What Is Negative SEO, and How Does It Work?

Are you a business owner looking to stay one step ahead of the competition? You may have heard about something called “negative SEO” but might be uncertain about what it could do to your business. So what is negative SEO exactly, and how can it affect your site?

Learn what negative SEO is and get practical steps you can take to protect your online presence from potential harm. Read on to learn more.

Key Takeaways

  • Negative SEO, aka black hat SEO, is any malicious activity designed to sabotage a competitor’s rankings in search engines.
  • Most negative SEO attacks include unauthorized backlink spam, website hacking, malware insertion, fake reviews, content scraping and republishing of duplicate content, and excessive website crawling.
  • Potential consequences of negative SEO include loss of ranking and organic traffic and manual penalties from Google.
  • Ways to monitor for these issues are building a high-quality backlink catalog, keeping your best backlinks safe, fortifying your site against hacks/malware, and reporting fake reviews.
what is negative seo

What Does Negative SEO Mean?

Negative SEO, aka black hat SEO, is any malicious online activity that sabotages a competitor’s rankings in search engines. Different types of attacks range in severity, but getting back on track after being the recipient of negative SEO can be challenging. A negative SEO attack can adversely affect your site’s rankings regardless of the method and intent.

Common Types of Negative SEO Attacks

Different types of negative SEO can harm your site, including creating fake backlinks, content scraping, and more. These tactics are designed to reduce the visibility of a website on search engine results pages (SERP). Learn the various types of negative SEO below.

Receiving high-quality links from multiple sites improves search engine rankings. But unnatural links or spammy links from link farms or websites with low domain authority have the opposite effect.

This is why backlink bombardment is a common negative SEO attack. This tactic involves quickly building up thousands or even millions of backlinks from low-quality websites. These links can be from link farms, link directories, forum signatures, automated blog comment systems, or other questionable sources.

The idea behind this tactic is that search engines will view these low-quality links as spam and thus drop your rankings in SERPs. It’s important to audit your backlink profile for any suspicious activity or unnatural growth patterns to stay protected from this type of attack. Backlink bombardment directly violates Google guidelines and can get your site penalized, even though it was no fault of yours.

Website Hacking and Malware

Another type of negative SEO involves hacking into your website and sabotaging its content. Hackers may insert malicious code into web pages, redirect visitors to unrelated sites, or even deface web pages with inappropriate content. Additionally, hackers may exploit any vulnerabilities in plug-ins, themes, or scripts to inject malware into an entire website that can damage its reputation and lower its rankings in SERPs.

Here are more specific instances of how hacking affects your SEO campaigns:

  • Reduced engagement metrics brought about by malicious codes injected into your site, which sends negative signals to Google.
  • A buildup of customer mistrust caused by frequent site downtimes or security alert prompts every time they visit.
  • Unwanted redirects that lead your site visitors to a completely different page that has nothing to do with their search query, thus affecting your organic traffic.

These hacking effects can eventually put you on Google’s watchlist when left unaddressed, warranting a manual penalty or even blacklisting of an entire domain due to the severity and threat posed against users.

Fake Reviews

Consumers look for testimonials to validate their purchasing decisions, so positive reviews are important to local businesses. This is why most business owners will have a local SEO strategy in place. Those involved in negative or black hat SEO capitalize on this fact and create negative reviews or fake removal requests against a competitor’s site.

These reviews may contain false information about your products or services, which could harm potential customers’ opinions about you and discourage them from doing business with you. Spotting fake reviews can be difficult considering its broad criteria — customer experience. How do you gauge that accurately? Still, there are telltale signs of unwarranted, fake testimonials to look out for.

Fake reviews usually have a one-star rating with no description. They may also be reviews that have nothing to do with what went wrong; they only say misleading or damaging rants about the business in question. While fake negative reviews don’t generally affect page ranking, Google considers this aspect when ranking web pages.

Scraping and Republishing Duplicate Content

Content scraping — copying another website’s content without permission — is another tactic commonly used by malicious actors attempting negative SEO attacks. Copying content from other websites without authorization violates copyright laws and is considered plagiarism; however, it doesn’t stop people from doing it for malicious purposes.

Scraping content from other websites allows attackers to flood search results with low-quality copies of pages, which harms both ranking visibility and the reputation of the original source website owner.

