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Raytchle Reiss

Digital Acquisition Strategist

Negative SEO - Are you at risk?

It’s not hard to make enemies online, especially since poll rankings and the associated click through rates can be the difference between thousands of pounds or enquiries for the high search volume terms.

In the past black hats would use techniques to manipulate their sites own rankings, however as Google algorithms have become more sophisticated these techniques will quickly get you penalized or even banned from Google.

So what’s the problem? The introduction of Panda, Penguin and the hacked page update mean that black hats can now reverse engineer old techniques, focus on competitors sites and damage your rankings. It's not surprising that this method is also known as “Google Bowling”, a simple way to manipulate rankings and reduce the quality of your competitors website.

What does Google say about Google Bowling/Negative SEO attacks?

There’s been a mixed response about whether competitor activity can impact your sites rankings.

When questioned about Penguin being targeted in negative SEO attempts John Mueller said this:

“If you see examples of where you think we’re getting it wrong, that’s definitely something we’d want to take a look at. This is something where we spend a lot of time making sure that our algorithms are kind of secure against this kind of manipulation and from a manual point of view that we do the right thing in regards to those kind of things. In some cases what we do is just discount those specific links and say, ‘OK. It looks like the webmaster didn’t have anything to do with this. This is something we can completely discount.’”

If this doesn’t confirm that there are vulnerabilities that can be exploited within the algorithms then the following will.

The Google guidelines have changed from saying it’s not possible, to ‘it could be possibly but not likely’ for competitors to impact your sites rankings.

Negative SEO is only set to become more of a threat as Google raises the benchmark and makes poll positions difficult to gain. Website owners want to see instant results and “some” don’t want to play on a level playing field. I also feel that there is a lack of understanding by website owners on what is and what isn’t negative SEO.

The below diagram shows the Google suggestions drop down for when users search for “Negative SEO”.

So what are the most common methods?


Google released the hacked page update on 05/10/2015 with the intention of removing hacked pages from its SERP’s. Some forms of hack aren’t intended to harm rankings in fact most hacks will improve visibility for “irrelevant keywords”.

As Google is actively removing hacked pages from the SERP’s or warning visitors before they visit the site I have included “hacking” as a negative SEO attack.

If you do find you have been under attack from hackers. Here’s the step by step guide to recovering your website.

There are a number of types of hacking: *301/302 redirect AKA The Opportunist Hack.*

Hackers use the authority of your website to rank for their desired keyword terms. They then redirect the pages using the .htaccess file to drive traffic to their website.

I have seen examples where hackers will only redirect mobile or desktop visitors.

This is not a direct negative SEO attack however, this will impact rankings and traffic.

This Domain Is Parked

Google wants to show relevant content. The “Domain is Parked” hack signals to Google that the site is no longer active so will instantly start negatively impact rankings. Most of the time this debilitating line of text is added using the old hat method of “white text on a white background.”

The UGG/Viagra Hack This is the most common kind of hack. The intent is not to damage rankings, more to steal some authority to aid with rankings for the keyword terms. Some hackers will use the 301/302 redirect method in conjunction with this technique.

More importantly, the site can be penalized by both the Hack update and the Panda update as high bounce rates and low engagement are a common metrics affected.

The Vanity Hack This isn’t a negative SEO attack. These hackers attack websites for kudos with their peers. To add insult they will often tell you who they are and add your site to hacker forums to increase their authority. However, depending on timing between hack and crawl you may find that Google will place a warning to users within the SERP’s. This will reduce CTR, and dampen rankings if you do not rectify this within a reasonable amount of time.

Other Technical Negative Attacks

Server Overload.

The aim of these is to slow a website down. I’ve seen sites drop from page 1 to page 2 almost overnight when page load speed decreases. Offenders use tactics similar to a DDOS attack however, with the intent of slowing the response times instead of crashing the site completely.

Unless you regularly check your server logs it is difficult to spot. These attacks usually occur during the night so no impact can be seen within the usual 9-5 working hours.

Hot Linking This method of negative SEO has the same result as the DDOS style attack. It is intended to put strain on the server. Offenders insert images into sites however, they request the image from the site under attack. Every time the image is requested/page loads the image is requested from the site that is under attack. This is particularly problematic when sites use large unoptimised images.

Reputation One of the Panda factors is off page reputation. It will take into consideration Wikipedia pages, independent sites, social signals and forums. There does not have to be a link to your website for a bad mention to impact your rankings.

Offenders will post bad reviews on a variety of sites. This has a multi-prong impact as consumers will be deterred from purchasing/enquiring and search engines will see the site as untrustworthy.

Backlinking This is the most common and most visible form of negative SEO. This tactic is used to prompt a Penguin penalty. Offenders will create unnatural links with highly targeted anchor text to create an unnatural link profile.

Keep an eye out for a high amount of referring URLs and a low amount of referring domains. Another common factor is a high amount of links being removed.

Why? - I would be pretty annoyed if I was Lead Forensics also.

It wouldn’t cost much to get a site penalized.

Content Duplication

Clone Sites Offenders will often create a clone site using a misspelled domain. They will then use a range of other negative SEO tactics to get the site penalized by a algorithm. Once the task is complete they will redirect the domain to your site. Guilty by association comes to mind and unfortunately penalties can pass cross domains.

Content Distribution Spinning content used to be a “grey hat” tactic of improving rankings. Spinning a sites content will eventually highlight unusual activity and can potentially cause a penalty.

Google Says:

“To conclude, I'd like to point out that in the majority of cases, having duplicate content does not have negative effects on your site's presence in the Google index. It simply gets filtered out. If you check out some of the tips mentioned in the resources above, you'll basically learn how to have greater control about what exactly we're crawling and indexing and which versions are more likely to appear in the index. Only when there are signals pointing to deliberate and malicious intent, occurrences of duplicate content might be considered a violation of the webmaster guidelines.”

What does this mean for SEO’s/Webmasters?

Our job just got a lot harder. Before we could just focus on offensive tactics to improve rankings. Now we have to simultaneously juggle between defensive and offensive factors. Monitoring backlinks, checking for duplicate content regularly, monitoring online reputation and checking server logs whilst implementing offensive tactics could mean that a one person role just doubled to a two. It’s not going to get any easier in the future. The likes of Fivver allow damaging activities to be easily available to competitors at an extremely cheap cost.

Conclusion & Advice

My advice to you. Seek an expert before you start claiming that you are under attack from negative SEO. Each site should be investigated on a site by site basis as there is no one size fits all.

There are defensive ways that you can prevent a penalty, discredit links and remove scraped content from Google’s index. However, unless you know how to use these tools you can also damage your own site’s reputation and more importantly rankings.

Sometimes things aren’t as white as they appear. It only takes one disgruntled competitor or savvy customer to treble your workload.