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Negative SEO – Smoke, Mirrors and Half Truths

shady seo building negative backlinks Over the last few weeks the Internet has been all ‘a flutter over negative SEO and the way in which unsavory characters can sabotage your Google rankings through negative SEO tactics.

This includes tactics such as lots and lots of low quality profile links or links from low quality sites, excessive amounts of anchor text and other such signals that would indicate that these are not natural links and the value from these should not be counted.

Should Not Be Counted

Now, that is exactly the problem and if you are doing spammy link building or external work that is outside the quality guidelines then these links should not be counted as you should not be able to manipulate search results in this way. Now, that is a whole other article right there but lets just assume the system works and spammy links don’t have any positive impact for now. So, if you are doing bad link building, those links won’t count, so if a competitor tries to do spammy link building then that should not be counted either.

Seriously, this is the only way this can work as the can of worms (trojans, and other viruses) that this would open up could bring the Internet, or Google search at least to its virtual knees. It would be the digital marketing equivalent of fire and brimstone raining down from the sky and good mannered sites disappearing into a fiery pit of negative seo hell.

SEO No Start

Most of this has been focussed around a thread over at Traffic Planet regarding a negative seo case study done on the site of Dan Thies, an SEO that has been around for some time. For more background info, there is a good article over at wpmu.org that goes into a little more detail but ill just push on.

So, the story goes something like this: After Google took recently took down a bunch of blog networks Dan Thies publicly congratulated Matt Cutts (the Google Spam Czar) on the work they were doing and taking down these networks over Twitter. Now, more than a couple of folks probably got burned in this takedown and there were probably some (fairly) innocent casualties who may have been contracting out their SEO and ultimately being propped up by these networks. That sucks, but search result manipulation sucks more, so that is the collateral damage here. But, I digress, some folks that hang out at Traffic Planet took offense to this ‘brown nosing’ and decided that they would teach Mr. Thies a lesson by making his blog the target of a negative SEO campaign.

To cut a long story (and even longer forum thread) short a couple of keywords were aggressively targeted and over a week or so the main keyword jumped from 8th, to 3rd and then tanked down into the late 30’s and then into the 40’s where it seems to be languishing now.

Scientific Rigour

So, the peeps over at Traffic Planet were pretty pleased with themselves and made knowledge of what they had done public. Before long Dan Thies was chipping in and there was a discussion going back and forth. The perps were calling this proof of negative SEO but seemingly, things are not quite that simple and lest we forget this is the month we had a further panda update and the over optimisation / webspam penalty. Additionally, Dan had chipped in stating how he had redesigned his site and hosed his internal SEO (which is seemingly true as it’s a WordPress blog with loads of category duplication) and the SEO Fast Start blog did not have a great link profile or much to prop it up so there could be several factors at work here.

So, when it comes to evidence, we can’t really consider this a perfect experiment, not even close given everything else that was going on at the same time.

Here Comes the Cavalry

To make things more interesting, Randfish from SEOMoz (CEO of one of the biggest SEO and SEO tools companies for those that don’t know) chipped in made the point that the targeted sites had little in the way of social signals, fresh content or a robust link profile so were hardly titans toppled by these negative SEO strategies. He then surprisingly offered up his own sites with as targets for another, more scientific experiment.

Unsurprisingly, this is where the spammers started to wind back a little and downgrade just what they claimed was possible. Initially, it was ‘this works’, but it soon became, ‘this works on smaller sites’, and by the end of the discussion, it was hard to not think that it was downgraded further to ‘this can work, but only on smaller sites which ideally have a less than stellar link profile and have some existing questionable on site SEO and links’.

Shock, Horror

Just when it seemed that things were settling down, the UK search company Seer Interactive dropped out the index for their own brand name. The spammers instantly jumped on this as more ‘evidence’ that this negative SEO tactics work and that they must have been taken down by more of the undernet.

Is no one safe? If the good guys, someone with strong social signals and a solid link profile can be taken out of the index for their own brand name, then, is anyone safe? (quickly check, there maybe an SEO spammer hiding behind the curtain, hacking your wireless, ready to strike).

Confusion Reigns

Now, due to the many friends of Seer Interactive, they had soon diagnosed what had happened and as it turns out, they were not the only site hit and this ended up being a Google bug to do with parked domains and is something we have seen before (move along, nothing to see here).

What does this mean for you?

It would be easy at this point to start worrying and get yourself all into a lather but the fact of the matter is, nothing has been proved here – yet.

My perspective is that there may be something going on, but if that is the case, you can bet your backside that Google is going to sort this out quick smart and thinking about it in simple terms, spotting a sudden unnatural spike in links like this should make it easy as pie to just ignore them (well, easy for them big brains at Googleplex).

The real takeaway here is that if your site is not 100% clean then you could potentially have a problem if someone decides to take you down so, more than ever, the best way to stay afloat, the best way to build a stable platform is to do things the right way and build a unique, high quality site with lots of useful, informative, shareable content.

