Understanding negative SEO and how your rivals can use it against you

Google SearchingIf you’re familiar with making or writing for websites, you’ve probably heard of SEO, or search engine optimization. It’s a practice that helps websites appear first when you search for something – for instance, if you type “Digital Trends” into Google, you’ll know our website has SEO working if it comes up first. This is a crucial marketing strategy for websites because you’re not going to spend time scrolling through thousands of sites to find the one you want – you’re going to click on the first one that seems like it’s what you want. So people obsess over it;  it can make or break your online reputation. 

There are many different ways you can use SEO to get more hits. You can use “white hat” techniques, the kind of SEO that search engines like Google and Bing approve of – or you can use “black hat” techniques, which these engines consider manipulative or unfair. One approved way of boosting your ranking is using keywords. By making sure certain words or phrases appear in an article (as long as the article is, you know, actually relevant to these keywords) sites can boost their visibility. 

Another big SEO tactic: linking. Sites that have lots of other respected sites linking to them are considered more reputable, so it’s important to produce content that other people want to share. 

But here’s where links can hurt you as well as help you: If you have a bunch of crappy spam sites linking to your work, it can damage your reputation, even if you have nothing to do with the sites. This is called “negative SEO,” and it sucks – you might end up in a bad “link neighborhood” without even knowing it. 

Hobo Internet Marketing featured an article in 2012 about how Google is starting to be more upfront about the reality of negative SEO. Shaun Anderson reported that the changes to Google’s language about SEO highlights how it’s becoming more frank – for starters, Google initially insisted that competitors and rivals can’t hurt your ranking: “Can competitors harm ranking? There’s 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.”

But then they changed it slightly, modifying the warning to say “There’s ALMOST nothing a competitor can do…”. And then later Google changed the language altogether. Since 2012, Google has changed its stance substantially, and now it features an entire help page devoted to link schemes, and addressing bad sites that give you negative SEO. 

So if you run a website and you suspect that low-quality domains are running a link scheme on you, contacting Google and the other search engines is necessary to make sure you don’t feel the impact of negative SEO. 

Can you use negative SEO to your benefit? Well, you could try to hurt competitors by setting up a low-quality site and linking to them – but that’s a total black hat tactic, and it won’t get you long-term benefits. It’s best to try to minimize negative SEO affecting your site and leave your competitors alone. 

Since Google introduced changes to its ranking system in 2011 and 2012, there have been more opportunities to hurt websites with negative SEO. And when websites need help, you’d better believe there’s going to be a cottage industry popping up to fill that need: now there are plenty of services that offer to fix your negative SEO woes. 

SEO is primarily a publication or branding issue, but it’s starting to affect the average user more and more. Where your own name pops up on Google – and what’s linking to it – matter increasingly. It’s all part of that “personal branding” trend that is happening; not only do marketers care what’s being said about their companies online, it matters what’s being said about you online. Sites like BrandYourself, About.me, Vizify, and Reputation.com are all dedicated to giving you a place on the Web to control how you’re defined, but it only takes one person who uses negative SEO to create a website that makes you look bad to seriously hurt your digital reputation.

Personal SEO is now a concern, and thus so is negative SEO. 

A Search Engine Watch story this week resurfaced negative SEO and its various issues, and even Google is chiming in. Google’s Matt Cutts decided to go on a Hacker News forum to quell suspicion that negative SEO is a rampant practice. He took one of the most-cited examples of negative SEO and pointed out flaws, and he wrote, “People talk about negative SEO far more than people actually attempt it, because you’re never quite sure what effect (say) pointing some links to a site might have – it might help the site instead of hurting it – plus it’s typically a better use of your time to develop your own site. But if there’s a site that is worried about negative SEO, the site can disavow any links they want using our the disavow tool in Google’s Webmaster Tools. You can even sort to see the most recent links if you’re worried that this is something that just started.” 

Although Cutts is downplaying the impact of negative SEO, it’s still something that sites should keep in mind, especially if they experience an unexplained dip in popularity. 

The creator of a website called Negative SEO Guy helps people enact negative SEO campaigns, although he says his clients are playing defense or engaging in business-as-usual tactics. He turns down requests for personal sabotage, and says smear campaigns are out of the question. But as a negative SEO expert, he offers advice to people worried about getting hit. “We have a number of clients whose online reputation has taken a real beating over the years, and they aren’t tech-savvy enough to know where to start. In some instances, it is probably better to re-brand the business or get a new domain and website; however, it isn’t always possible to do that,” he explains.

The sooner you catch the problem, the easier it will be to nip it in the bud. So even though it seems narcissistic, you’d be wise to start setting Google Alerts for yourself, especially if your profession requires interacting with people online.

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