Fight Negative SEO: A 10-Step Strategy

Just as we finally were able to wrap our minds around SEO and the proper non-spammy/scammy ways to optimize our websites for search engines and our readers, we get hit with the concept of Negative SEO. See, when Google made the ‘link’ a positive element, a vote, everyone went out to get as many links as they possibly could. They got links by hooks and by crooks. They bought links, they put their links on random directories, and really every site they could no matter how much of a wretched hive of scum and villainy it was.

Google came along and saw this mess and started penalizing sites for having links pointing to it from these low quality sources. On one hand it seemed like the best thing to do. Sites engaged in scraping the bottom of the barrel for links probably deserved to be penalized, not just have those links not help it in ranking. This turn of events helped usher in the current era where competitors can perform Negative SEO. Negative SEO does have an ominous sound to it and it is a great marketing term to bring up to clients, but what it really is when you drill down is someone doing all the old SEO tricks they used to do to help their sites rank to force other sites to tank.

The tools they once used to make their sites rank by generating a few hundred links from random porn sites they now use on our sites to make Google think we are engaging in spammy-scammy tactics and have Google tank our website. In the world of hyper-competition, Negative SEO is the Jeff Gillooly to our Nancy Kerrigan.

If they can’t beat us with quality, they’ll try to ruin us through sleazy tactics.

Negative SEO is insurgent warfare. You don’t know where the attack is coming from and you don’t even know who is attacking you. Is that link from a shifty-looking blog an initial salvo needing to be slapped down or is it a legitimate organic link – the type of link you’ve been working hard to get? I started pondering this problem a few months ago as one of my websites started getting a lot of suspicious links coming from hacked WordPress sites (for the love of the Internet – if you no longer are going to use your WordPress site – please, please, shut it down or at least make sure it gets updated!). The website has a fairly pristine history of links except for a few months when someone thought it was a good idea to get links from Squidoo (didn’t that tactic die two years ago?!). I knew something was up and even saw a dip in a few of my keyword rankings. I honestly don’t think there was a cause and effect relationship but it made me take the matter seriously and start to obsess over my backlinks.

Some people received extortion letters, threatening websites with an avalanche of negative backlinks unless a pay off was made. I honestly hope no one paid up, but this elevated Negative SEO(NSEO) from a high priority to a top priority for me.

Recently, I read an article on the Federation of American Scientists website, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24.pdf) and immediately saw a relation to Negative SEO and how to fight against it. Of course seeing how NSEO has been on my mind, I probably would have seen a relationship with anything I read. Luckily, this article makes me look smarter than if I had referenced Cracked.com’s 15 Ways Batman Taught Me to Love Life.

A real insurgency has many ways to attack and can focus on a myriad of targets while a Negative SEO (NSEO) has very limited avenues of attack and only one specific target – our website.

The Federation of American Scientists in their report on fighting insurgency broke down the basic strategy into 10 principles.

  • Legitimacy is the Main Objective
  • Counterinsurgent Forces Must Understand The Environment
  • Intelligence Drives Operations
  • Security Under the Rule of Law is Essential
  • Counterinsurgent Forces Should Prepare for a Long-Term Commitment
  • Manage Information and Expectations
  • Use the Appropriate Level of Force
  • Learn and Adapt
  • Empower the Lowest Levels
  • Support the Host Nation

In the following sections, I’m going to discuss how these political/military policies can be used to fight Negative SEO.

10PrinciplesNegativeSEO

Establish Legitimacy

When I was writing without this framework, I was going to start at the point of collecting data and performing online intelligence. What I appreciate is this framework made me take a step backward and ask the question – is the website worth defending against Negative SEO? If the recent SEO strategy for the website relied upon grey hat or black hat tactics like buying links, private blog networks, tiered linking, cloaking, or spamming tactics then how can we differentiate those taboo links to the taboo actions of whomever is trying to tank our site? If we cry foul to Google, we need to make sure we can stand on the legitimate work of our site – not trying to gain the benefits of shady tactics on one hand and remove the effects of the shady tactics of our competition on the other hand. In Google’s Weltanschauung – shady tactics are shady tactics and Matt Cutt’s even said the spam team at Google’s number one goal is not to remove the effects of Black Hat SEO but to break the spirit of those who do Black Hat.

Honestly, the amount of time it takes to perform Black Hat SEO, a good content marketer can write five great blog posts, reach out to social media influencers, and get one solid back link to the site boosting the domain authority and all of this is sustainable because the of the diversity of links as well as the diversity of traffic sources.

