Is Negative SEO Becoming A Bigger Problem For Businesses?

    June 6, 2014
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

Negative SEO – the practice of competitors engaging in SEO attacks in order to harm businesses in search results – has been a concern in the search industry for years. It’s rare that we see any concrete evidence of this actually working, but the suspicion is pretty much always there, and seems to be ramping up these days.

Do you believe negative SEO is working better than it used to? Let us know in the comments.

Last week, a webmaster started a thread in the WebmasterWorld forum asking “Has the most recent Google update made negative SEO easier?” It goes like this:

Negative SEO: Possibly one of the webmaster’s worst nightmares. I’d like to speculate that negative SEO is now much easier to do now than it was prior to google’s latest updates. Are we seeing more evidence to confirm this? There’s certainly more talk of negative SEO.

We all know that links revolving around bad neighbourhoods can cause problems for a site, and it’s relatively easy to generate hundreds, if not thousands of links automatically, and fairly easily putting a site on the automated radar at google. These links can also be generated manually, one-by-one, to slowly creep up on a site.

It’s now more important than ever to have a GWT account to look out for these issues developing, and to deal with them that much faster if we’re to avoid problems. What’s your view: Is it now easier to run negative SEO campaigns, and how would you deal with the problem?

The thread spans nearly 50 posts, and there’s not exactly a consensus that negative SEO is now easier, though Search Engine Roundtable says “most SEOs” actually agree that it is indeed easier. Barry Schwartz, who runs that site even ran a poll asking if it is easier, and nearly 74% said yes. It got 359 responses as of the time of this writing.

Since then, another WMW thread has sprung up titled “The New SEO is Negative SEO – How to Tank a Site in Google 101“. It suggests that the following strategy would work as a negative SEO attack:

The first month, contract a couple $5 guest blog posts [make sure the posts are in broken English of course], then go back to what you were doing.

Second month, try a few more [4-8] $5 [broken English] guest blog posts and add some forum link drops to the mix. Go back to what you normally do — Nothing will happen.

Third month, add even more [broken-English] guest blog links [2x or 3x per week], increase the forum link drops and sign up for long-term [“undetectable”] directory additions.

If the site hasn’t tanked yet, month 4 hit ’em with 20,000 inbound links all at once — Keep doing it and eventually the site you’re aiming at will tank and they won’t be able to figure out how to recover — It takes almost none of your time and costs very little to tank a site due to the “penalty mentality” Google has decided to run with.

There’s a bit more to it, which you can read on the forum, but that’s the general gist.

The original poster includes a disclaimer: “I don’t normally post about ‘how to do negative stuff’, but Google needs to fix this sh*t, so I hope people understand how it’s done and feel free to use it until Google fixes their broken system and mentality — Penalties don’t bring links back to citations; penalties simply change who creates the links and who’s site they point to. Period!”

Whether this actually works or not can (and will) be debated, but most people probably wouldn’t admit to actually trying it. People in the forum seem mostly convinced of its ability to work though.

In 2012, Google changed the wording in a Webmaster Tools help center article in response to the question: Can competitors harm my ranking? Once upon a time, it said:

There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.

Our search results change regularly as we update our index. While we can’t guarantee that any page will consistently appear in our index or appear with a particular rank, we do offer guidelines for maintaining a “crawler-friendly” site. Following these recommendations may increase the likelihood that your site will show up consistently in the Google search results.

It was changed to say:

Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages. Emphasis ours.

Eventually, Google released a video of Matt Cutts discussing negative SEO.

“So we try really, really hard to design algorithms that are robust, and that are resistant to that sort of thing,” he said. “Any algorithm that we’ve done in recent years – that the web spam team has worked on – we do try to walk through those cases and make sure that we’re resistant to that sort of thing.”

“In my experience, there’s a lot of people who talk about negative SEO, but very few people who actually try it, and fewer still, who actually succeed,” he said later in the video.

These words did little to quell concern. Plus, that video is nearly two years old. The topic did come up in another video from Cutts last year:

This response didn’t really sit much easier with some viewers.

