened to you, you’ll need to conduct a far more comprehensive and thorough link audit. Don’t try to get away with doing just enough SEO work to scrape past the new algorithm updates. There’s increasing evidence to suggest that Penguin 3.0 is looking at outbound link portfolios so you’ll need to audit both your onsite and offsite links. This might be time consuming but will save you time and pain further later. Cleaning up your entire backlink portfolio not only protects you from any potential negative SEO but also from further Penguin updates.

For more on SEO, check out this SEO cheatsheet or this ebook about SEO for lead generation.

Have you encountered negative SEO? What did you do to combat it and recover? Share your story in the comments below.