Google’s algorithms are designed to rank only one of those duplicate sites. Provided you’ve indexed each page upon publication, you minimize the risk of falling victim to this negative SEO tactic. The problem comes when Google spots those duplicate pages first and starts ranking them instead of yours.

Excessive Website Crawling

Page speed affects customer behavior. For e-commerce websites, page load speed can dictate sales volume. People won’t wait for your site to load when they can get the same info from other sites with faster performance.

Negative SEO practitioners know this and forcefully crawl sites to overload their servers. This results in sites crashing, eventually driving visitors away. When not addressed, one’s page can lose credibility, which can get the site de-indexed.

Potential Consequences of Negative SEO

negative search engine optimization

Negative SEO attacks will always have consequences over time. Worse, they can be difficult to spot. And even if users see the signs of an SEO attack, proving it isn’t easy. Below are the two most common consequences of negative SEO.

Loss of Rankings and Lower Organic Traffic

The combination of bad links, slow page speed, and duplicate content across the web will eventually drag down your site’s PageRank. Spammy links are red flags for Google’s algorithm, which says something about your commitment to regular site audits. After all, toxic links cannot take root when you’re on top of your backlink profile. Once your site’s rank starts to drop, traffic follows. Remember that most people only scan up to Google’s first-page results, so you can expect fewer visitors if your pages go beyond that.

Manual Penalty From Google

Google’s ultimate goal is to provide the best content for its users, and its guidelines mirror this desire. It expects websites to follow its guidelines to avoid getting penalized. Currently, 99% of Google’s spam-checking method uses AI-aided automated systems. The manual penalty comes into play when Google’s webspam team identifies a website violating its webmasters’ guidelines. This often happens when someone tries to manipulate the search engine’s indexing mechanism.

Website owners affected by this manual penalty will receive a notice in the Google search console message center. The effects of this manual penalty result in a page or an entire site ranking lower or omitted from Google’s search results.

How to Monitor for Negative SEO Attacks

While you may never experience a negative SEO campaign, and some types are more common than others, there are ways to monitor for these issues. The best way to mitigate the potential damage is to continue following Google’s guidelines and incorporate the following best practices into your regular site audits:

New links are always welcome — but only quality ones from reputable referring domains. A comprehensive backlink tool will allow you to spot toxic backlinks from a link farm. This also helps you strengthen your backlink profile, ensuring that referral traffic is relevant to your site and visitors.

But you don’t need to check toxic backlinks manually. You can use automated tools to keep tabs on links pointing to your site through their email alerts feature. Should you notice low-quality links frequenting your list, you can use Google’s disavow tool to tell them to ignore those spammy links.

Apart from identifying those bad links, keeping the quality ones is just as important. Some spammers may attempt to remove your backlink by contacting webmasters and requesting its removal. To prevent this from happening, it’s always recommended to use emails with your website’s domain. You can also use automated tools to add tags to your best backlinks for easy sorting. This way, you’ll easily monitor any changes or removal and contact the webmasters to confirm the reason for such action.

Fortify Your Site Against Hacks and Malware

You can’t predict when hackers will decide to mess with your site’s content, so your best shot at protecting your page is to build stronger defenses. This includes creating strong passwords and regularly updating them, enabling two-factor authentication, and establishing backup systems.

You can also configure Google Search Console to alert you of any system issues or troubles with your indexing. If your site allows users to upload files, try contacting your hosting company to help you set up an anti-malware program.

Report Fake Reviews

Fighting a negative SEO attack requires mindfulness, and this method is an efficient way to get started. While reviews may not matter much if you’re not selling anything, they affect your brand and overall reputation. Google also confirms this can impact your SERP performance. If you see malicious and false reviews about your product or service, don’t hesitate to report those to the site’s administrator and request their removal.

Here are a few more suggestions you can use to counter fake testimonials:

  • Incorporate a review platform within your website where visitors can leave comments or suggestions.
  • Direct your clients to trusted review sites like TripAdvisor (for travel-related sites or services)

Legitimate client reviews help foster authenticity for your service or brand. It’s one of the most practical methods to even the playing field with those fakes online.

Be Mindful of Fake Social Profiles

As important as monitoring reviews, keeping an eye out for fake social profiles is crucial. Social media fuels global discussion, and one wrong mention can damage your brand irreparably. Be prompt in reporting fake social accounts that spread misinformation about your brand. Also, respond to mentions and address concerns immediately to avoid bad publicity.

