Negative SEO: Have Mercenaries Been Hired To Torpedo Your Search Rankings?

Recently, an individual contacted my company, threatening to build thousands of links to my website if we didn’t pay him $250.

The questions you may be asking are: Why is that a bad thing? Why wouldn’t you want thousands of “free” links to your site? Aren’t links good for SEO?

Schemes like this, unfortunately, are an aspect of an emerging trend we’re seeing when it comes to negative SEO. Campaigns like these are used to point thousands of poor-quality, spammy links at a competitors’ website in an attempt to cause their search engine rankings to plummet. The reason these links can damage search engine visibility is due to Google Google’s Penguin algorithm, which detects and penalizes websites with too many manipulative, spammy inbound links (which is seen as an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings).

Years ago, link building was all about getting as many inbound links as possible, without regard for their quality or relevance. More was always better, and as such, an entire industry sprung up to accommodate peoples’ insatiable desire for more links. The resulting mass of spammy content published around the Web for the sole purpose of acquiring links started to clog Google’s search results. Users started complaining to Google that their search quality was diminishing, and Google took action. That’s when the Penguin algorithm was released.

In one fell swoop, Google reversed the effectiveness of quantity-based link building schemes. Now, rather than helping rankings, they would have the opposite effect.

Unfortunately, it was also now possible to negatively affect competitors’ search engine visibility by performing the same tactics that used to help rankings. This opened the door for mercenary-like companies to emerge; thus, the field of “negative SEO” was born.

negative-seoWhat Google Says About Negative SEO

So, what does Google have to say about campaigns like this one? Are negative SEO threats something webmasters should be worried about?

It’s clear that Google takes the idea of negative SEO seriously, as is evidenced in a 2012 Google Webmaster video. In the video, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, speaks to how they have been aware of this potential abuse for years, and have built safeguards into their algorithms to prevent ‘person A from hurting competitor B’ through spammy backlink schemes.

But while they’re aware of the potential of such a campaign, they believe it shouldn’t be a major concern for the owners of small websites.

Cutts says, “In my experience, there’s a lot of people who talk about negative SEO, but very few people who actually try it, and fewer still who actually succeed.” He goes on to say, “I know that there’s been a lot of people stressed about this. Whenever we dig into what’s actually going on, there’s been a lot of discussion but very little in ways of actually people trying to do attacks.”

While Google states that the vast majority of ‘mom and pop’ businesses need not be concerned about such schemes, they have provided a simple way to help protect webmasters from the effects of negative SEO: The disavow tool.

The Disavow Tool

In an effort to provide webmasters with a way to notify Google of illegitimate or unwanted inbound links to their site, Google began offering the disavow tool within Google Webmaster Tools. It allows website owners to send Google a list of links (or entire domains) that should be ignored when it comes to their site’s link profile.

In a recent video, Cutts spoke about the tool, and clarified its main purpose. From the beginning, Google has maintained that the tool was meant primarily for webmasters who had done some ‘bad SEO’ (i.e. manipulative, spammy link building) and had manual action taken against them in the search results. If these website owners had done their best to clean up their link profile, and yet these spammy links still existed, they could use the disavow tool to clean up their link profile.

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