Negative SEO is on the minds of many search engine optimizers these days. However, SEO’s mostly talk about it within the context of Penguin update and Google’s war on spam, because there is barely enough data to discuss it as a separate subject. Well, I believe it’s still important to make an in-depth analysis of the current state of negative SEO, since many folks would like to know at this point – should they be concerned?
What made negative SEO worries arise?
Let’s take a step back and see what lead to the new wave of negative SEO concerns. Thing is, negative SEO had been discussed and dreaded many times in the past, but Google repeatedly managed to keep SEO’s assured that the former can never be effective to the extent that it should be feared.
This time, here is how the situation unfolded:
- March 16, 2012 – Matt Cutts hints to the upcoming “over-optimization” penalty they are working on. This leads to mild negative SEO concerns among optimizers who begin to wonder whether one can artificially make a competitor’s site look “over-
- March 26, 2012 – Google cracks down on blog networks. Many SEO’s see their rankings nosedive as the result of some of their backlinks becoming devalued.
- April 2, 2012 – Google sends tons of “unnatural links” notifications to webmasters. According to Google, they have simply
become more vocal about what links they distrust. However, some webmasters claim their sites were down-ranked despite them practicing only white-hat SEO, and debate the probability of negative SEO.
- April 24, 2012 – Google’s Penguin update hits. Many SEO’s shout foul and say they were unjustly affected by the update, which leads to more negative SEO concerns. Links’ anchor texts become a widely discussed issue.
- April 27, 2012 – Panda 3.6 is released. Minor SERPs changes are observed.
- May 26, 2012 – Penguin 1.1 is released. Some websites that had been hit by Penguin 1.0 go up, while some new websites nosedive within the search results.
As you see:
- Quite a few important changes to Google’s ranking algorithm were introduced over a relatively short period of time;
- Most of these changes have to do with backlinks and anchor texts – something webmasters do not always control;
–Stating the exact reason for each individual rankings drop is impossible in most cases (while there could be many/different factors at play).
Hence, all this gave rise to concerns and different speculations about negative SEO.
Is there substantial proof that negative SEO works?
In the light of reemerging worries, two notable incidents related to negative SEO took place. One is SEOMoz challenging the industry to take down their website. And the other one is Dan Thies’ website getting hit by spam links after Dan tweeted his support of Matt Cutts’ crackdown on blog networks.
The conclusion that can be drawn from SEOMoz’s case is that, if your site is old and reputable enough, it’s pretty much immune to negative SEO. While in the case of Dan Thies it’s very hard to tell whether the rankings changes were caused by spam links or not, since this coincided with the time of “the site move” as stated by Dan himself. He did receive the unnatural backlinks notification, though.
That said, a solid and a well-documented negative SEO study is yet to be conducted.
Is Google finally taking notice?
Of course, all this negative SEO talk could not go unnoticed by Google. As Matt Cutts said at SMX Advanced just recently (emphasis mine):
“Some have suggested that Google could disavow links. Even though we put in a lot of protection against negative SEO, there’s been so much talk about that that we’re talking about being able to enable that, maybe in a month or two or three”.
So, Google is thinking about enabling the disavowing of links. This means that soon we might see a mechanism that will let webmasters dissociate their site from particular backlinks.
Incentives and challenges for Google
No doubt, Google would like to penalize each and every trespasser of their Webmaster guidelines out there. However, in doing so, they don’t want to compromise the quality of their search results, and this is exactly what would happen if negative SEO were easily doable.
The presumption that negative SEO is now possible is based on the opinion (which, to the best of my knowledge, Google never confirmed) that, with Penguin update, Google began penalizing websites for suspicious links rather than simply discounting those links (by “penalizing” I mean ranking lower algorithmically, which is the opposite of a manual penalty).
However, if we listen to what Google did say and confirm, we’ll see that the only statement he made was that Google has now become better at identifying blog networks and deindexing them (not to confuse with deindexing the sites they link to) as well as catching paid links.
My opinion is that Google cannot afford to penalize all sites for suspicious backlinks just yet, as it doesn’t have an effective mechanism of identifying voluntarily acquired links and links that have been “donated” to the site by ill-wishing competitors.
I also think, when/if Google introduces such mechanism, it will most likely begin using suspicious
backlinks as a much stronger negative signal in their ranking algorithm.
What can one do to avoid negative SEO done to them?
Now, what makes a website immune to negative SEO? First of all, the more positive signals Google can find about your site, the harder it would be for someone to influence your rankings in a bad way.
1. Attract quality backlinks (write about the industry’s news, post helpful posts, do something extraordinary on your site, connect with the industry folks by commenting on their blogs and taking part in forum discussions, get featured on important resources, etc.)
2. Take good care of on-page optimization (this includes using the number of keywords in your site’s copy that would be natural to use, fixing crawlability issues, preventing canonicalization confusion and removing duplicate content).
3. Get as much social media love as you can (social media signals have only become more important in recent years, not to mention that they also serve as great traffic channels).
Sounds like a traditional SEO plan? It is! The more SEO fronts you have covered, the harder it will to take your site down.
Another good habit you could develop is to continuously monitor your site rankings and backlinks. This would allow you to detect negative SEO done to your site early on and react accordingly.
What happens next?
Many people wonder what will eventually happen, that is, whether or not there will be more negative SEO instances, and whether or not Google will offer an effective solution to that. Here is what I think about it:
- It takes more resources to do negative SEO than to do positive SEO, because in the case of the former you invest in “SEOing” several sites, while in the case of the latter you have only one website to take care of. So, many people may not afford to do negative SEO in the first place.
- Negative SEO pays off only temporarily. If someone gets hit by a bunch of spam links and reports that to Google, eventually, the site would come back to where it was before.
- I strongly believe that, even if there will become more space for negative SEO as the result of Google’s future updates (which, I think, will be the opposite), Google will have no choice but to come up with a solution to that and might eventually introduce a disavow-your-links option.
Until then, let us not panic and continue doing the awesome SEO job we’ve been doing so far.