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What’s All This About Negative SEO?

I was planning to write a little blog post on Goole’s latest Penguin update and its influence on the good old backlink, but I’ve had one or two tweets in my twitter column over the past couple of days about the threat of Negative SEO so I thought, as the two are linked, I’d treat you to an article about that instead (with a heavy dose of Penguin and backlinks thrown in for good measure!). I know, don’t all thank me at once.

The twitter messages that I’ve received from SEO organisations have all been linked to articles suggesting that Negative SEO is a very real threat. Some of them have even provided proof, via their own case studies, that Negative SEO is happening now to companies of all shapes and sizes. So what is Negative SEO and should you be worried about it?

What Is Negative SEO?

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!) on this one; negative SEO is the process by which one company sabotages one or more rival companies by building links to their websites that could be deemed as suspicious. In the interest of honesty, there are actually a few other methods of sabotage that have been identified as Negative SEO, but they’re not the main concern at the moment so I’ll leave them for another blog.

Back to the backlinks: ‘But surely the more links you have to your website the better?’ I hear you cry. Not anymore!

The Life Cycle Of The Backlink

Once upon a happy time, one of the main mantras of SEO was links, links and more links. A website’s link profile was fundamental to its success in the rankings; the more external links a website had, the more popular it appeared and thus the more likely it was to be returned at the top of the SERPs (search engine results pages). Building and expanding a website’s link profile was key, but it was a time consuming job and was more often than not incredibly expensive. The need for a quicker and cheaper means of gaining backlinks grew and people started to hunt for a shortcut.

Unfortunately, this insatiable appetite for quick and cheap links spawned a whole industry based on supplying huge volumes of meaningless backlinks of poor quality and with no relevance. Suddenly, websites no longer needed to network around their sector or create great content to be rewarded with links, because they could now buy thousands of them for practically pennies. The downside was that most of the websites that provided these backlinks were essentially spam, so not only did this short cut mean that poor quality websites could bump themselves unfairly up the rankings, but also that better quality websites were undermined by association.

The March Of The Penguin

The resultant tide of spam that engulfed the internet soon led to a rise in complaints to the search engines about the quality of the results being returned and so Google decided to take action. Concerned that this practice was devaluing the overall quality of websites, not to mention drastically clogging up their systems, Google began to rollout Penguin; an algorithm update specifically designed to tackle rogue backlinks.

Overnight, websites with backlinks that Google judged to be either spam or suspiciously like it were relegated to the bottom of the rankings league and, in some cases, sent a polite email by Google informing them of the error of their ways. Penguin, working in collaboration with Google’s other algorithm updates released at a similar time (Panda, for example, and other zoologically themed nouns), heralded a sea change in SEO; short cuts were out and crafting websites the old fashioned way was in.

The Backlink Turns Full Circle

So, in effect, the backlink had turned full circle and now, thanks to Penguin, building a link profile is back to being a job of networking and penning great content that others will want to read and share. Some may say that it’s back to being a job that is both arduous and expensive, and that’s true if you’re trying to build a link profile from scratch for a new website, but Google would argue that a link profile should be grown organically. Like carrots. Hmm.

A Back Door For Sabotage?

OK, so far so good, but what on earth does all this have to do with Negative SEO? Well, by penalising websites that have so called toxic backlinks, Google has inadvertently opened the door to saboteurs wishing to do harm to their competitors. In theory, and some would argue in practice, it is now possible to damage your rivals by building toxic links to their website and then sitting back whilst their site drops from the SERPs and, hopefully, yours rises.

In theory, it’s a scary prospect, but is there any actual evidence that Negative SEO is being practised in reality? According to some major players in the crazy world of SEO, there is; quite a lot of it.

Who Is Concerned About Negative SEO?

This particular round of SEO gossip, brought to my attention via the Twitter-sphere, was kicked off by Rand Fishkin on 17th June 2014 with his blog post entitled “If Negative SEO is Possible, We Need an Irrefutable, Public Example”; the title is pretty self explanatory. The following day, in response, Martin Macdonald posted his blog “Sorry: Negative SEO Does Exist”, in which he provided the called for “irrefutable public example” from one of his own cases, illustrated with some rather fetching screen shots.

Martin Macdonald’s evidence was compelling, but he was not the first person to challenge the rather wistful, fingers crossed viewpoint that Negative SEO is a mere horror story for SEOs to exchange over the midnight feast at sleepovers.

On 18th March 2014, Jayson DeMers posted a blog on the Forbes website entitled ‘Negative SEO: Have Mercenaries Been Hired To Torpedo Your Search Rankings?’ , in which he states that “recently, an individual contacted my company, threatening to build thousands of links to my website if we didn’t pay him $250”.