The first step in fighting off Negative SEO is to be sure the site you are defending is legitimate.

Understand the Environment

To effectively fight against Negative SEO, we need to know the environment. In this context the environment is the world of SEO. We need to understand the tools – Google Webmasters, Bing Webmasters, Moz, SEMRush, or whichever platform you use to monitor your site health and competitive landscape. We need to understand SEO tactics which means white hat and black hat. We need to visit Black Hat forums and see what techniques they are discussing and know which tactics can be turned against a site.

We also have to understand the environment our website competes in. What is the competition like? Are there specific keywords dominating the industry everyone is vying for? How does your site rank for those keywords? Is the vertical your website exists in known for black hat tactics? The more common underhanded tactics are to rank in the website’s vertical the more likely these tactics will be turned into Negative SEO against our site.

Lastly, we need to understand our website. We need to know the backlink profile intimately. We need to understand why links have been created to our site and we need to be fully aware of our site’s security. One of the ways in which our competition may attempt to tank our site is by using a known security hole to insert malicious code on our webpages which will cause Google to list the site as potentially harmful. Nothing is more harmful to web traffic than having our site labelled a purveyor of malicious code and nothing hurts website conversion more than a malicious bit of JavaScript slowing the load time of the website.

Intelligence Drives Operations

To be effective at fighting off Negative SEO, we need to gather intelligence. Our first stop will be Google Webmasters and the ‘Links to Your Site’ section under Search Traffic on the dashboard. Under ‘Who links the most’ click More. Now we can see the option to Download Latest Links. We download them as a CSV and open it up in Excel or our preferred program to view CSV files. What we will see when we do is the URL of the page linking to our site and the date on which Google discovered this link. If our site gets multiple backlinks we may want to do this are part of our morning routine.

After attending Visibility_14 in Chicago and listening to Bob Raines talk about Negative SEO, I started pulling this report once a week and building a Disavow File if I see anything weird or funky. I crave links for my site, though, so I want to make sure I’m not disavowing something I don’t have to. Which is why I prepare the file but I don’t submit it. If I notice a change in my rankings for the site, I am prepared to submit the Disavow.

Other tools to use in monitoring our website’s backlinks are Moz’s Fresh Web Explorer, Moz’s Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, and Majestic SEO. There may be others as well but I know services like SEMRush.com do a poor job in finding backlinks to a site so I don’t trust it to give me actionable information. Additional intelligence will come from those Black Hat forums, SEO blogs, and webmaster forums where people are talking about Negative SEO techniques. Set up a Google alert for the term ‘negative SEO’ so you can keep abreast of the lastest reports.

Security Under Google’s Rules

When we are under attack by unknown agents, it is tempting to respond in kind. The desire to turn the same tactics being used against us on them is intense. Intense, but wrong. An escalation of Negative SEO is simply a race to the bottom and the only winners will be those who opted out of the madness.

The only response to Negative SEO is to follow the prescribed methods of recovery. Disavow the bad links, build a healthy positive backlink profile, and know in the end persistent adherence to the accepted methods of SEO and content marketing will win out over schemes. Even if our site does take a hit, we can recover because we are building on a solid legitimate foundation.

Long-Term Commitment

Remember the sentence I wrote about being able to recover after being hit by Negative SEO? Well, the reason why we will recover is due to a long-term commitment to the process of building a healthy, sustainable website with a diverse and growing backlink portfolio as well as pulling in traffic through a variety of methods, not just organic search. We will recover if we are devoted to our site, because at the end of the day, those waging the Negative SEO attack on us will eventually need to go and tend their own sites. Their commitment has to be to earning money and while making our site fall in rank might help their site, ultimately they still need to work on their site.

In this way, a vigilant commitment to protecting our site will win the day in the end. We need to understand, beating back one attack doesn’t mean we’ve won the war. Nothing will stop those using Negative SEO from trying new tactics or retrying the old tactics hoping we’ve let our guard down. Or maybe we attracted a completely different competitor wanting to gain rank through our loss. Just like our daily commitment to cultivating the best content for our website, we need to commit to protecting our site.

Manage Information and Expectation

Report, report, report. Set up as many automatic reports as you can. Create a log of linkbuilding efforts. This is extremely important if we have more than one person managing the site. Is our social media team making a big push with a snazzy new infographic? We need to know so we can understand any new links coming in. Extra organic search traffic to our site might be from something in the news or it might be a competitor trying to set us up for gaming Google autosuggest.