Sadly, some businesses are even receiving negative SEO blackmail threats.

People have long criticized Google for simply not just ignoring the links it considers spammy, so people don’t have to worry about stuff like this and spend money, time and resources trying to figure out why Google doesn’t like their site and trying to get “bad links” cleaned up. As it stands, Google penalties would seem to double as strategies for negative SEO attacks.

Is this a real problem or is it exaggerated as Google would like webmasters to think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image via Google

  • AMK

    Google likes the idea of negative SEO, because it makes AdWords a more viable source of traffic than organic search. And for those that can’t afford AdWords? Well, they don’t have money, so aren’t important in Google’s eyes.

  • http://www.wpsitecare.com/ Robert Neu

    If you look at the facts instead of listening to everything Matt Cutts says, it’s pretty easy to see the reality: negative SEO is very, very real. Anyone who doesn’t have a massive, high-quality backlink profile is extremely vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. In some cases, we’ve even seen larger brands being penalized for them when the attacker is intelligent enough to make it look like the brand is intentionally trying to spam rank on keywords which are relevant to their brand.

    Anyone who thinks that negative SEO isn’t an issue is either asleep at the wheel or on Google’s payroll. We recently published an article and case study about this over on our blog… check it out if you’re interested: http://auditwp.com/negative-seo-truth

  • Theo

    The answer is simple. So simple in fact that the Google “Brains Trust” is too smart to see it. All we need is for google to identify the websites who they don’t like backlinks FROM and mark them accordingly. Then, regardless of how many links a website has from one of those sites they will simply not count!

  • HJ

    The basic thoughts behind the algorithm logic about links are too theoretical. It is like old India’s cast system that at that time it was the way but had to be put off. Are we so naive to think that people would link to other good competing sites. Competing because Google will try to see relevancy also and a good percentage of relevant sites would be competing sites. At the most the general audience (which matters) may talk about you in forums as they do not have their own websites. All other links are a game of either money or influence or relationships. Google has either stuck up in their own logic which is simply “not a logic” or they are not bothered as the brand has become too big (big things, by the way, may fall in a big way and suddenly). I do nott buy the idea that Google is doing this for adwords as otherwise they would have harmed bigger sites with bigger pockets. They are just depending on illogical brains and saving money to bring in real logic and thoughts.

    • Tatiana

      I had an impression that some people ruin your website just the fun of doing it. Don’t even think they are your competitives after all. I closed my content website because I did not know how to fight with several negative links.
      Of course there was a mass of good links as well, but….
      Had an impression that Google sees more relevancy in bad links.

  • http://www.Top10GoogleResults.com PhilEsq

    Google should just ignore inbound links they don’t like instead of penalizing the receiving site. They could just penalize a site for bad outbound links. I have a couple of niche directories I personally manage and re-categorize entries to the proper category all the time. I get requests all the time to remove links from people in a panic over Google penalties. I wonder if people are removing their links from yellowpages.com, superpages.com and similar sites.

    • http://www.sbwebcenter.com/ Steve B

      I think Google realizes this, but they rather penalize a bunch of sites, so these businesses would have no choice but to use Adwords to bring in traffic. Do no evil! Yeah right!

  • Steve Warren

    Don’t we all agree? Why not just ignore the bad sites/directories? Why penalise sites for having links from them?
    How is Google going to stop the “Negative SEO” industry from prospering — where operators deliberately create “bad sites” and “bad neighborhoods”, fill them with links, and charge site owners for removing them?
    How is Google going to stop a site owner from using their own Disavow file as a source of sites on which to place their competitors?
    Taken to its logical conclusion, only the toughest — and the luckiest — will survive.

  • Dave Fogel

    Negative seo is a very real threat Imo, but it can be stopped if Google actually gave us a useful tool to not count links. Not some crappy disavow file that you never know if they have ever even read. I think they really need to do something now.