In this instance, Forbes ignored the email and, to date, don’t appear to have suffered any repercussions, but it does rather pose the question that, if people are now receiving scam emails threatening Negative SEO, how long will it be until this becomes a widely accepted method of ‘torpedoing’ your opponents out of the SEO race? And Forbes are not the only company to have experienced this first hand; just type ‘Negative SEO’ into your search engine and see what comes up.

What Is Google’s Reaction?

As Google would appear to be at the root of this issue, you would expect them to be hitting back hard in their response and offering solutions, but it would appear that Google are trying to play down the problem, or, at least, that’s what I assume they’re doing.

To date, as far as I can gather, Google have not responded directly to all the Negative SEO blogs and articles that are flying around at the moment. A week or so ago, at the SMX Advanced in Seattle, Matt Cutts, in a Q&A session, responded to the question “what’s going on with Negative SEO, how aware are you of it and are you doing anything to stop it?” with the following answer;

“We’re very aware of it … because people are worried about it and we design our algorithm as such that we try to make sure so that it’s not a realistic attack to do…[the penguin] algorithm stuff that rolled out just a few weeks ago incorporates a lot of protections”

Although he stated that Google are aware of the rumours surrounding Negative SEO, Matt Cutts failed to acknowledge, despite being specifically asked, that it is a practice being actively undertaken.

The Disavow Tool

In fairness to Google and Matt Cutts, he did release a Webmaster video in December 2012, in which he addresses the subject of Negative SEO, proving that it’s been around for quite a while now.

In this video, to paraphrase grossly, Matt Cutts plays down the issues by assuring viewers that Negative SEO is not a problem that the majority of webmasters and publishers will ever come across, stating that a lot of people are talking about it but not a lot of people are doing it. Again, Matt Cutts fails to acknowledge that Negative SEO is a real problem, preferring instead to state that if, by some miracle, a large website in a particularly competitive market was worried about someone potentially sabotaging their website, then they could use the disavow tool.

It’s true that Google’s disavow tool was designed to help website owners clarify their link profile and it can be an effective means of preventing your website from being penalised for unwanted or illegitimate backlinks, but it will involve quite a lot of work on your part. The advice of Google to anyone who is worried about Negative SEO or who thinks that they may have been targeted, is to check their link profile regularly and to ask Google, via the disavow tool, to ignore any links that may be suspicious.

Is Google Doing Enough?

It’s true that Google appear to have accepted the fact that people are worried about Negative SEO but they have yet to admit that it is a practice being openly employed. When faced with direct questions, Matt Cutts has repeatedly defended Google’s position, assuring audiences that they are proactively thwarting the possibility of Negative SEO by building safeguards into their algorithms and then offering a second line of defence in the form of the disavow tool. The message from Google is clear; they are doing everything in their power to prevent the threat of Negative SEO from becoming a reality.

Unfortunately, that message does not ring true to a lot of people and there is a certain level of anger out there on the blogosphere. In fact, whilst doing a bit of research for myself, I came across the following blog, posted by a rather frustrated Tom Forrest on 19th March 2014 in response to the Forbes article I mentioned above;

“Bullshit from Matt Cutts, Google cannot even find and detect obvious paid links correctly, how can they claim they can detect negative SEO? I do not believe Google has any clue about how often this really happens. No Google is NOT doing enough to stop this terrible problem of negative SEO. Google needs to decide which backlinks to count and which ones to ignore, that is their job, not the job of business owners. It is ridiculous for Google to create this problem, then tell website owners they must do a lot of work to protect themselves from the problem Google created in the first place.”

The general consensus amongst a lot of bloggers and SEOs seems to be in agreement with Tom Forrest; Google created the possibility of Negative SEO, so why should hard working website owners now be forced into doing a lot more work, just to make sure it is not happening to them?

To Conclude

Despite all the hype that I have come across surrounding Negative SEO, and I’ve come across quite a lot of it, I have only managed to uncover a handful of documented cases, and they do seem to be occurring to businesses at the high end of the spectrum or in a particularly competitive field. That does not necessarily mean that Matt Cutts is correct in his assertion that a lot of people are talking about it but not a lot of people are doing it, it may just mean that not a lot of people are reporting it yet, or even that they may not be aware of it yet.

Nevertheless, whether the scale of the threat is real or exaggerated, it would seem to me that Google could go a long way to lessening some of the tension if they simply admitted that the practice is happening.

Then maybe the SEO community as a whole could move forward to find a solution together and stop these internet pirates from sabotaging our websites.

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