Rand Fishkin, the well known SEO expert and Founder/CEO of SEOmoz, has challenged the web to see if anyone can take down his sites’ rankings in Google by way of negative SEO - the practice of implementing tactics specifically aimed at hurting competitors in search, as opposed to improving the rankings of one’s own site. Fishkin tells WebProNews about why he’s made such a challenge.
Do you think negative SEO practices can be effective in hurting a competitors’ rankings, even if that competitor is playing by all of Google’s rules and has a squeaky clean reputation? Let us know what you think.
First, you’ll need a little background. There’s a thread in the forum Traffic Planet started by member Jammy (hat tip to Barry Schwartz), who talks about an experiment run with the cooperation of another member in which they were successfully able to have a hugely negative impact on two sites.
“We carried out a massive scrapebox blast on two sites to ensure an accurate result,” Jammy writes. I’m not going to get into all of the details about why they targeted specific sites or even the sites themselves here. You can read the lengthy forum thread if you want to go through all of that.
The important thing to note, however, is that the experiment apparently worked. BUT, Fishkin maintains that the sites in question weren’t necessarily in the best situations to begin with.
"In terms of negative SEO on the whole - I think it's terrible that it could hurt a site's rankings," Fishkin said in the forum thread. "That creates an entire industry and practice that no one (not engines, not marketers, not brands) benefits from. Only the spammers and link network owners win, and that's exactly the opposite of what every legitimate player in the field wants. Thus, I'm wholeheartedly behind identifying and exposing whether Google or Bing are wrongly penalizing sites rather than merely removing the value passed by spam links. If we can remove that fear and that process, we've done the entire marketing and web world a huge favor."
“I've never seen it work on a truly clean, established site,” Fishkin tells WebProNews, regarding negative SEO. He says the examples from the forum “all had some slightly-seriously suspicious characteristics and not wholly clean link profiles already, and it's hard to know whether the bad links hurt them or whether they merely triggered a review or algorithm that said ‘this site doesn't deserve to rank.’”
“If negative SEO can take down 100% clean sites that have never done anything untoward and that have built up a good reputation on the web, it's more concerning and something Google's search quality engineers would need to address immediately (or risk a shadow industry of spammers popping up to do website takedowns),” he adds.
When asked why he would antagonize those who disagree with his view by offering his own sites as targets, Fishkin says, “Two things - one, I'd rather they target me/us than someone else. We can take the hit and we can help publicize/reach the right folks if something does go wrong. Other targets probably wouldn't be so lucky.”
Perhaps there should be a Good Guy Rand meme.
“Two - if this is indeed possible, it's important for someone who can warn the search/marketing industry to have evidence and be aware of it,” says Fishkin. “Since we carefully monitor our metrics/analytics, haven't ever engaged in any spam and have lines over to some folks who could help, we're a good early warning system.”
So what happens if challengers are successful at taking down either SEOmoz or RandFishkin.com?
“SEOmoz gets ~20% of its traffic from non-branded Google searches, so worst case, we'd see a 20-25% hit for a few days or a few weeks," Fishkin tells WebProNews. “That's survivable and it's worth the price to uncover whether the practice is a problem. Our core values (TAGFEE) dictate that this is precisely the kind of area where we'd be willing to take some pain in order to prevent harm to others.”
When asked if he’s confident that Google will correct the problem in a timely fashion if he’s proven wrong, Fishkin says, “Fairly confident, though not 100%. I have my fingers crossed it won't get too messy for too long, but my COO and community manager are a little nervous.”
Fishkin concludes our conversation with: “I'd say that the evidence on the Traffic Power thread is strong that if a site already has some questionable elements, a takedown is possible. But, it's not yet proven whether wholly clean sites can be brought down with negative SEO. I hope that's not the case, but I suspect the hornet's nest I kicked up will probably answer that for us in the next month or two.”
Word around the industry is that Google is making SEO matter less, in terms of over-optimization. Google’s Matt Cutts talked about this last month at SXSW, and that discussion had led to a great deal of discussion and speculation as to just what this would entail.
“The idea,” he said, “is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit, so all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, ‘over-optimization’ or overly doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little more level."
One thing’s for sure though: If negative SEO can truly impact clean sites, that’s not quite the level playing field Google is aspiring to create.
Fishkin's experiment is going to be an interesting one to keep an eye on. If SEOmoz can be severely impacted from this, who's to say your site can't? Do you think it's possible? Tell us in the comments.