  • http://gorangrooves.com/session-drummer-tracks/drum-tracks-session-drummer.html Session Drummer Goran

    Here is how Google should work with links: once it finds links pointing to your site, it should ask you in the webmaster tools to approve or disprove their linking. It is kind of like a “friend request” on Facebook. That way you know right at the start if you want a certain website linked to you or not rather than sifting through hundreds or thousands of existing good links to find a few new bad ones. Any site can link to you, of course, but you can have a say if you want that link considered for your ranking.

  • Greg Newell

    I’ve been discussing this for months with my clients. I even wrote a 3 point business plan for black hat SEO and posted it on LinkedIn so you can see how easy it is to do! You have to hit people in the face with this to get them to believe it! It really comes down to the fact that Google penalizes spammy links instead of simply ignoring them.

  • Mark Lamendola

    The answer to this question is obvious.

    Google has previously slammed sites that turned to SEOs after the first release of Panda dropped their revenue to near zero and Google steadfastly refused to offer any insight as to why–for several months. Then Google slammed those sites that, in desperation, shelled out thousands of dollars to SEO firms. The latter which created huge amounts of inbound spam links. Google refused to cut the victim sites any slack, and even today Google refuses to remove its own diigo and blogspot spam even after the URL has been reported hundreds of times.

    Yet, we are supposed to believe that somehow the same negative SEO attack done (usually without our agreement) by SEOs for which Google tanked our results is not going to harm us if another SEO does the same thing? Yeah, right. Can Matt Cutts insult our intelligence any more than by spewing such nonsense at us?

    So, yes, of course negative SEO is a very real threat. Only if Google decides to abandon its “Do more evil” mentality and either get rid of Penguin or provide a means other than the outdated Webmaster Tools data and the lame, semi-functional disavow file tool will it not be an existential threat. And even then, the victim site must expend huge resources in defense.

    We are in a great economic Depression. Only 49% of working age American adults have a job. Cutts’ assertion that Mom and Pop sites have no worries about cut-throat competition is idiotic at best. I think he needs his IQ retested if he actually believes that statement; or he needs to address Google’s failings instead of lying about them.

    Let’s remember that Google is working very hard to ensure its organic search results are poor. You can verify this by looking at the SERPs of any real search engine compared to the crappy experience you get at Google. The idea is to force small and mid-size sites to spend money on Adwords. But what is happening instead, in many cases, is these sites are simply shutting down. I have several competitors who threw in the towel in that regard and now sell only in the online marketplaces or not online at all anymore.

    The greed, hubris, and dishonesty at Google are spectacular in their scope and size. Thinking that Google will somehow lift a finger to prevent negative SEO is naive in the extreme. It would not surprise me to discover that Google has its own negative SEO team targeting sites it wants more ad dollars from. Nothing bad they do would surprise me now.

    If Google actually cared about organic search quality, it would change its many negative behaviors. And it would add a positive one; just as JD Powers created an arm that helps low-scorers identify the reasons for their low scores, Google could create an arm that helps sites identify issues that lower their rankings. I don’t mean help sites rank at the top, just help them not rank poorly.

    Matt Cutts spews statements about making a good user experience, but Google itself violates its own Webmaster guidelines and Google does nothing to help Webmasters fix what Google apparently does not like. Yes, we have some weak tools provided by Google, but ask all the bankrupt former Website owners how that worked out for them. If Google really cared, Google would provide real assistance.

  • http://www.2bubbleblog.com 2BubbleBlog

    Google even send people warning when it feels that links are not natural and now its saying that it can figure out when somebody does it you?! What a joke. If somebody hates you enough to send you 20,000 inbounds links in a month, how could it knows if it’s a newbie trying an automated tool to do it without knowing the harm he was going to do to himself, or, a competitor trying to erase you ?!

  • janetX

    Of course negative SEO exists… If you can acquire a penalty on your own then you can penalize someone else. I am not sure how this concept is hard to understand.
    You can try and disavow all you like but if someone wants to hammer you, they can hammer you.

    The older established sites (who spend money with Google) probably dont see this as much due to age, trust and authority but a newer company or small business can be attacked and hurt leaving the owners wondering why they suddenly lost a significant amount of business for (apparently) no reason.

