In this article, we are going to talk about negative SEO — what it is, how harmful it may be, and what you could do to detect and tackle a possible negative SEO attack.
What is Negative SEO?
First, let us define what is Negative SEO and what it implies.
Negative SEO is any malicious practice aimed at sabotaging search rankings of a competitor's website. This is generally considered “black hat SEO” for its malevolent nature.
An example of a negative SEO service offer in a Reddit thread.
GSA SER (GSA Search Engine Ranker) is a tool for automated spammy link building.
Types of Negative SEO Attacks
Another example of a negative SEO service offer.
There are different forms of negative SEO. In this article, we will cover the most common tactics associated with negative SEO.
1. Hacking a Website
This might be the most efficient, yet costly tactic. As seen below, by hacking a website an attacker can undermine a site’s SEO performance however they wish. If it is the type of hack that results in a loss of search engine visibility, it can be deemed a negative SEO attack.
The answer above was posted in a Google Search Console Help Center. Click to view the thread.
2. Creating Toxic Backlinks with Spammy Anchor Texts Pointing to the Website
Link farms, automated software, and PBNs (public blog networks) are widely used for generating these types of bad links. The number of links may vary - from a few hundred to thousands.
An example of a negative SEO attack using toxic backlinks. Click to view the thread.
3. Scraping a Website’s Content and Creating Duplicates of the Website
This practice is based around creating duplicates of websites or parts of its content, hotlinking, and spreading the fakes across the web.
A question about a negative SEO attack using content duplication and website cloning. Click to view the thread in Google Search Console Help Center.
4. Posting Fake Negative Reviews About the Website
This tactic may work for ruining a website’s (or brand’s) reputation, therefore, it could lead to traffic drops.
A Google Search Console Help Center thread about suspected fake review posting. Click to view the thread.
5. Removing a Website’s Backlinks by Sending out Fake Removal Requests to Webmasters
Attackers may target your backlink profile in an effort to harm your SERP positions. They might pretend to be you or an agency acting on your behalf and get in touch with the webmasters to persuade them to remove the links pointing to your site.
An example of a fake backlink removal request. Click to view the source.
Some negative SEO practices go even further, for example, sending fake DMCA removal requests but these cases are rare. The tactics above are the most common for negative SEO.
NOTE: The DMCA is a United States copyright law that provides guidelines for online service provider safe harbor in case of copyright infringement. Google has a special report form for that.
Before we dig deeper, it is important to stress that the very concept of negative SEO is debatable. Let us look into the reasons for that.
Why Negative SEO Attacks Can Be Difficult to Spot and Prove
Spotting and proving a negative SEO attack is tricky, especially if a website’s backlink profile already contained a bunch of toxic links and/or the site’s content is poor.
Very often, webmasters that believe they are a victim of negative SEO will not take into account the other conditions that could cause a drop in rankings, such as:
An update in Google’s algorithms/Core Algorithm Update.
Getting filtered out by Google’s algorithmic filtering.
Sometimes these drops are mistaken for negative SEO. Marie Haynes, SEO Consultant at MarieHaynes.com, said the following about that:
We have had many clients who thoroughly believed they were suffering ranking drops because a competitor built unnatural links pointing at their site. In almost every case, we could find another more plausible explanation for the ranking drops.
This means you should not jump to conclusions about why your rankings dropped.
To avoid any possible impact of updates in algorithms and algorithmic filtering, you should always ensure the quality of your content is up to Google’s guidelines and you are looking after your backlink profile.
Auditing your backlinks is highly important since you may already have a backlink profile that Google’s filtering may consider spammy (containing unnatural links). You can learn more about tackling algorithmic filtering from the experts interviewed on our blog.
Some webmasters miss these factors and judge straightaway that their website suffered a negative SEO attack. As John Mueller puts it:
Usually, the cases where I see that something around the negative SEO is happening are kind of the cases, when you would look at them manually, you would say, well, this looks like maybe someone has built these links up over the past. And it’s not really the competitor but maybe an SEO that has been working for the company.
