Negative SEO

22 October 2013

Negative SEO

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is the reverse of search engine optimisation. The aim of search engine optimisation is to increase a site's visibility in the SERPs. With Negative SEO, the aim of the procedure is to reduce a page's rankings in the search results. This article includes information on how negative SEO can be done, and some of the steps you can do to prevent it from happening to you. Or at least reduce the impact.

Why use negative SEO?

There are three main cases where negative SEO is used:

  1. To downgrade your competitor's sites
    - to improve your own rankings. This is called serp bubbling . Generally it is performed alongside standard SEO. The aim of serp bubbling is to affect your website's rankings by forcing down the rankings of those competitors immediately above you, so that your site effectively floats to the top of the serps.
  2. To bury bad news about yourself or your company
    More and more, we are seeing large corporations, high profile figures and celebrities using Negative SEO marketing experts to downgrade the rankings of sites that are detrimental to their image. This process is called Search Engine Reputation Management (SERM) - also known as Online Reputation Management . Figures on how much this industry is worth are not available due to the sensitive nature of the process, however, there is evidence that this process is becoming more common. The number of companies that offer specialist advice and SERM services is increasing.
  3. Targeted Negative SEO (TNS) attack on the website - this could be done for political, financial or personal reasons. There is evidence that negative SEO is performed by some animal rights groups against animal testing firms. Some would even argue that China's censorship of politically uncomfortable material amounts to Targeted Negative SEO.

How is negative SEO done?

There are a number of ways you can eliminate a page from the search engine rankings. Some of the methods listed are legitimate and good practice, but others are sneaky, immoral and probably illegal. This information is provided so that you may prevent your site being a victim of negative SEO, rather than to condone the practice.

  1. Remove the offending content
    This is the easiest method. If a derogatory post has been made on a forum, you can request that the moderators remove the content. Quite often this is all that is needed. Sometimes a solicitors letter might help with your argument, but in general, forum moderators and blog owners are quite happy to remove potentially damaging posts and comments.
  2. Promote non offending content - "Insulation"
    This involves creating or promoting pages that are not harmful, for example, if a page contains negative messages about your client, you can create positive message content, and do SEO to promote those pages higher up, and force the bad press down the rankings where it will have less impact.
    Similary, you can do this for business competitors. If you sell product A and your competitor sells products A and B, then you can promote another company that just sells product B, which is not in competition with you, but is in competition with the business that you are doing negative SEO on.
    This method is sometimes called Google Insulation .
  3. Google Bowling
    This is a technique designed to remove a site from the SERPs by making google believe the site is spammy. The are two ways this can be done. One is to add links to the site from lots of bad neighbourhoods, link farms and automatically generated spammy pages. If you get thousands of links back to the site in a few days and get them to show up in googles results, this can trigger a spam alert and affect the rankings of the site. The other way it is done is to find a page on your competitors website which has dynamic URLs but has the same content, for example, if they have a page with the url , then is the url is changed to page=12 but has the same content, then you are vulnerable to google bowling by url manipulation. What is done then is to create hundreds of links with slightly different urls but the same content, post these links liberally around forums, blogs, directories and link farms, and sooner or later google will tag it as black hat.
  4. Infect their site
    If a site is infected with a virus, then it is flagged up in the SERPs as being potentially dangerous. This can be also achieved by using cross site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities to create links to pages which display on page content from posted form elements or querystrings - for example, if you have a site with a page like search.asp?keyword=mysearch and in the page itself it says 'there are no results for mysearch' - then the link can be manipulated to search.asp?keyword= . If you then post this link on a webpage, then anyone clicking on it will get the search results page, and where it says 'there are no results for XX' the javascript is inserted into the page content and runs with the same security level as the main page itself. When google picks this link up, it will flag your site as infected and possibly remove it from the search results.
  5. Tattling
    This involved informing google that a site contravenes its guidelines. Usually this is to report paid-for links (which you youself could theoretically set up without the target site's involvement), or grey hat SEO tactics used on the site. Other forms of tattling is to claim copyright theft of content or images.
  6. Guilty by Association
    This method involves making your own spammy site - the spammier the better - using a similar url to your competitor and if possible use the same domain registrar and hosting services. Copying the metatags and site content of the home page of your target site is also useful. Then you do everything in your power to get the site banned (it's not hard). Once you have done this, you install a 301 redirect to your competitors site and sit back and watch it slide down the rankings like a pig on a greasy pole! This is especially effective if your black site has the same pages as the target site and you do individual 301 redirects to the target site.
  7. False duplicated content
    The way this is done is to create a site with the same content as your competitor, but try to get the new content to the site crawled before your competitor. For example, if your competitor changes their home page, you change your honeypot site's homepage to the same content and metatags, then submit a sitemap with just that page on it to google, bing and yahoo site explorer, so that your content is indexed first and your competitor's content is ignored as duplicate content when the search engines get around to indexing them. This is very hard to defend against, and only reporting the site as phishing content can save you here. Canonical urls can also help.
  8. Denial of Service Attacks (DOS)
    This method of hacking uses several different computers to simultaniously flood the target website with requests so that the volume of traffic blocks up the website's bandwidth and essentially cuts off access to the rest of the world. Distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS) are even more damaging because they use hundreds or even thousands of virus infected zombie PCs all on different IP Addresses to attack the target site.
    If a site is unreachable when google tries to crawl it, this has negative consequences for the rankings of the site. Recent DDos attacks on Visa, Mastercard and Paypal in retaliation for their withdrawn support of WikiLeaks are more likely to have an immediate impact, but the reduction in SERPs will have a longer term impact that is impossible to measure
  9. Click Fraud
    If your competitor has adwords running for their site, you can click on their adverts to use up their budget and affect the number of genuine visitors. Generally google is pretty good at detecting this, so it has limited impact. However, if you set up a team of people and got them all to do 3 or 4 clicks a day, it soon adds up.
    Another click mechanism is to get all your friends to click on your site, or the sites just below your competitor. There is some evidence to suggest that the number of clicks affects your rankings.
  10. Adsense Banning
    If your target site uses google adsense, then you can click on their adverts on their site many times until the adsense account is suspended. Its much easier to suspend someone's adsense account than it is to get it resumed following allogations of click fraud.
  11. Black social bookmarking
    This method uses social networking sites like twitter and facebook to create lots of bogus accounts, then use these accounts to create spammy links to the target site with phrases like 'viagra', 'porn', 'teens', 'warez', 'crackz', 'gambling' etc. This is an extension of google bowling taking advantage of the new features of google that include real time search of social networking sites. In recent times, with Google including more facebook and twitter pages in the serps, this technique has become more effective.
  12. Fake Bouncing
    This is another SEO technique that I invented. The way it works is this: it's understood that your site's bounce rate has an affect on google rankings. The way google measures this is if you click on a site, then click the back button to get back to the serps. The theory is that if people don't spend a lot of time on a page, then it must be low quality. Therefore if you click on your competitor's pages and click back to the serps multiple times over many days, these pages will have a higher reported bounce rate. It works better if you have more than one IP address to do this with. Over time, the increased bounce rates for your competitors will have a negative affect on the site's rankings. 

