Negative SEO is one of the buzzwords currently circulating in the industry. Over the past few weeks, the controversy surrounding this topic is enough to raise the eyebrows and even earn the ire of a number of experts and bigwigs in the SEO industry.
Defining Negative SEO
For those who are new to this topic, SEO or search engine optimization is defined as the process of enhancing the visibility of a website or a web page on a search engine’s results page (SERP).
If you want to generate more traffic towards your website, it is ideal to appear on the high-ranked list of major commercial search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo!. As an Internet marketing strategy, SEO practitioners come up with ways to work with the algorithm of search engines and increase the ranking of a particular website.
Negative SEO, on the other hand, is also an Internet marketing strategy. As the name implies, however, it accomplishes the exact opposite of SEO: it aims to bring down the SERP rankings of a website.
Instead of increasing the visibility of a website through approved practices (e.g., high-quality content), those who practice negative SEO resort to tactics considered to be unethical and malicious. The idea is for search engines to penalize the website under attack, allowing the attacker’s own website to rise on the SERPs.
The Practice of Negative SEO
There are a number of methods which are considered to be under the banner of negative SEO. Take note that some of these are legitimate practices. However, when used with the intent to bring down the ranking of a competitor or take their website offline, then it is considered as negative SEO.
1. Classic techniques
Most people are aware of these classical techniques in attacking a website. The purpose is to find the security vulnerabilities of a particular website, then exploit them in a way that will prompt search engines to take them out of their list. This may come in the form of:
- Infecting a site with viruses or malware – End users are the usual victims of viruses or malwares injected on websites that will install themselves on their computers. Search engines will then flag these sites as potentially dangerous, possibly removing them from their SERPs.
- Hacking – With the technology in place these days, there are plenty of ways to hack a website that will negatively affect their SERP ranking. One way is to edit the robot.txt files of sites, which will either block the Google bot or restrict certain IPs. Another way is through the Denial of Service Attacks (DoS; may also be called DDoS [distributed denial of service]), which simultaneously floods a target website with plenty of requests using different computers. With DoS, the volume of traffic will block up that site’s bandwidth, which will effectively cut it off from the reach of Google and legitimate users.
When a site is tagged by search engines as “spammy,” they will rank these down on their SERPs or remove them. To accomplish this, they can use:
- Google Bowling – Google Bowling refers to techniques used to make Google believe that a particular site is full of spam. One way is to send out the link of the target website to link farms and other automatically generated spammy pages. Once the website gets thousands of links back and shows up on Google, it will trigger a spam alert that will bring down its rank. Another way is to manipulate the URL of one of the webpages of the target site by creating slightly different URLs but with the same content (e.g., http://www.mycompetitor.com/index.php?page=11, then change it to page=12, page=13, and so forth). If you send out hundreds of these links to blogs, forums, directories, and other websites, Google will eventually see this as black hat and take necessary measures.
- Black social bookmarking — With search engines now including social networking sites on their SERPs, this kind of technique becomes more effective. It uses social media like Facebook and Twitter to create fake accounts, which will be used to make spammy links directed to the targeted site using keywords such as “porn,” “viagra,” “warez,” and many more.
- Creating a similar “spammy” site — The key is to create a very spammy version of the targeted site using a similar URL, the same domain registrar, and the same hosting services.
3. Manipulating the content
Since content is important in the SEO industry, practitioners of negative SEO have found ways to use this to their advantage, including:
- Reporting offending content – While this is a legitimate practice, those in the negative SEO can turn it around to make this work for them. Once an offending post is made on a forum, a person can report it to the moderators or blog owners. If the moderators deem the content as a violation of their rules, they will take it down.
- Google Insulation — This is another legitimate SEO practice that involves promoting non-offending content. If your company receives a negative comment, you can create a positive one, and then apply SEO techniques in such a way as to coerce the bad comment/PR down the SERPs.
- Promote Competition — Another way is to promote a competing client. Say, if a competitor sells products 1 and 2, while your client sells only product 1, you can promote another company who only sells product 2 (but is not in direct competition with your client).
- Race them to have your content indexed first — Once a competitor changes one of their pages, those into negative SEO can create the same content with the same metatags. The purpose is for the search engines to crawl the latter’s content first before the competitor. Once a copy of a webpage is done, negative SEO can submit a sitemap containing that page on the indexing list of Google, Yahoo! or Bing. If they do it fast enough, search engines may index their content first and deem the competitor’s page to be duplicate content.
4. Attack their advertisements
Negative SEO can also use the advertisements on targeted websites by:
- AdSense banning — They can click on Google AdSense as many times as they want, until the target website’s account is suspended.
- Click fraud — This involves having a team click on targeted website’s adverts three to four times a day. It works well if the competitor has AdWords. This technique will use up the target’s budget and change the number of genuine visitors. Another click fraud technique is to have people click on your client’s site and sites below the target website.
This technique is used to make Google believe that the targeted website infringes their rules. Negative SEO can report paid-for links, grey-hat SEO practices of the target website, or claim copyright infringement.
The Use of Negative SEO
Considering the controversy surrounding the practice, why do people engage in negative SEO? Why risk your reputation? With recent Google announcements about the Penguin algorithm changes designed to identifty webspam, the potential payoff must be good if sites continue to engage in these type of black-hat techniques.
Three major goals include: (1) Targeted Negative SEO or TNS where negative SEO techniques are deliberately used to make a competitor’s website less attractive to search engine robots; (2) Lower the rank of target websites — also known as “SERP bubbling,” this forces down the target website’s rank, so that your client’s site will rise further up the SERPs; and (3) Bury negative content about the client — Companies are very careful with their reputation, online as well as off, so the goal here is to downgrade the ranks of websites that posts negative content about a particular company or organization.
No matter how unethical the practice is, the truth of the matter is that negative SEO works. So much, in fact, that search engines at the present have a hard time tracking these techniques. Even though Google’s Penguin update is aimed at stopping spam and negative SEO, it is still necessary to take note of these types of practices to protect you or your client’s websites against such attacks.