I had to laugh at a recent Digital Third Coast (DTC) “Renegade Search” blog video. It was about an extortion email the company received. The letter writer — poor grammar and all — stated he or she would “do NEGATIVE SEO to (their) website by giving it 20,000 XRumer forum profile backlinks (permanent and mostly do follow) pointing directly to (their) website and hence (their) website will get penalised & knocked off the Google Search Engine Result Pages…” forever, no less.
I mean, really?
Yeah, I got an email, too. It said that some guy, who I don’t know, won money in some sweepstakes and he wanted to share it with me! How cool is that?
But I never got an extortion email; however, it seems that these emails are circulating around the Web. How could the perpetrators think anyone would just pay them $1,500? Boggles the mind.
Google has been fond of saying there is “…almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.” Yet, they made a recent change in their response: “Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”
So, do you need to worry about negative SEO?
When it comes to big business, negative SEO is alive and well, and more prevalent than you might think. In fact, one of my own clients may be facing this issue right now. I’m not 100% convinced just yet, but it sure seems like negative SEO is at work. I know for SURE that a competitor is doing more in terms of SEO tactics since I started working that site’s listing down the page for a great organic money word.
Could the SEO that site is using be the negative kind? Time will tell as we do more digging, but I have deep suspicions.
What is Negative SEO? Is it Contagious?
Negative SEO involves a series of “black hat” tactics applied to your site that aren’t very ethical. I mean, they aren’t against the law, but maybe they should be. Sites can be ruined by a heavy negative SEO attack.
Some things that negative SEO creeps do involve:
• Building a barrage of spammy links that point to your site in a short time (often using negative keywords like Viagra, porn or gambling)
• Finding a way to remove the most important links your site has
• Copying your content and distributing it all over the Internet
• Creating fake profiles for your brand in social sites and ruining your reputation
• Flat-out hacking your site and making a mess.
I see that some of my client’s very old Wikipedia links have been removed. That’s very easy to do, since anyone can go in and edit those files. We were able to garner lots of traffic from those links, and now, I have to go through the process of “Talking” to the page owner(s)/the community and getting them to agree that the link has merit again. Much of what these creeps do is very time consuming to fix, and while you go about doing that, they’re stealing your traffic.
How to Prevent an Attack from Happening
1. Make Sure Your Site is Secure
If you have a WordPress site, like so many of us do, use security plugins like Bulletproof Security or Wordfence to make sure nothing bad can happen. I get reports from Wordfence almost daily that people are trying to log into the site. They’re trying to figure out the right username and password combination. After 20 times without using the right information, they’re blocked. Whew! This is another good reason for choosing strong passwords.
Also, if you’re using WordPress, don’t forget to change the Authorization keys in the wp-config file that you get from WordPress.org. (Just use the link provided in wp-config and it will generate new codes for you.) This is how they appear:
Just replace what’s there with new codes. You can do this, even if you used Fantastico or another installer. Just get your wp-config.php file via FTP and make the adjustments. Then upload the corrected file to your site in the root domain or sub-directory folder where the blog is installed.
You can also set up Google Webmaster Tools alerts for places where significant changes could mean you’re under assault. Click the Settings wheel on the upper right-hand side of the screen and then click “Webmaster Tools Preferences.” You can set up the alerts to warn you when any weirdness regarding your site is found. This will help you to quickly figure out if it’s an issue that needs resolution and then, solve the problem.
2. Watch Your Backlinks
SEMrush can tell you all about your backlinks. Keep a watch on them to make sure you aren’t gaining or losing them too quickly.
I like to keep “metrics” spread sheets for all my clients, and I update them each week while preparing reports. One very important metric to me is “backlinks.” If you’re not watching, things can go awry here very quickly.
If you find unusual activity, find out where the links are coming and going from. And if worse comes to worse and you find that you do have a scad of spammy links hitting all of a sudden, you can always use Google’s Disavow Links Tool (but that’s another article). If you are going to use that tool, just be careful and do it properly or you could wind up in an even worse mess.
3. Check for Dupe Content
We all know that duplicate content is bad news now, right? OK, so check to see if there’s any of it floating around on the Web that resembles what’s on your website. You can use a site like CopyScape.com or you can simple copy a line of your content and put it into a Chrome incognito window. If you come back with results, keep looking. You may find more — way more than you want there to be.
This is one of the things I’ll be doing this week to see if my client has been attacked. I have already found one instance of “copy and paste,” but don’t think that one copy of an article site means you’ve been hit by a negative SEO attack. It would have to be several articles in several places.
4. Check Your Speed-O
Another way that negative SEO can affect your site is by the attacker sending so many requests to your server that the load time for your page is very slow.
As you already know, speed is something that Google watches when ranking sites. I check Pingdom.com periodically for my clients and my own site to make sure everything is performing as quickly as possible.
One cool feature of Pingdom.com is that they will give you a site history, providing you allow the cookies. You can see how quick your site was before a problem arose, and how it appears afterward very easily. (And if you find other things slowing your site down — not part of any attack — take action on them, too!)
5. Check Your Reputation
Use Google Alerts to notify you when you or your business is mentioned online. That way, you can immediately see if anything nefarious is happening and take immediate action. You can also use sites like Social Mention, Board Tracker or Brand Yourself to see what’s happening in that arena.
Social Mention watches what’s said about your brand in social media. Board Tracker keeps track of what’s being said on forums and other conversational boards, like blogs. And Brand Yourself will monitor what people see when they type your brand into a search engine. There are really tons of ways to find out how your brand is perceived online. Just type “track online reputation” into Google and you’ll find many sites to help you.
The Bottom Line
No matter what Google tells you, negative SEO exists. If you take precautions to assure that people aren’t messing with your brand in several different ways, your site will be harder to target.
Use the tools mentioned above. If you feel that your site is still new or too small to worry about, you probably needn’t worry — yet. Negative SEO probably won’t be a problem for you.
But if you have a thriving online concern, watch out! Your competitors are vying for the consumer dollar, too, and some of them aren’t above doing unethical things to get what they want.
Many website owners have no idea what SEOs do, they just expect results. If your site is getting results too quickly, you might love it today, but you might have some black hat stuff going on behind the scenes. Remember, if you want your brand to be strong into the future, think about what might be happening. These “tricks” to manipulate search results in your favor will only hurt your site and potentially, your brand, tomorrow.
Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ so you don’t miss a thing. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was “5 SEO Stats That Are Crucial to Monitor.”