If you live in the real world and not some fantasy land where sugar plum fairies roam around with munchkins on yellow brick roads, you’re familiar with the concept of competition in the free market. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “All’s fair in love and war” and nothing better describes the depths a competitor will go to in order to defeat their competition online. Even being able to change one spot in the SERPs can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional profits or losses, depending what side of that spot change you’re on. If you happen to run a local business, as opposed to a business that generates revenue nationally or even internationally, you know firsthand what I’m talking about. Even a few weeks of super slow business can put you out of business, especially if you’re spending money for online advertising or generate the bulk of your revenue from online sources – thus the invention of Negative SEO, courtesy of Google Algorithm updates.
You can find out more about what Google Employees have to say regarding Negative SEO in a blog post by Marie Haynes, but needless to say Google Employees admit Negative SEO exists – even if they don’t acknowledge having a major role in creating the current forms of Negative SEO.
Meow You Say Google Invented Negative SEO? You’ve got to be kitten me!
That’s right, folks. Google created Negative SEO as you see it today. While some may claim that’s a bold, if not fraudulent statement, the rest of you reading this are cheering and agreeing with me. In their constant effort to improve their search results, fight spam and make profit as a search engine, Google undeniably makes changes. These changes cascade throughout the SERP-o-sphere, effecting much more than was intended by the change. While such cascading effects aren’t uncommon in the real world, often the end results can be far from the results intended by the policy change. This seems to be the case with Google and Negative SEO.
Google Algorithm Updates: Sources of New Negative SEO & Why
Google algorithm updates have been and will continue to be the impetus for new forms of Negative SEO. Any tactic that works well today, spammy or not, may eventually end up on the other side of a Google algorithm update.
Over the years, we’ve seen this with keyword stuffing in the keyword field. Google responded by ignoring the keyword field.
We’ve seen this with purchased links, link farms, over-optimization and spammy backlinks. Google responded with the Google Penguin Algorithm.
We’ve seen this with payday loan and Viagra links. Google responded with the Google Payday Loan Algorithm.
How could all of these Google updates create Negative SEO? I won’t go through all of Google’s announced updates one by one, but if what works today is against the rules tomorrow, then what’s against the rules tomorrow can hurt your site down the road. If we follow that argument to its logical conclusion once competition is considered, what’s against the rules today can hurt a competitors’ site now and down the road as well. Every time Google releases a new update to penalize spammers & individuals abusively manipulating Google SERP results, a new form of Negative SEO is invented, ironically by Google.
For the part one of this post, I’m going to dive into a few various forms of Negative SEO you may find being used against you. Part two will cover things you can do to address Negative SEO being used against you. Negative SEO & Google: Fighting Negative SEO
Using Reviews for Negative SEO: Google, Yelp & More
Hold up. Reviews? Seriously?!?
Yes, even reviews can be used as a form of Negative SEO. Whether real or fake, negative reviews can lead potential customers to call or buy from someone else. They can turn a “Yes” into a “No” at the drop of a hat, depending on the person reading them. Now I’m not talking about a reviews page on your website or reviews hosted on your website, although those can be detrimental when abused by a competitor. I’m talking about reviews on Google+, reviews on Yelp, reviews on Angie’s List and reviews on HomeAdvisor, Trip Advisor, etc.
While some review platforms are better than others at recognizing fake reviews, positive or negative, the perfect platform that roots out all the spam and fake reviews doesn’t exist. If a competitor can deter potential customers from clicking through to your website by having their employees leave you fake negative reviews, the competition will do it. Don’t put it past them. I see it all the time. I’ve even seen the competition have their employees create fake, positive reviews online in an effort to improve their own bottom line, while at the same time leaving you negative reviews for the purpose of hurting your bottom line.
How is this Negative SEO? Well, reviews can help determine placement in Google’s Local Pack. By fraudulently improving their own reviews, while at the same time trashing yours, the competition might just push you out of the Local Pack.