Thus, your website’s content should always be optimized, engaging, user-oriented, and your backlink profile must be kept as trustworthy and clean as possible.
Why the Efficiency of Negative SEO is Arguable
Google doubts that negative SEO, especially the intentional generation of bad backlinks, is an efficient practice.
Click to view the Twitter thread.
So, is an efficient negative SEO attack even possible?
The answer is, it depends.
Google is very good at distinguishing between backlinks that you created and toxic links that appeared out of the blue. Yet, it might be easier to sabotage a website that already has thin content and a poorly attended backlink profile because the attacker will just be putting more fuel on the fire.
At the same time, a quality website may suffer a negative SEO attack too but it may turn to be a costly and time-consuming endeavor for the attacker. An attack must be thoroughly designed and carried out intelligently to be really effective.
Marie Haynes explains:
If a competitor was building a spammy link to your site it would be extremely expensive and would have more of a chance of helping your rankings rather than hurting them. [...] In all of my years of auditing links and helping websites who have experienced traffic drops, I can only recall one case where I truly felt that links built via negative SEO were the culprit.
How to Detect and Suppress a Negative SEO Attack
An attacker could combine multiple efforts in order to make your website fall off the SERPs. To minimize the consequences of such an attack, here are some pre-emptive actions that you can consider.
Preventing a Website From Hacking
For negative SEO to work in this case, it is unlikely the hacker will hijack your website entirely. You may still have full access to your website while an attacker has installed various spammy signals that you might not detect. For example, messing with robots.txt or sitemap could hurt your site without you noticing any obvious change right away.
In order to detect security breaches, you can set up notifications in Google Search Console and regularly run site audits to fix any technical issues.
Also, you can use this simple tool that provides a top-level overview telling you if there are any signs of your website being hacked.
Finally, you can use The FTC Complaint Assistant to report a hacking.
Combating Fake Backlinks
John Mueller on disavowing links. Click to view the original tweet.
Google may not see Negative SEO as a serious black hat SEO tactic but, according to John Mueller, using the Disavow tool may be a good thing if you think you were hit by a negative SEO attack when someone is generating toxic links pointing to your site.
As seen from the comment above shared on the r/SEO subreddit, some users say disavowing works when tackling negative SEO.
But what are you supposed to do when someone is generating thousands of toxic backlinks that point to your site? You will need to disavow them with the same process of fixing a manual action from Google.
In all the cases you should go manually link by link, collect them according to criteria, and disavow.
How Fake Link Building Works
Below are two examples of negative SEO campaigns based on generating toxic backlinks.
In the span of three months starting from October 2018, a small business company faced a sudden spike in the number of backlinks pointing at their website. The number of backlinks grew immensely from 275 to 341,824.
This unnatural spike resulted in a manual action from Google. The webmaster then had to run an in-depth backlink audit and submit reconsideration requests to Google together with the disavow files.
It took two reconsideration requests to get the penalty lifted - and it was removed by August 2019, almost one year later.
In the second request, the webmaster emphasized that this was a negative SEO attack, and that might have helped to clear things up and get the penalty removed. As of today, the rankings are still being restored.
Another suspected negative SEO attack that continues to this day actually might be targeting the SEMrush website. Starting from November 2019, we have been detecting a spike in toxic backlinks being posted on identical websites. Below is an example of such a website.
This suspicious activity did not bring obvious negative results but is still keeping us a little busy watching out for these unexpected backlinks. Most of these links are targeting a non-existing page.
How Do You Protect a Website From Fake Backlinks?
Here is a summary of actions to take:
Use the Backlink Audit tool for your website regularly and watch out for the Toxic Score metric to detect any suspicious changes in your backlink profile.
Check the value and trend of your website’s Authority Score. A drop in the score may indicate that there is something wrong with your backlink profile.
Regularly update your disavow file if you get new toxic backlinks that you do not have a chance to remove.
Spotting Scraped Content and Website Doppelgangers
Identical content not only triggers cannibalization issues but can also result in websites or specific pages getting completely filtered out in the search results.