  • http://www.admain.co.uk AdMain

    It’s far to easy to do. Since the first Penguin I’ve created loads of sites testing what links work, what don’t. What I found very quickly, is using an automated directory submitter, will get you hammered out of rankings.

    Pick your keyword, 5 to 10 maybe, write your descriptions, a dollar or two in the datacaptcha account and within a couple of hours probably about 1000 links applied for, many set up immediately, all anchor text links so looks unnatural as 50 inch breast implants and whadouno – site disappears.

    Imagine doing that to a couple of competitors. You could literally get the entire internet penalised.

  • http://www.gaptekupdate.com/ ebokalsel

    Well, i’ve done this negative seo theory by myself from last years. And its work as expected. I Just put some forbidden words in the anchor text, run some of seo tools for a week. Do it as fast as you can and…bang! bang! you shoot em’ down really hard.

  • http://www.commercialfuelsolutions.co.uk Rob Futcher

    We have seen recently within our link profile a number of very bad/spammy links that appear to have come from spammy domains, (mostly from China &/or drugstore sites). we believe that these links have been set up by a competitor, we have sought legal advice and have been advised that it is considered ‘criminal sabotage’ it will take some serious time and effort to locate the source…. however as we work in a very niche market the number of suspected parties is small and we should be able to back track them via the payment method from the spam site owners.

    Legal access to the information is handled in much the same way as a copyright infringement and any site owners refusing to provide this information can be easily persuaded as failure to confirm these details could easily lead to them being drawn into the case for ‘aiding and abetting’ and an injunction could be placed against them requiring them to both remove the negative content and publish an apology (on top of compensation) or if the court case is already under way they can be charged separately with ‘obstruction of justice’ we can then claim compensation for lost sales, its a long arduous process but if we can prove who is responsible we can negotiate compensation well into the tens of thousands.

    More business owners who have suffered the effects of negative SEO should give serious consideration to this.

    • AJ

      I believe this is happening to my business, but I suspect it would be next to impossible to trace it back to the perpetrator, making it a very expensive ordeal. Most of my links come from .ru, very many of them appear to be porn sites. Google’s disavow tool is a damn joke. It is unfathomable that they create this situation in the first place, and then put the burden on victimized website owners. I currently have around 500 of these unwanted links, I can’t imagine what it would be like for it to be thousands. I doubt I’ll even bother with the tool, as it probably won’t do any good. Google has become an arrogant and corrupt organization. The web was far better off without them.

  • http://www.sbwebcenter.com/ Steve B

    Google better try harder… it seems to me that it would be very easy to get a competitor penalized. Just go to one of the guest blogging or link networks and buy some links for your competitor. And be sure to use some keyword rich anchor text.

  • http://www.seoservicessz.com/ Hailey Kaester

    What I feel is that the right approach of advertising and getting linked to other sites makes you lead ahead irrespective of Google’s update. I, myself, experienced this. You can also check my page Seoservicessz.com to get to know more.


  • Guest

    Insightful, relevant and timely. Thanks for sharing this, Lee. I got hooked right after I read it. Keep those posts coming!


  • sam

    Of course this is done. And it will extend too.
    Thats what happens if you attack the hyperlink as google did.

    And the disavow tool is USELESS.

    takes google ages to index all links. This can be months or even years!
    So every day new toxic links are indexed by google bit by bit. And each
    single one of those can cause punishment. And each day you have to add
    the newly indexed links after testing them if they arent rightfully

    This is hell of a work and in most cases only works
    after google rolls out a new Algo update. This again can be a year. In
    these 2 years for the worst case (if even possible) any business is out
    of the game.


    punishing google, you attack the main basis of the internet and you
    made companys blackmailable. All that only to push adwords IMO.

  • James addison

    Negative S.E.O is pretty much a
    reality no one can deny it, it’s easy to tank a site by just making large
    number of reciprocal links, submitting duplicate content in article submission
    sites, plus it’s also pretty easy because if you keep on targeting a same U.R.L
    again and again then penguin is definitely going to hit your site.