Really, if someone wanted to damage your site or your reputation, then there is more ways to do this than to just manipulate your link profile and bomb your rankings. For most of the smaller sites that are seemingly vulnerable, many of them could likely also be hacked with enough effort and once someone has access to your CMS or site, then you could have some much bigger problems.

If someone really had it in for you they could be putting out bad reviews, damaging your site, making your site unavailable via a DDOS or some such attack, deface your site, hack in and break your SEO internally, attack your brand over the web and rank those pages above or up close with your site.

The point being, if someone had it in for you, there is plenty they can do to hurt you without negative SEO and for most people, this has not happened. Sure, if negative SEO works, then it could also be part of a larger attempt to run you out of town but this is nothing new in the grand scheme of things and you are much better off concentrating on what you CAN do to rank rather than worrying whether your competition is planning to sabotaging you.

Do No Evil

Overall this just reinforces the positive messages that white hat SEO’s like SEOMoz (and myself of course) have been putting out all along. Don’t break the rules, build content, build a great site, work with Google, don’t chase the algorithm, promote great content and play nice.

Now, that is not very exciting if you are an elite black hat mofo but really, I don’t want the stability of my business website to be a thrill ride. I want to know that what I am doing is building a long term platform for visibility in search as that is what ensures I can make sure my children don’t have holes in their shoes and that my customers are happy, making money and keep working with me.

What can you do?

It may be worth you taking the time to do an honest assessment of your site and determine if there is anything not 100% user friendly on there, that is, aspects of the site that are just there for SEO.

  • Do an honest appraisal of your site and SEO (or get someone to do one for you)
  • If you have some dodgy SEO on site then clean house (or get someone to do it for you)
  • Register with webmaster tools and keep a close eye on this for any new links coming in
  • Generally keep up to date with reviews and social chatter about your site / brand. Google alerts will let you see any mentions about your site and brand and there are a whole bunch of tools that will track and and alert you to social mentions.

Ultimately, if you have been paying someone for SEO, and they have not been making any changes to the site as such, no additional content, they have just been waving their magical SEO wand in the background, then you may have a problem and it is certainly worth taking a look so you know where you stand (or getting someone to do this for you who knows what they are looking for).

Keep Calm and Carry On

Really though, I am not buying this being a major factor, Google has too much to lose, it would result in such an almighty shitstorm that they simply can’t let this come to pass. And really, do you have that many enemies and are your competition not likely just to be really busy like you?

In a lot of respects, the publicity this has received is a good thing and now that the Negative SEO Troll has poked his head over the parapet then Google can’t help but look at this. Additionally, the good folks at SEOMoz are doing some experiments so if there any problems out there, you can be sure they are working on a fix.

So, if you are not doing good, honest, content driven SEO and stimulating discussion and sharing of your content, start now! If you are doing some dodgy SEO, link building or are paying someone and are not really sure what they do, then get someone to take a look at your site, put right the problems and then start doing some good, honest SEO graft.

That’s all folks

Well, it’s Friday and my son has just warmed up the xbox so catch you all next week. If you enjoyed this article please share it with the social icons below and if you have any questions or need any help then drop a comment below, hit me up on Twitter or if it’s a bit sensitive, get in touch here.

P.S. For those of you still hungry for more, here are a few more related posts from around the wild wild webs:

http://www.seomoz.org/blog/negative-seo-myths-realities-and-precautions-whiteboard-friday

http://www.seerinteractive.com/blog/7-lessons-i-learned-while-being-banned-in-google-for-12-hours

http://explicitly.me/negative-seo-online-nightmares-come-true

Marcus Miller

I am an SEO Consultant based in Birmingham UK and with clients all over the world. I have been working in and around search for 15 years and currently focus on SEO Consulting, Website Consulting, Local SEO and Technical SEO Audits.

Comments (3)

  • comment_avatar

    Austin

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    Hey Marcus, I have a first hand experience with negative SEO that came to my attention a few days ago. Noticed a major drop in a fairly sturdy site, did some digging and came out with tons of blog comments over the past 48 hours with a single anchor text. People are clearly hopping on the NSEO train. Here’s the article if you want to read it: http://truepassiveliving.com/how-my-site-dropped-from-negative-seo-not-the-penguin-update/

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

    Reply

    • comment_avatar

      Marcus Miller

      |

      Hey, yeah, read your article and there is certainly something to this as the big boys are sitting up and starting to take notice. Will be interesting to see this tackled with some solid testing criteria and post panda/penguin updates.

      I can’t convince myself to worry about it too much as they simply can’t let this become a big deal but much like the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) Google often uses to dissuade people from trying to game the system, it’s hard to always believe everything they put out.

      I have a few old sites so I think it’s time for an experiment! :)

      Interesting times to be in Internet Marketing!

      Reply

  • comment_avatar

    yayo

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    @ marcus

    definitely FUD

    they want to push social signals, brands, google+, adwords, authorship, etc..

    Reply

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