What is a Negative SEO Attack?

What is a Negative SEO Attack?

With the advent of search engines and the creation of our current digital culture, SEO has propelled the marketing world forward by giving business owners what they want: a direct line of communication to their customers.

It is not surprising to learn that SEO has become one of the largest marketing channels in the last decade and continues to grow at an exponential rate.

However, with growth comes competition, and SEO is one of the most competitive marketing cultures in the world.

The SEO industry is so competitive, in fact, that SEO’s regularly use the tools of their trade against their direct competitors.

This ‘black hat’ tactic is referred to as a “negative SEO attack”. But what is a negative SEO attack? How does it affect your business and what can you do to protect yourself?

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What is a Negative SEO Attack?

A negative SEO attack is the process of combining obsolete blackhat SEO tactics and Google’s ranking policies in order to penalize a competitor’s website.

Google’s algorithm has been updated to look for shady behavior on the part of a website using a series of penalization-oriented factors.

When Google is alerted to a breach of its ranking policy during the crawling and indexing phase, it may impose a penalty on a website resulting in reduced rankings, less website traffic and fewer customers.

Google's algorithm

This is a big problem if you are the target of a negative SEO attack since the results can include anything from reduced sales and website traffic to complete website de-indexation.

Negative SEO attacks are a serious threat that should be protected against by business owners at all costs.

How Do I Know If My Website is The Target of a Negative SEO Attack?

The difficult thing about negative SEO attacks is that they can go unnoticed for long periods of time unless you are actively monitoring for them.

Unlike traditional forms of hacking, there will be no change to the functionality or appearance of your website.

The most tell-tale sign of a negative SEO attack is a sudden unexplained dive in rankings in a very short period of time.

If you are regularly featured on the 1st page of SERPs for months and suddenly you are ranking on the 9th page over the course of a couple of days, there are good odds you are under negative SEO attack.

Types of Negative SEO Attack & How To Protect Yourself From Them…

As with traditional SEO, negative SEO attacks focus on the 2 primary components of your website’s ranking factors:

  1. On-Site Factors and
  2. Off-Site Factors

Off-Site Negative SEO Attacks

Off-site ranking factors are a much more common target of negative SEO attacks since they can be affected without login credentials and completely anonymously.

There are several types of Off-Site negative SEO attacks:

1) Link Spamming

When a website receives links from authoritative and relevant sources, Google boosts its rankings in accordance with its algorithm.

However, links that are not topically relevant or authoritative have the opposite effect and can hurt your rankings.

The goal of link spamming is the alert Google to spammy link-building practices on behalf of the target website resulting in a penalty being assessed from Google.

Link Spamming

The easiest way to counteract this threat is to assess your link profile on a monthly basis using a secondary resource such as Majestic or AHRefs to determine its strength.

If your link profile suddenly starts expanding exponentially and you don’t have an explanation, you may wish to keep better tabs on your incoming links.

2) Copyright Complaint

A copyright complaint boils down to someone making the claim that content on your website belongs to them. This can result in the removal of pages from your website for up to 10 days while the matter is reviewed.

It is not a permanent ban on your webpage, but 2 weeks of downtime is enough to hurt any marketing campaign.

Besides notifications from external parties, you will also be able to determine if your web pages are going down by checking your day-to-day traffic using Google Analytics.

If you see a valley that lasts for 10 days or so, there are good odds you were facing a temporary penalty during that time and someone is gunning for you.

3) Duplicate Content Re-Posting

Duplicate content is one of the fastest ways to get penalized by Google. Some negative SEO attacks depend on Google’s enormous crawling and indexing ability to take advantage of this loophole.

Duplicate Content Re-Posting

Content re-posting is the process of copying pages from a website and spreading them across the web on as many domains as possible.

The result is that Google will find the same pages over and over, and this can create a duplicate content penalty for your website unless the content is “canonicalized”, or directly matched to your domain.

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On-Site Negative SEO Attacks

On-Site negative SEO attacks are less common than off-site attacks since they require direct access to your website through logins.

They generally require some level of hacking skill and are by far the most damaging types of negative SEO out there.

1) Affecting SEO Ranking Factors

Once a hacker has access to your web files, they can cause a lot of damage to your website through various means.

If they wanted to keep you in the dark, the most effective method would be to impact your SEO ranking factors by changing keywords, alt-tags and H1’s throughout your site.

This could go unnoticed for a while if you are not actively monitoring your on-page factors.

2) Impact robots.txt File

Your robots.txt file tells search engines how to interact with your website. This includes making pages accessible or inaccessible.

A particularly nasty negative SEO attack would be to delete your robots.txt file or disallow crawlers into your site.

This effectively eliminates your website from Google’s consideration. Fortunately, it is easy to fix and is easily noticeable, but the damage to your rankings will be substantial.

3) Alter Site Architecture

By changing the link structure of your website or creating unnecessary redirects through the site, your site is less likely to rank for your keywords.