Attackers may duplicate your whole website or some parts of it to sabotage your search performance.
In order to detect malicious behavior related to copying your content or the entire website, audit the web regularly using tools like Copyscape or Siteliner.
If you spot a fraudulent website that copycats yours, consider doing the following:
Contact the provider where the fake website is hosted and explain why it must be taken down.
Use this Google form to report it and demand it is taken down.
Use The FTC Complaint Assistant to report the imposter.
Finding and Reporting Fake Negative Reviews About Your Website
The impact of posting fake reviews varies depending on the case. Fake reviews will hardly ruin the reputation of a large retail company but could hurt a small business company.
According to Google, reviews do impact your SERP performance, and fake reviews can harm it.
Making people fall for such feedback demands time and well-crafted “reviews”. Spreading negativity may result in the website's reputation declining and, thus, its traffic may go down.
To do this, an attacker must try really hard to ruin the reputation of a website, and there is no guarantee this effort will work. Still, you should look out for such activity by monitoring online reviews.
If a review is definitely fake, you should report it to the site’s administration where the “review” was published. You can read more about this negative SEO practice in the article about a case of a fake review attack.
Reporting Fake Backlink Removal Requests
Watch out for your backlinks, especially your most valued ones. You never know when an attacker might start sending out fake removal requests asking your referring domain to remove links.
There is no guarantee that a webmaster where the backlink was posted will not follow such fraudulent requests.
To swiftly detect the disappearance of valuable links, you can set up notifications to track any lost and found backlinks in SEMrush Backlink Audit tool.
Q&A With an Expert on Negative SEO
We talked to Ralf Seybold, an expert in tackling negative SEO campaigns, and here is what he said about the issue.
Q. Judging from your experience, what is a typical case of a really efficient negative SEO campaign? What does it usually include?
A. There are a few patterns that work quite well.
The "easiest" is image theft/hotlinking from a massive amount of domains with TLDs "from very far away". For example, your site is domain.de and the domains linking to it come from .gq, .tk, .cc, and so on.
Also, "The Globe" and similar-looking patterns (webhostlist.in) reduce rankings.
NOTE: The Globe (theglobe.net) is a spam website posting toxic links. It has been in operation since 2006.
Content theft and mixing content with porn, casino, or medical stuff combined with canonicals pointing to the original website is very typical patterns of negative SEO.
Redirects from bad websites to a very good website are also very effective.
Q. On average, how many cases of negative SEO do you come across annually?
A. I see a lot of image theft/hotlinking and links from sites like “The Globe”. I also see redirects quite often. The canonicals are less frequent, I come across them 2-3 times a year.
Q. What was the most difficult case of negative SEO you had to deal with?
A. Negative links combined with content spam on an e-commerce site. Every new content piece was stolen and put on different websites from obscure TLDs.
When visiting the website the first time, there was a product listing with products/articles from the original website, plus fragments of the text from the original webpage. The second retrieval of the website led to a dating site with multiple redirects. That means that the original page was not even on the SERPs for the brand name.
It took about 7 months to get rid of this and to establish a working solution for the client. Almost daily we reported the content theft to Google to gain back good results.
Q. How often do webmasters and site owners judge they were hit by negative SEO when in reality their rankings dropped due to poor backlink profile and poor/not optimized content on the website?
A. Oh, I see this quite often. I call it negative SEO when negative patterns are intentionally set up by someone.
If we look at all the practices that are associated with negative SEO, we will see that generating spammy (toxic) backlinks, duplicating content, and posting fake reviews have an actual connection to SEO.
All the other tactics, in fact, are more about plain hacking and scam.
All in all, negative SEO can indeed be harmful. The scope of its aftermath depends on various preconditions. The only way to protect against it is to take all the necessary precautions so any attack just bounces right off you. Constantly check your website using different tools to be aware of potential problems that might appear occasionally.
Hope you enjoyed the read! Tell us in the comments if you have ever experienced a negative SEO attack.
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