Using Scrapers & Duplicated Content for Negative SEO
If you’re in the SEO industry, you’re probably familiar with the Google Panda update. I won’t get into the semantic argument of penalty or filter, but Google Panda made it easier for scrapers to hurt you by stealing your content. In the post-apocalyptic Panda era, it’s quite possible for someone to outrank you in the Google SERPs for your own content. I’ve seen it happen multiple times with clients doing it to themselves by syndicating their website content to OTA’s, directories & other domains. On the Negative SEO end, competitors can scrape and syndicate your website content in an effort to see your domain filtered from the search results for any particular query in favor of the website they want shown. Competitors can even just straight up steal your content and put it up on their site and win if they have more links and stronger domain authority. Duplicate content isn’t a joke. You should take it seriously; especially if your content has been syndicated to a site you pay commission to for bookings or sales. You’re costing yourself more money!
Click Fraud in Google Ads for Negative SEO
Competitors will and do click on your ads for the purpose of costing you money, stopping your ads from running for the remainder of the day and moving their ads into the placement they want. No ifs, ands or buts about it. It happens and Google Adwords TYPICALLY identifies these as Invalid Clicks in your reporting, but it may be days or even weeks before you see a refund for those fake clicks and your account level Quality Score may never recover from the tampering; costing you a higher CPC than you should be paying for clicks.
In example, Competitor A has 12 employees who all live in different cities. Competitor A instructs their employees to search “target phrase we advertise on” from their home computers & click on Company B’s ad. Competitor A also instructs their employees to repeat the procedure on their cell phones and office computers at work. By 11:00 AM, your ads are no longer running and you’ve spent your entire budget for the day with nothing to show for it. If business is slow, you may be out of business before you figure out how to address the situation.
This has become such a rampant problem that companies are even making money selling click fraud services. Google tries to identify these policy violators as quickly and efficiently as possible, but no one’s perfect. For more information about this Negative SEO topic, check out Brian Krebs’ blog post about click fraud or this article in PC Magazine.
Click Fraud in Google Adsense for Negative SEO
Not only do competitors click on your ads in search, they may also be clicking on your ads on YouTube and other sites that incorporate display advertising. This can even happen with the use of bots! Check out these articles, one from the BBC about click fraud with Google Adsense and one from Search Engine Watch by Mike O’Brian. Needless to say, this too can cost you a very large chunk of your advertising budget if you can’t identify and block the source of those attacks swiftly and efficiently.
Payday Loan Links for Negative SEO
Linking has been and will be an important ranking factor for the foreseeable future. We all know not to build spammy links or buy advertorial links that are followed and point them at our own sites. However, this is swiftly becoming one of the major tactics competitors will use against you. When Google released the Payday Loan Algorithm, they created a very nasty tactic for Negative SEO. Don’t be surprised if you come across 12,000 payday loan links pointed at your site by a competitor. I’d love to say this tactic doesn’t work and Google recognizes and ignores the irrelevant links. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. Viagra links? Yes, the competition uses those too.
User Behavior for Negative SEO
As Google begins to incorporate user behavior into their algorithms, this opens up a new form of Negative SEO. I’m not sold on this one actually being legitimate, it seems way too easy to manipulate with bots and employees, but I’m going to discuss it anyhow.
Whether manually done or via bots, competitors are going to your site and intentionally triggering your 404 page in an effort to convince Google your site has errors and isn’t suitable for whatever query they searched prior to clicking through to your site. They also bounce back and forth between the SERP set and your website, suggesting to Google that your meta tags aren’t relevant to the query being searched.
I recently identified a few individuals doing this to one of the sites I manage and so I blocked them from accessing the site. Immediately afterwards, the site’s bounce rate dropped exponentially. Ironically, at the same time overall visits increased along with average visit duration. Google… tell me you aren’t honestly letting spammers manipulate your algorithms that easily.
Fight Negative SEO: What Sorcery is this?!?
Fighting a Negative SEO attack is possible and quite effective if you know how. While the tactics and successful strategies are always changing due to Google changes, there are a few that should stand the test of time. Check back for Part 2 of this article, where I’ll lay out some of the most useful and promising strategies for combating Negative SEO. If you’re currently under attack and can’t wait that long, The Perils of Negative SEO by Marcela De Vivo on Search Engine Watch covers using the Disavow Tool to fight links used for Negative SEO.
Not a professional internet marketer? If this isn’t your area of expertise and you’re too busy running your business to deal with online attacks from competitors, contact a professional. It’s never too soon to start defending your company from online attacks.
***Full Disclosure Notice: The cats seen in this article are mine aside from “What Sorcery is this” kitty. My boss is owned by that one***