Again, unless you are actively monitoring for this, it would be difficult to detect.

The Chances of Being Hit With A Negative SEO Attack?

Although negative SEO is a very real threat to your website, it is very unlikely to occur unless you are in a high-money, high-competition niche such as online gambling or personal injury law.

Additionally, negative SEO is difficult and costly to implement and very easy to fix once it has been diagnosed.

This makes it a very ineffective strategy over the long term and something that most SEO’s will not waste their time or resources on. However, it is always better safe than sorry.

Protecting Against Negative SEO Attacks

1) Constant Metrics Monitoring

The easiest way to monitor the health of your website is to regularly check your month-to-month ranking reports and your daily traffic reports on a regular basis.

Sudden, inexplicable drops to either of these metrics is an indication of negative SEO and should be monitored closely in order to determine the proper solution.

It is normal to drop 2 or 3 places in the rankings from time to time, but large, keyword-wide ranking drops are the surest sign of Google’s penalization routine and the negative SEO tactic being used.

2) Regularly Change Logins

To avoid hackers getting into your website, it is always suggested that you change your logins every month or so in order to keep any potential hackers guessing.

It is also a great idea to ensure that your CMS is up to date in order to avoid being hacked through aged protection protocols.

3) Google Disavow Tool

Google’s Disavow Tool is your best friend when it comes to removing spammy links from your website’s link profile.

When you disavow a link, you are effectively telling Google that you do not trust where it came from and would like to remove it from consideration when it comes to logging your next round of rankings.

The Disavow Tool doesn’t delete links from your profile, it merely gives them a NoFollow Tag, which disallows them from imparting any benefit or penalty to your rankings.

In other words, disavows are how you neutralize negative SEO attacks after they have happened.

So, What Is A Negative SEO Attack?

At the end of the day, negative SEO attacks are a real threat to your website. They are fairly uncommon in non-competitive niches and even competitive websites are rarely targeted due to the long term impact such strategies have on their targets.

The good news is you can fix any damage done through negative SEO and you can rest easy with the knowledge that Google is doing everything they can to ensure that your website is protected even if it is the target of an attack.

Most importantly, you will want to make sure that you are regularly checking your metrics for signs of penalization since this is typically the first sign that a negative SEO attack is taking place.

Make sure you have baselines to compare your metrics to and rank tracking software for monitoring your website’s SERP positions.

If all else fails, use Google’s Disavow Tool to remove any spammy links from your link profile in order to give your website the very best chance of success.

Stay vigilant, stay focused and don’t worry too much about negative SEO attacks – they are not as devastating as they sound.

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9 comments on “What is a Negative SEO Attack?

  1. That was a lot of really great information. Being new to the website world, I’m still learning new things every day and I was completely unaware of negative SEO attacks. Seems like there is definitely a lot to keep monitoring. But I will look into the Google Disavol tool that you suggested, just to air on the side of caution. Thank you for making me aware of all of these potential threats, and I will be sure to keep a closer eye on things (even though it is unlikely any of it will happen to my site, but it’s better to be safe than sorry!), and follow the suggested tips and you mentioned.

    Great article!

    1. Hi Nicki,

      Yeah it’s certainly better to be safe than sorry! The article is geared towards making people aware of the threats but negative SEO usually targets very successful sites (for obvious reasons!).

  2. You would think after years of effort and quality content that if a competing website had a grudge to fill by sending you an SEO attack, Google would pick up o that authority you’ve established and still treat you more respectably. I truly don’t see the benefit and long term success panning out on another organization ‘attacking’ some other website in a similar way. I see many websites that don’t focus on SEO in their content anymore because they already have the authority and the following to such a successful level that it’s moot.

    1. Hmmm I wish it was that simple Sarah. Unfortunately negative SEO is designed for short term disruption (like we mentioned in the article above!) and it works VERY well. The guys that pull it off know what they are doing – believe me! 🙂

  3. Hey Chris, I really appreciate the information. The off site negative attacks seem to be more of a problem since they happen without the party having login access to your site. Other than paying attention to your site’s metrics, can you tell from looking at your site if a spamming link has been embedded? Thanks.

    1. From just looking at your site? Well you can check the comment section but, as I mentioned above, you are going to need a backlink checking service (Ahrefs for instance) to locate certain nasty occurrences on your site.

  4. Your post is very interesting and focuses on something I had never thought about. Yikes. Thank you for addressing this problem and alerting me that it is something to watch out for. It’s funny I feel like I barely have the time to work on my own site, much less figure out ways to cause problems on someone else’s!

    1. LOL I know the feeling LLyssa, still these people are out there…and they will stop at nothing to get top spot in SERPs.

  5. It seems sad that in this day and age you cannot make a dollar online without being attacked. You are trying to make it online only for people to attack you.

    When I create posts I write it from what I am feeling. That way I know that I am not copying what other people have put on their websites. How do I though prove that my content is original and theirs is not? Sounds scary to me.

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