Digital Wetwork: Are Competitors Using Negative SEO to Hurt Your Website? [UPDATED 2018]
*Originally published 6.27.2017; updated 11.9.2018.
In a perfect world, all of your competitors would play by the rules. The market for your goods and services would be a level playing field, and success or failure would be determined purely by merit.
Unfortunately, however, there are a lot of business owners and marketers out there who will do just about anything to get ahead. And when it comes to online marketing, there are numerous dirty tricks that your competitors can pull. Of these blackhat tactics, negative SEO is arguably among the most catastrophic. Learn more about what it is, how to identify if it’s being done to your site, and what you can do to defend against it.
Negative SEO in a Nutshell: 5 Types of Attacks
From what we’ve seen in the home services industry, negative SEO is a relatively rare phenomenon, but it’s still a real danger. So it’s important for business owners to understand how it basically works.
In the whitehat world of SEO, we spend all our time optimizing your onsite and offsite SEO presence. That usually includes optimizing your site’s internal linking, keywords and metadata, your inbound and outbound link profiles, directory citations, customer reviews, and more. This is a fairly tedious, ongoing process that can take months (and even years in very competitive industries and markets) before your SEO efforts reach their full potential.
By contrast, negative SEO is a blackhat technique that attempts to tear down all of this work. It can be done quickly, and if it isn’t detected or dealt with immediately, the fallout can be devastating. There are a slew of different methods, and new ones emerge all the time. Here are a few of the more well-known types of negative SEO attacks, arranged in order from the most to the least common:
- Fake negative reviews on sites like Google My Business and Yelp
- Low-quality link-spamming to provoke a Google Penalty
- Scraping content from your site in an attempt to get the duplicated content indexed first
- Crawling attacks / forceful crawling to slow down site speed
- False DMCA Takedown Requests [NEW – See updated Section Below]
For sake of comparison, a negative SEO attack is on par with having your website outright hacked, and the consequences for your site’s ability to perform can be even more far-reaching. Of these different methods, the first two are probably the most common, primarily because they’re the easiest to execute.
It isn’t very hard to gain access to a private blog network (PBN) or a link farm and use it to point a lot of low-quality links with spammy anchor texts at your site. Additionally, it only takes a marginal amount of time and effort to create fake profiles and start pushing out negative reviews. Subsequently, it’s crucial to know the signs.
Is Negative SEO Being Used Against Your Business?
Like we mentioned before, negative SEO attacks are insidious, and they can happen quickly. It takes vigilance and some degree of SEO expertise to stay on guard from a negative SEO campaign. However, these are the basic ways to defend against each type of attack:
Spot Fake Reviews on Yelp and Google My Business
Negative reviews always are a painful experience. It can be difficult for business owners to see their dealership’s dirty laundry displayed so openly. Some negative reviews might even be unfair or inaccurate. However, there is a significant difference between a negative customer review and a fake negative review that has been created for the purpose of disrupting your SEO.
Fake negative reviews often come in large numbers, and they may or may not come all at once. Typically, though, the negative reviews will be one-star reviews with no comment; in other cases, they will include a fabricated review from someone who never has left any other review anywhere else on the web. If you see a large number of these (ranging from dozens to hundreds) appearing on Google My Business or Yelp, then you may be the victim of a coordinated negative SEO campaign.
Detect Link Spamming Before it Gets Out of Hand
Your site’s inbound backlink profile should be regularly monitored for numerous reasons. If you have a good SEO team working for you, then they’re probably already doing routine link audits. In the course of doing so, they’ll be able to see whether your link profile is growing normally or if there are huge spikes. The important thing is to catch this in its early stages before too many bad links accumulate; as Niel Patel notes:
“There are many stories in forums of negative SEO causing organic search traffic to crash. However, you should first understand whether there’s a real risk to your site. In order to get penalized by Google, the number of spammy backlinks would have to be overwhelmingly huge compared to the number of good links.”
The trick is to catch link spamming before it precipitates a penalty from Google. This can be accomplished through the use of link auditing software and periodic manual reviews of your backlink profile.
Get Notified When Your Content is Scraped
Figuring out that your content is being scraped is a relatively straightforward proposition. You can easily set up Google Alerts, use trackback notifications, or even use plagiarism-detecting software like Copyscape or Grammarly to see if your content is being picked up and used without your permission.
If your content is being scraped as part of a negative SEO campaign, then you’ll probably notice that it’s getting scraped by the same sites on a regular basis almost as soon as you publish it. The idea is to get Google to index the scraped content before the original content gets indexed, so it has to go up fast. And for this type of attack to be effective, this has to happen to enough of your content to create an issue with the Google Panda filter. It’s a relatively unsophisticated way to attack a website, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Watch Your Site Speed, CTRs and Bounce Rates
Site speed can mean all the difference in the world, both from a user experience and an SEO perspective. If your site speed plummets or your site inexplicably becomes unavailable, there are a number of reasons this could be happening. One of them, however, involves something known as “forceful crawling.”