SEO Piracy

There is a disturbing trend for SEO piracy. This is when you receive an email out of the blue saying 'pay us $10,000 or we will get your site banned from the search engines'. These SEO Pirates generally target vulnerable organisations or businesses, those with good search engine rankings or those using lots of adwords in the hope of frightening people into paying up. Holding websites to ransom is nothing new, Online pirates have demanded ransoms following DOS attacks on LiveJournal and Twitter in 2006 , so the SEO piracy is just a new extension on that. Generally though, if you receive an email out of the blue demanding money, you should just bin it and forget about it. It's not normally worth their time pursuing a negative SEO campaign on a target that is unlikely to be able to pay up, and negative SEO does involve a lot of effort and time, which the pirates probably wouldnt want to waste when they can just send the same email out to 1 million businesses and get a return for zero effort.


How to defend yourself against Negative SEO

There is a great article written by Kate Morris explaining how to tell when you have been hit by negative SEO. Essentially, you should monitor your rankings, traffic and backlinks. Normally, if you are hit by negative SEO, you soon find out, as your traffic drops like a stone. Here are a few tips on how to defend yourself against negative SEO:

  1. Make sure you check bing webmaster tools and google webmaster tools regularly - also make sure that your email address is set up correctly so you can react to notification emails promptly.
  2. If you are hit by a virus or malware, get your website back online as soon as possible, the longer you leave it, the worse it will be.
  3. Remove any potentially damaging material from your website and social media. Fix any pages that might have bad links on them, eg in facebook comments from bogus accounts
  4. If its a DDOS attack, inform your ISP or webhost as they can usually do something to mitigate the damage.
  5. Disavow bad backlinks - Bing webmaster tools and google webmaster tools allow you to report any backlinks from spammy sources. 
  6. Use reconsideration requests if you have been penalised. These take a little while to get dealt with but is much faster than just letting google figure it out on it's own.
  7. Try to identify the source. - sometimes offence is the best defence and if you can prove that a competitor is damaging your websites revenue, you may have grounds to sue.



Should I use Negative SEO?

At the end of the day, the effort required to damage other people's rankings can better be applied to promoting your own sites. You should only ever use negative SEO give the following conditions:

  1. You must have permission of the site owner, or of the person/business about whom the page it directed
  2. You must not contravene any of Google's guidelines
  3. You must not pay for the services of black hat SEO specialists
  4. You must not do anything to damage the website or the servers on which the website is hosted, or install malware or viruses on client machines
  5. You must not create links solely for the purpose or denigrating the reputation of the offending website