Negative SEO: Looking for Answers from Google

It seems that we’re finally starting to see more of what many have suspected for a long time. That others can indeed affect your rankings with bad links. Otherwise known as “negative SEO.”

And this time it’s going to be damned hard to get the worms back into the can.

Google guns

Let’s go back a bit first shall we?

Over the years Google has always stated that what others did, in particular, with bad links, can’t hurt your sites rankings. Many of us knew differently, but it was always kept somewhat behind closed doors. It wasn’t written about nor openly discussed. Discretion being the better part of valor and all that.

That’s been changing though. Why? No idea. But it has.

Then there was the Google guidelines which have been morphing, as reported by Shaun Anderson


“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”


“There’s ALMOST nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”

Then on March 14th to:

“Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able 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.”

OK, great. But it seems there is more as well. Let’s look at one of the now infamous “unnatural linking” messages from Google.

Unnatural linking message

See that bit there? It seems to imply that you’re guilty until proven innocent. That indeed links that are out of your control may actually hurt you and that you need to actually go and tell Google that they aren’t yours.

All of that only matters if your website is hooked up to Webmaster Tools. If you’re some poor soul that doesn’t know this and were nuked by a competitor, then the jig is up, go straight to the poor house, and kiss your business goodbye.

The Game is Afoot!

Now, there are those in my own clan that consider me a bit of a Google fanboy. And to some degree that may be true because of my interest in information retrieval and having known some Google engineers over the years. It’s really more that I try to look at things from both sides of the battlefield. But this recent development is really a bit disconcerting even for me.

I fully appreciate the desire to stop manipulation. But this situation seems like it has the potential to actually create more spam, not less. Something intimated by Dan Thies in a thread over on the webmaster forums, who is actively discussing the validity of some potential negative SEO that was aimed at him.

For the record, the data seems inconclusive still as I talked to Dan and there were some major site changes that would certainly mess with the data being reported by the folks who wanted to “teach him a lesson.” And it’s a good thing I’m writing on Search Engine Watch, or else I’d be using far more colorful language to describe what I think of that move.

What’s the Answer?

OK, so the world has gone a bit mental. All the changes not named Panda and influx of unnatural links messages have folks on edge. It seems somewhat unlikely that strong domains can be seriously damaged though. It would be far more interesting to see some data on a strong link profile and multiple case studies.

But at the end of the day, if this is happening or not, there must be some kind of workaround. If much of this mania began from the Webmaster Tools messages, seems a good idea that Google looks back to it as part of the answer.

How about something like this?

Possible unnatural link interface

For example, the domain seems to be scraping or otherwise not something I care about. That’s a domain I would tell Google to completely discount. There could also be an option to drill down on a given domain and only block certain pages, instead of the entire domain.

Handy for:

  • Dealing with malicious links
  • Helping with scrapers and being able to identify them (which helps with attribution)
  • Identifying paid links even if we wanted to go that route.

What about the previous SEO work? We’ve all come along to a site that the client had been getting some crap-hat service in the past. You look at the link profile and shudder.

I’d love to be able to say, “We don’t stand behind these, feel free to nuke them”. What about some poor fool that buys a domain without knowing to check backlinks? Be nice if they could also communicate this in some way. No?

Avoiding the False Positives

At the end of the day it is the unsuspecting that need protection. I’ve written before about the relations of SEOs and Google. Those in the know that stray toward the boundaries, they do so at their own risk. I don’t play the ‘hat’ game. It’s all degrees of tactics. If you get burned while knowing the risk, then fair play.

I worry more about those who aren’t aware and what ramifications it can have on them. I know plenty of great people that have been stomped over the last while and often they have seemingly done little to incur it. Or were mislead as to what “safe” really was.

Some type of simpler system would help benefit webmasters and Google as well the way I see it. If you have some ideas on how this could be dealt with by working with Google, fire it off in the comments. A positive discussion is far more likely to get Google working with us than whining about the evil…

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