Negative SEO, Real or Myth?

Emmanuel Rivera's picture
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Earlier this year I was stunned in reading some of the industry’s most respected names debate over the existence of Negative SEO. Those that argued that Negative SEO does exist didn’t seem to be sure of what they were actually talking about. Some referring to Negative SEO as a Black Hat tactic, others cumulating the negative effects of Black Hat SEO as Negative SEO.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO, Real or Myth?

Unlike Black Hat SEO, which is the practice of duping search engines into giving more credit to a Web site than it legitimately deserves by exploiting search engine algorithm vulnerabilities, Negative SEO emphasizes on degrading a Web site’s credibility as a trustworthy resource. There are many tactics in the Negative SEO arsenal, but the how-to of Negative SEO is not the focus of this post.

The Year of Negative SEO

2012 has seen, from my vantage point, a rise in Negative SEO like never before owing much of its success, in my opinion, to the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of Google’s algorithm update dabbed Penguin which made the malicious practice of Negative SEO exponentially more effective and predictable. It’s of no coincidence that shortly after Penguin’s release companies offering Negative SEO sprung up overnight and Black Hat forums, as well as White Hat, began to buzz on the subject.

I first encountered the subject of Negative SEO in the spring of 2007 during a meet-up with fellow Internet marketers. At the time, the subject of SEO to me looked like the implementation of Web development best practices taken to extremes. I saw no defining differences with what I did as a Web developer with the exception of intent. Where SEO’s of that era used the Meta tags - title, page description, and keywords – to influence search engines, I used them to communicate with search engines. Some would say it’s the same difference, but I beg to differ.

Back to the meet-up. The conversation started with an affiliate marketer mentioning that she had traced several toxic links (her words) pointing to her Website most of which residing on porn forums. What she was not aware of at the time was that there was a correlation between the links, mostly dropped in forum comments, with a decline in traffic to her site and revenue.

Though it’s difficult to measure the impact of Negative SEO, there are clear indications that Negative SEO can be used to dilute a Web site’s relevancy in the search engines resulting in a decline in a website's ranking.

Posing the question to Google, we get convoluted answers just as the quote below as well as changing opinions of whether or not a competitor can or can’t cause a target site to be demoted or de-indexed. Let's take a look.

There's almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you're concern about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don't control the content of these pages.

Google Webmaster Tools Support

Right from the opening comment the word "almost" stands out like an ominous sore thumb. "Almost nothing" to me means that there is something and a way to suffer harm on a competitor. But wait, in a revised comment, replacing the comment above, Google makes a sudden shift...

Google works hard to prevent other webmaster from being able to harm your ranking or your site removed from our index. If you're concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don't control the content of these pages.

Did you notice the slight change in the opening statement?

There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking…

To,

Google works hard to prevent other Webmasters from being able to harm your ranking…

In the case of the affiliate marketer above the links were associated with time stamps indicating that they were mostly generated during a three day linking spree and that the planting grounds had been carefully selected for their negative value. Back then tracing links wasn’t as easy as it is today but with the help of self-made tools we were able to gather enough information to create an impressive link graph. Using a variety of file formats, we were able to isolate linking activity down to the exact date and time the links in question began and when the campaign ended. The total number of toxic links found, though the degree of accuracy is uncertain, was less than 300 among thousands of links the domain had acquired during its three year history. 300 links don't seem to be much these days, but the nature of the links apparently had enough influence to impact the site’s rank.

So is Negative SEO real, or not?

For me it’s not a question of whether Negative SEO is real or not but instead, is it effective. As a community that favors scientific hypothesis to argue a point, to utilize a scientific approach to answer if Negative SEO does or does not exist requires real world subjects – willing webmasters to have their websites be subjected to be used as guinea pigs – and I doubt we’ll find many willing volunteers. Perhaps the biggest indicator that Negative SEO is a real concern is the "Disavow Link" tools released by Google and later Bing, if Negative SEO is not possible then why release a "Disavow Link" tool? We can reasonably argue that a Disavow Link tool was released to help Webmasters who have previously subscribed to the practice of purchasing links the opportunity to reform their ways with the Disavow Link and Resubmit for Consideration tools.

So who's at risk?

Theoretically any Web site can be affected but contrary to Matt Cutts who stated that small mom and pop online businesses don't have anything to worry about in regards to Negative SEO - reason begs to differ. Web sites with limited or little, if any, resources but who over the span of years acquired respectable rank in their small but respective niches are the ones who are the most vulnerable. Unlike large Web sites, with editorial teams and small armies of moderators, a small site will not be able to respond in time with the necessary counter measures to nullify a Negative SEO strike. On the other hand, large sites with strong branding and 10's of thousand of links are understandably more resistant in large due to their support structure.

Earlier this year, April 19th, a heavyweight in the SEO blog sphere Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz made somewhat of a quasi challenge and in doing so revealed his belief that size, strong branding, social, link graph, and content signals are effective defensive measures against Negative SEO. But what about small online merchants and new Web sites entering the online arena who haven't established themselves or don't have the resources to maintain a content factory?

 

A Challenge to The Negative SEO Community

I appreciate you guys trying this experiment. I disagree with the targets, though (both in the SEO space, and neither with very strong branded, social, link graph, content signals - no offense to Dan, whom I've known and respected for years).

Not surprising shortly after the challenge seomoz.org received a Google Webmaster Tools "Unnatural Link" warning, probably, you would suspect, stemming from the result of the challenge.

 

Google Webmaster tools notice of dtected unnatural links

 

You can read more about the challenge here Google's Unnatural Links Warnings May Not Be Cause for Concern.

SEOmoz is not your average small mom and pop site it has a huge link graph (millions), pro and non-pro members, an awesome product (SEOmoz Pro), and strong branding, but I'll have to argue that in his challenge Rand excluded the vast majority of Web sites. And did I mention that Rand has Matt Cutts' phone number? I don't know that for sure, but I don't doubt it.

Takeaway

If anything, we can say that the subject of Negative SEO has certainly claimed its share of attention in 2012. As a takeaway perhaps we can come to agreement that Negative SEO is real and that the Web sites most likely to be adversely affected by a Negative SEO attack are the small sites that lack strong branding, social, link graphs, abundant content, constant monitoring, and the knowledgebase to fend off aggression.

If you suspect that your Web site has been the victim of Negative SEO, we would like to hear from you. We would like to know what you've done in an effort to recover and if what you did worked or failed. 

I'll close by linking to a video from Google Webmaster Help in which Matt Cutts addresses the issue of Negative SEO. 

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