This type of attack is designed to intentionally create a heavy server load and cause your site to slow down or outright crash. The principle here is to simply keep an eye on your site speed, CTRs and bounce rates, and investigate when irregularities occur. If you suddenly see wild fluctuations, then you may have a problem with excessive crawling.
Pay Attention to All Copyright Infringement Notices and Takedown Requests [NEW]
Recent reports from TorrentFreak and Search Engine Journal indicate that a new iteration of negative SEO is on the rise. This particular variety involves impersonating legitimate companies and using Google’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown tools to falsely flag content under the pretense of copyright infringement. The net effect is to “downrank” competitors’ websites, and so far, Google has not found a definitive solution to prevent this from happening.
This isn’t exactly a new problem; Moz even published a guide on what to do if you get a bogus DMCA takedown request back in 2008. But considering Google has received more than 3.6 billion of these requests to date, though, this is hardly surprising. According to the original report from Torrent Freak:
“While Google is aware of the problem and flags some of these notices as fake, not all are recognized as such. This means that potentially millions of URLs are removed by scammers who don’t own any of the copyrighted content but are just looking to downrank sites of competitors.”
Subsequently, site owners should be paying attention to any messages they receive through the Google Search Console, set up Google alerts, and monitor any other activity (such as form submissions on your website) that would indicate someone is trying to flag your site for copyright infringement content. Now is also a good time to evaluate your site to see if there actually is any unlicensed content living on it. The last thing you want is to give your competitors a practical reason to file one of these requests. You also can keep an eye on the Lumen database to see if these requests seem to be trending in your industry.
Defending Your Site Against Negative SEO
If you’ve seen any of the signs above and come to the conclusion that you’re the victim of a negative SEO campaign, then there some immediate steps that you (or your internet marketing agency) should take:
- Fake Negative Reviews: If you’re getting inundated with a load of fake negative reviews on review platforms like Google My Business and Yelp, your best recourse is to flag and report the reviews. There’s no guarantee that these reviews will be removed, and you need to be careful to only report the truly fake reviews. Google and Yelp aren’t going to listen if you flag every bad review or if you try to report legitimate reviews with the old argument that “this customer isn’t in my database.” Focus on flagging the most obvious offenders (refer to the signs listed in the previous section).
- Link Spamming: To defend your site against link-spamming, you’ll need to disavow all of the low-quality links using the disavow tool in the Google Search Console. If your backlink profile has gotten bad enough to incur a penalty, then you may actually need to get a digital detox done for your website by an SEO professional. These don’t come cheap, and it may take years to rebuild your site’s performance and visibility.
- Content Scraping: Are you getting a lot of trackbacks or Google Alerts of duplicated content whenever you publish new content? If so, there are a number of things you can do. According to Kissmetrics, these range from directly reaching out to the website owner to contacting the web hosting company to filing a DMCA takedown with Google.
- Crawl Attacks / Forceful Crawling: In cases where it’s been determined that your site is a victim of excessive crawling, then the remedy is to identify the culprits using your web server access log and block them from your root directory (using .htaccess and robots.txt).
- Fake DMCA Takedown Requests [NEW]: If you get hit with a fake DMCA takedown request, your best bet is to file a counter notice, which allows you to appeal any decision made by Google by arguing that the individual filing the request does not, in fact, hold rights to the flagged content and that the party in question has no right to pursue a copyright claim against you. Read more on Google’s instructions for filing DMCA counter notices.
Again, while these are some of the most well-known negative SEO attacks, myriad blackhat SEO tactics exist that can be used to disrupt your site. Other types of negative SEO include accessing your site and modifying the content so that it links to malicious or competing sites; deindexing your site by modifying its robots.txt file; and the controversial “bounce rate attack,” which some SEOs insist is an urban myth. To learn even more about how to identify and defend against negative SEO, check out this comprehensive guide from Ahrefs.
Protect Your Home Services Site Against Negative SEO Tactics
At the end of the day, the first step in protecting yourself against this type of digital wetwork is to remain vigilant. As we’ve already mentioned, this type of dirty play is fairly uncommon for home services businesses, but it’s still possible, particularly if you’re operating in a hyper-competitive marketplace. Your site’s performance needs to be monitored routinely by someone who knows how to identify and defend against possible negative SEO tactics.
Of course, most business owners in the home services industry shouldn’t be expected to even know where to begin when it comes to this type of technical SEO work. That’s where a partnership with Mediagistic can make all the difference. As part of our LeadBuilder® program, you’ll have a dedicated digital strategist working on your behalf to monitor your site’s month-over-month performance and detect any irregularity before it becomes a full-blown problem. Contact us today to get started planning your custom digital marketing campaign.
Eddie Childs is the Inbound Marketing Manager for Mediagistic. His writing has been published by a range of websites and publications including Copypress.com, Jambase.com, NFLSoup.com, FootballNation.com, and Boating World, KnowAtlanta, Men’s Book, Cobb in Focus, TCL, Blush, Charged Electric Vehicles, Business to Business, and Catalyst magazines. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on Linkedin.
Images via Thinkstock
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