Let’s address the elephant in the room. Negative SEO has been a problem for many sites in the past and due to ease and accessibility, it has become the go-to tool for unethical companies. As Google has significantly ramped up its web spam enforcement over the past three years, these companies are leveraging this to hurt their competitors online. But negative SEO isn’t just all about spammy backlinks; there’s a myriad of crafty methods negative SEOs can use to damage a site. In this blog post I’m going to go over some of the techniques and show you the SEO tools you can use to monitor your site to find and resolve these issues before they cause you harm.
Obviously there are a multitude of ways Google can hit a site with a penalty, but here’s an overview of the biggest issues.
This is the most common kind of negative SEO we have seen to date. It involves someone purchasing thousands or even millions of links in a single hit that can compound over a period of time. The problem is, this has become more and more easy to do and is difficult to trace, unless your attacker has left a breadcrumb trail to follow. It’s one of many tools that can have devastating effects on your SEO. Here’s an example of an SEO attack we detected last year. As you can see from the below ‘Referring Page’ graph from the Ahrefs SEO Tool, links and domains peaked significantly from May to June 2014. Until 2014, Penguin had rolled out in May and October, so the individual who ordered the hit, as it were, timed this attack in an attempt to have this website penalised by a forthcoming Penguin update. Anchor text usage indicates that this is negative SEO, using unrelated, spammy terms such as ‘viagra’ and ‘bad credit car loans’, as well as Article Directory generics. Another giveaway was the Country Top Level Domains (CTLDs) Distribution map from Ahrefs.com. A relatively small business in Queensland, Australia with very few pages and visits has no business acquiring links from Russia, Iran, South Africa, Brazil, Vietnam and South Korea! So what’s Google’s standpoint on negative SEO? Matt Cutts stated on one of his Webmaster videos that the Disavow Tool can combat negative SEO and, while Google employs techniques to identify these activities, maintaining a healthy backlink profile is a Webmaster’s responsibility.
Google has confirmed that its latest link spam update, Penguin 3.0, will, like Panda, be an ongoing update that will occur frequently and won’t be announced, save for major updates. This changes the landscape of SEO quite dramatically. Say Penguin rolls out every month – that means you’re at risk of being hit with a penalty at any time if someone launches a link spam attack on your site.
If your budget doesn’t allow for SEO Tools of Ahrefs or Majestic calibre, Monitor Backlinks is a tool I came across when reading Neil Patel’s comprehensive negative SEO guide on KISSmetrics. It’s cost-effective and even comes with a free trial! As you can see from the below screenshot, Monitor Backlinks sends you daily reports on new backlinks to your site, and even segments them by 302 REDIRECT, NOFOLLOW, ROBOTS.TXT BLOCKED (i.e. page and link will not be crawled by search engines) and OK (followed) – you only need to worry about links marked OK! This will allow you to see links as they are built to your site and update your Disavow File accordingly.
If you’re in a competitive landscape, or have recently passed a competitor, you should invest the time in monitoring your backlinks; the benefit far outweighs the cost! If you don’t have the time, find a reputable SEO company who can monitor backlinks and perform monthly clean-ups for you.
Bartosz Góralewicz presented an interesting case study on his blog, examining negative SEO without backlinks. To summarise, after observing client performance, it was found that server response times were extremely slow at early hours of the morning (some pages taking almost 9 seconds to load!). The cause was suspected to be heavy crawling from a variety of IP addresses. In addition to this, a SERPs clickbot was suspected of clicking on all other search results but the client’s, giving poor user experience signals to search engines. Bartosz proved this can be used to demote a site by running a test on his own site where he set up a clickbot to click on every page but his, using different IP addresses. He quickly saw his blog post, which was in position 1, plummet out of the first page of search results!
For server response time alerts, you can sign up for Pingdom Server Tool, which you can use to monitor your server response time and get automatic downtime notifications. If you’re seeing a server response time peaking significantly, like the below image, you could have an issue in this department. There are things you can do on your server side, such as block repeat offending IP addresses that are targeting all your pages and chewing up your bandwidth. Unfortunately, a clickbot is not something you can do a lot about. It is best to continue optimising your site with good quality content and high quality earned links to make it back up the search results.
With Panda running more and more regularly, content duplication is another way your website can be demoted and not something you’d likely know about until you’ve done a comparison on your traffic a few months down the line, or compared year-on-year traffic if you’re a seasonal business. Malicious spam bots are constantly crawling the Internet and some have been known to rip your content and repost it on their sites. Some competitors have even been known to copy sites in their entirety, which can cause a red flag for duplicate content when Panda refreshes and re-crawls your site.
You can place a canonical tag loop on all your pages, specifying your page as the original source of the content so if it’s scraped, the canonical directs authority back to your own page. However, most spam bots will generally scrape only the body content, ignoring your canonical tag so this doesn’t always work. Copyscape is a great SEO Tool for checking your website’s content against other content on the web. Even better is its affordable Copysentry tool, which monitors the Internet for duplicates of your content and sends you instant email alerts when duplicates of your content are found!
Negative SEO is a real threat and has become increasingly prevalent as website owners a) find it difficult to compete with their counterparts who can afford higher quality content marketing campaigns, b) are receiving services from black hat SEOs who recommend this tactic, or c) are using SEOs who may engage in such activities without notifying them. Google has openly stated that while they employ techniques to identify malicious attacks, you are responsible for your own backlink profile. To detect and protect your business against these types of attacks, set up alerts from the aforementioned SEO Tools. If you start getting abnormal amounts of links, server congestion or content duplication alerts, speak to Search Factory today about diffusing your negative SEO!