Should You Be Worried About Negative SEO?

For the average business owner with no real interest in digital marketing beyond getting results, Google’s Penguin algorithm update must seem like the most terrifying thing in the world. If you believe everything you may have read Penguin is a merciless killing machine laying waste to small businesses for daring to have links from non-authoritative sources, a diabolical collaboration between big business (curse you, big business!) and Google to serve only themselves and perhaps most alarmingly, has destroyed SEO as we know it.

Even worse, it’s taken the keys to the SEO equivalent of Arkham Asylum and released all the blackhat prisoners who are now coming straight for you with an arsenal of spammy links. Google have also given your pesky competitors a way of deranking your site – after all, if you can be punished for any bad links you may have built yourself, then surely someone on the outside could build these kind of links to your site and get you punished for it. Penguin has brought negative SEO back into the limelight, particularly with regards to backlinking.

There’s been plenty published on the topic in the SEO community, but for the small business owner with no real technical knowledge of SEO that probably isn’t of much use. This post aims to tie together some of the issues raised and hopefully allay some fears for that kind of audience. Hopefully, it’ll be a bit of a refresher for some more technical bods too!

What Is Negative SEO?

So, should you be worried about negative SEO? The simple answer, unfortunately, is that there is no simple answer. Everyone is technically at risk of negative SEO and always has been, in the same sense that everyone is at risk of DDOS attacks. There is no hard-and-fast ‘negative SEO’ method, and anyone targeting your site will likely work on your particular weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Negative SEO doesn’t just refer to backlink spamming, and there are multitudes of ways a hacker can get into your site and get you deranked. So making sure your site is tight security-wise is important. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should be any more worried than you may have been previously, because this has always been a risk.

In terms of negative SEO utilising backlinks, it’s murky at best. This post by Dr. Pete on SEOMoz sums it up well – there is such a thing as negative SEO, but a lot of people who think they’ve been hit by negative SEO probably have had their ranking affected by other factors.  It’s more or less accepted that it is possible for someone to knock your site down the rankings through spammy backlinks, but it would take a lot of time and money that could be spent elsewhere. It’s also generally agreed that it would be a high-risk strategy for any business should they get caught, so the chances of Pete’s Kitchen Palace smashing your competing kitchen website with millions of links when they could be spending that money on their own SEO campaign seems to be quite slim. That’s not to say they wouldn’t, but they’d be better off investing elsewhere.

Unfortunately, as a result of Penguin there are quite a few blackhat services emerging offering total annihilation of a site’s rankings, presumably through backlinks and other unsavoury methods we won’t go into here. There’s no definitive way of making yourself immune against this kind of attack, but there are steps anyone can take to make themselves less suspectible to attack.

Building Defences Against Negative SEO

This excellent video by SEOMoz’s Rand Fishkin talks through most of them, as well as going into detail about some case studies and deals with the issues in a pretty easy-to-grasp manner, so it’s well worth watching if you’re unsure about negative SEO. One of the main suggestions Rand makes in the video is one you’ve probably heard a lot since Penguin was rolled out; having strong brand signals and a clean backlink profile.

Rand breaks this down as building ‘good links, good mentions, good press, good user and usage metrics’, which in short is all the things you should be doing in a good SEO and marketing campaign anyway. This more or less equates to the ‘quality content’ mantra that’s been recited time and time again since Penguin hit (and created a self-perpetuating loop in which ‘quality content guides’ became one of the most common forms of ‘quality content’).  Build yourself as an authority, get people talking about your brand with good content and build links from quality sources and you should be okay, and see your rankings improve too. Rand’s views are echoed by various other SEO thought leaders such as Dr. Pete, who writes that ‘Google is looking at your entire pattern and history of links, and if your site is strong with generally high-quality links, it’s a lot harder to do you damage with a short-term attack’ and respected SEO blogs such as Search Engine Journal.

How else can you protect yourself? Well, we’ve already mentioned patching up any vulnerability on your site. Being vigilant also helps too, so regularly check your backlink profile on webmaster tools. Google sends out link warnings (which have been controversial in the SEO industry, but that’s a whole other blog post) so you know when something is up, while Bing goes a step further and offers a Disavow Links tool to discount any spammy links. It’s been widely reported that Google has a similar tool planned, but for now there has been no confirmation of this. If you find that you get a sudden influx of unsolicited spam links, then there is a chance you’ve been targeted with negative SEO –  but remember, random links can pop up across the web so don’t take a couple of odd links as a sign that you’ve been targeted.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be real method to combat negative SEO should you be hit – suggestions range from sending Google a reconsideration request (despite numerous reports that this won’t cure any Penguin issues) to 404’ing any pages with massive amounts of links pointing to them and starting over again – which is drastic to say the least. Bing’s disavow links tool seems like a step in the right direction, so hopefully Google introduce something similar sooner rather than later.

So should you be worried about negative SEO? Well, it’s still an extremely rare occurrence and it hasn’t become the prelavent menace that some predicted yet. Stay on your toes but focus on your own campaigns rather than what others are doing. Whatever you do, don’t start sending out any hasty legal notices requesting removal of any ‘dodgy’ links you may find. Don’t lose sleep over it and most importantly, in the immortal words of Nick Ross from Crimewatch, don’t have nightmares.

Photo Credit: Xanthi-S on Flickr

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  • Written by on 26th July 2012 at 15:23
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