But how damaging are the results of fake social profiles? Imagine a fake account posing as you but with more followers and interaction. What happens if that same account starts selling a service synonymous with yours? Remember that even fake accounts contribute to activity and sharing, increasing visibility and links. And more links lead to higher rankings. 

Alert Webmasters of Copycats

Websites that duplicate a portion of your entire site’s content jeopardize your authority in that niche. More importantly, it increases your risk of getting penalized, which may result in the duplicated page getting excluded from search results.

Before this happens, it’s best to contact the hosting provider of that copycat site and request they take it down. It’s important to note, however, that duplicate in this context refers to identical content. Google doesn’t officially penalize pages with synonymous topics as long as it’s not written or presented the same way.

What to Do if You Fall Victim to Negative SEO

negative SEO attack

You’ve taken all the necessary steps to strengthen your site but you can still fall prey to a negative SEO attack. If it happens, your best course of action is to take safety measures, contact a pro to help, and work on getting rid of any bad backlinks. Here are three things you can do.

Take Immediate Safety Measures

The best way to protect yourself and your website from negative SEO is by taking proper security measures. Immediately reset all passwords and run any core software updates to patch bugs. Invest in a good spam filter that will block any automated programs from trying to access your site without permission in the future. Additionally, using an SSL certificate (or Secure Sockets Layer) on your website will help keep any sensitive information safe while it’s in transit through the web server.

You should also contact anyone who may have been affected by this attack, such as customers who may have had their sensitive information compromised or people who were directed away from legitimate pages due to malicious redirection codes inserted into certain pages. If the attack was extensive, your site was hacked, or you just don’t know where to start, contact a security professional that specializes in preventing and repairing attacks of this nature to ensure things are handled swiftly.

Spotting unnatural links is easier if you’ve started building a backlink catalog or configured Google Search Console to send alerts. Once you’ve identified those bad links, work on contacting the site’s webmaster to request their removal. If the links appear as spam comments, you can contact the blog or site owners to moderate and delete the comment themselves.

Submit a Disavow File

The disavow tool in Google Search Console is an attempt to give webmasters the option to submit a list of disavow links they want Google to ignore when indexing. The links aren’t removed but are excluded every time Google crawls your website. This method works but is only recommended as a last resort.

Building a quality backlink profile is about crafting content to earn links from trusted publications. Generally, focusing on consistent link profile growth is still the best weapon against a negative SEO attack. The more quality links you have, the lesser your chances of getting a Google penalty when your site becomes a target of negative SEO tactics. Those quality links become your leverage for positioning yourself as a reliable site.

Continue Monitoring to Prevent Future Attacks

To prevent future attacks, consider investing in a web application firewall (WAF) which will monitor your traffic for malicious activity and block suspicious requests before they reach your site. You should also use a secure hosting platform with built-in malware detection and removal tools as well as robust firewalls and intrusion prevention systems.

Implementing strong password policies is another great way to improve security, as hackers often rely on weak passwords as an entry point into systems. Finally, make sure that all staff members are aware of these security measures so they are able to recognize any potential threats before they cause significant damage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Do People Engage in Negative SEO?

Simply put, negative SEO works. While it’s unethical and illegal to some degree, some site owners find negative SEO as the only means to beat their competition. Moreover, it’s not easily detected. An SEO attack can run for weeks or months without being detected.

Does Negative SEO Still Work?

It can, but it’s not as effective as its early beginnings. Today, Google’s algorithm has become more sophisticated at spotting low-quality links and spammy backlinks, so an immediate negative impact on your own site’s PageRank is unlikely.

Can You Prevent Negative SEO?

You can’t prevent the act, but you can improve your site’s resilience against it. Unfortunately, negative SEO practitioners exist, and unprotected websites can become their victims. By close site monitoring, building strong backlinks, and investing in quality malware protection programs, you help beef up your site’s ability to combat an SEO attack.

Wrapping Up

Negative SEO can harm your website and rankings. 

If you suspect negative SEO is affecting your results in search engines, you can begin with the following questions:

  • Is there a sudden drop in web traffic?
  • Is there a sudden drop in ranking for specific keywords?
  • Have you recently received warning messages from Google about malicious web practices?
  • Are there sudden content duplicates appearing around the web?

If you’ve answered yes to all, there’s a chance negative SEO is at play. Do a thorough site audit and follow the tips we’ve provided to minimize site ranking damage.