It is one thing to have the tools to monitor and analyze your website and a completely different thing to know what to do with the information you are getting.

Often we are reporting to owners of the website or to clients who want to know what is going on with their site. If we are consistenly reporting on the health and status of the site, they will feel more comfortable with the steps being taken to protect the site, or if it has been hit, recovering the site’s ranking. We want to also make sure we aren’t setting ourselves up for failure by promising too much too fast. If we are engaged in on ongoing NSEO battle then we cannot predict ‘how long’ it will take. We can, however, report progress and setbacks which will legitimize our efforts in the site owners’ eyes.

Use Appropriate Force

When we wake up and find a thousand low-quality backlinks have been pointed to our site, we may want to hit the panic button and disavow them all immediately. This is Defcon 5! Or is it? Take a deep breath, analyze all of those links… yes, all of them. Okay if we got slammed with 3 million porn backlinks we are probably going to take some shortcuts. Here is what we are trying to do: we want to be surgical about our response. We want to make sure we don’t disavow any good link in the group. We also want to make sure we are dealing with a legitimate Negative SEO attack and not some random viral moment which we could be capitalize upon.

Responding with appropriate force means saving the “nuke ’em from orbit” option for a truly catastrophic attack. On some level, we hope Google is actively trying to sort out how to handle NSEO so we need to proceed with clear intention and not haphazardly out of fear of losing ranking.

Learn and Adapt

All the lessons about NSEO and the ways to deal with it are just roadmaps. The biggest problem with a map is it is a reflection of the past, not a true picture of the present. The landscape is constantly changing and the only way we can stay on top of it is to always be learning. We need to be aware of changing tactics and constantly educating ourselves in the ins-and-outs of our website. When we come across something we haven’t learned about yet, we need to adapt, adjust our practices, and move forward using our best practices.

Knowing how to adapt relies heavily on a thorough understanding of our core principles and our company priorities. If our website is a vital link in our company’s sales, then we will make sure we don’t do anything foolish to the underlying architecture. If the site a minor component, then we have some freedom to mess around with our htaccess file or other technical aspects of the site to counter the attack.

Empower the Lowest Levels

If we have a team, we need to make sure everyone on the team is aware of potential NSEO. The SEO of our website may be directed by a single individual, but there might be dozens of people touching the site, pulling analytics, and promoting the site across the web. Each and every person who touches our site needs to be on the team protecting the site against NSEO. They need to report any odd links they discover. They need to report any oddities about the site like being slower than normal, odd redirects, or inability to load. Each person needs to know the steps to test the site (reload the page, etc.) to limit the number of false reports, but if everyone is empowered to protect the site, then there is less of a chance of something being missed.

Many hands make light work.

Support the Company

We might be doing SEO for a client or for a company. If we are a contractor, we need to make sure we are educating the staff on how to monitor against NSEO.

  • Everyone on the web team needs to know how to create a Disavow file.
  • Everyone on the web team needs to be aware  how long the site normally takes to load.
  • Everyone on the web team needs to be aware of significant link building efforts or major promotional pushes.
  • Finally, everyone on the web team needs to be aware of downtimes, architectural changes, and design changes.

Being a contractor or SEO consultant for a company means we have a unique responsibility to make sure we are giving consistent value to the company, but also helping them stand on their own two feet.

 TL;DR

The world of SEO constantly changes and a current tactic being used against websites is Negative SEO, which essentially is doing things to make a competitor’s site look like it is violating Google’s policies and having Google lay the smackdown on the website.  A paper written by the Federation of American Scientists on fighting against an insurgency provided inspiration for how to defend against NSEO tactics.

  • We make sure the site is free and clear of any bad SEO to start.
  • We make sure we know our website and our competition as well as proper SEO and NSEO techniques.
  • We use our web monitoring tools to find the signs of NSEO.
  • We utilize the tools Google and other search engines have given us to respond to NSEO.
  • We commit ourselves to the health of our site and remain vigilant.
  • We establish consistent reports for the website and make sure all stakeholders are consistently informed.
  • We respond carefully when trying to respond to a NSEO to make sure our response doesn’t cause additionally damage.
  • We continually educate ourselves on the tools available and the techniques being used in NSEO.
  • We make sure all the people working on the site are aware of NSEO and how to identify it.
  • If we are a consultant, we make sure the people who hired us have an understanding of how to monitor their own site for NSEO.

Have you been affected by Negative SEO? Were your rankings affected? If so, how long did it take for the site to recover?