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What Is Negative SEO? The Full Answer, Plus 4 Golden Rules for Preventing an Attack

Some people will do anything to win.

Take it from the person who’d do anything to win Heads Down, Thumbs Up in school—even if that meant cheating and peeking at people’s shoes beneath the desk.

(Don’t tell my mum.)

Although I like to think I’ve matured since those school days, competitive streaks can still cause conflict.

It’s no different in the world of SEO.

In a place where there can be only one winner taking the top spot in Google, your business competitors can sabotage your SEO efforts—and replace the top spot with a page from their website.

After all, that’s the main goal of any SEO campaign, right?

That, my friend, leads us nicely into the world of negative SEO.

What Is Negative SEO? The Full Answer

If you’ve clicked on this article with no idea of what negative SEO is, you’re in luck.

Monitor Backlinks is all about detecting and fighting against negative SEO.

You’re about to get a solid overview of what it is, the warning signs that indicate your website might be suffering from one, and how you can prevent a nasty attack from ruining your search visibility.

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty though, let’s iron out the basics.

You want to know what negative SEO is, right?

Here’s your answer: Negative SEO is when competitors perform black hat SEO on your website.

They do this so they can knock you down (or completely eliminate you from) the Google SERPs and they steal all the higher rankings. It’s easy to rank highly when you aren’t competing with anyone else, isn’t it?

If you’ve been hit with a negative SEO attack, you could lose all of your current rankings—or even worse, suffer from a Google penalty.

Considering these penalties are getting harder and harder to lift, you’ll want to avoid them at all costs. Believe me.

Having said that, it isn’t as easy as it used to be to implement negative SEO tactics.

Not too long ago, competitors could build a bunch of bad links to your website, and with that, eliminate your website from Google entirely.

However, with Google getting smarter and SEO strategies becoming more complex, it’s trickier for one negative SEO action to bring down an entire website.

Do you sense some bad news coming? Here it is: Getting hit with a negative SEO attack isn’t impossible. It can still happen.

In fact, SEO scammers are offering to do these harmful attacks for just $5—and there’s nothing to say that your competitors won’t use them to tarnish your website’s reputation.

5 Warning Signs You’ve Been Hit by a Negative SEO Attack

Have you spotted a change in your SEO performance?

These five warning signs could signal that you’ve fallen victim to a negative SEO campaign.

1. Change in On-site Appearance

The easiest warning sign to spot is a change in your website appearance.

If you’ve hopped onto your website and noticed a shift in overall design, content placement or navigation bar settings, you might have fallen victim to an attack.

That’s because some competitors aim to change your on-site content by hacking your website. This tricks Google into thinking the page is about something totally unrelated and decreases rankings as a result.

Be careful with this one, and double-check that someone else on your team hasn’t made the changes without alerting you. That’d cause panic for no reason and wouldn’t be good for the heart!

2. Unable to Sign Into Your CMS and/or Web Hosting

Are you struggling to sign into your CMS or web hosting dashboard?

Some clever SEO scammers hack either of these places in order to perform a negative SEO attack. So, if you’re unable to log in with your standard combinations, it might be time to prepare for war.

3. Zero (or Minimal) Indexed Pages in Google

Take a minute to conduct a complete search of your website in Google by entering site:YOURURL.com.

How many pages are currently indexed by Google? This is the figure highlighted in the screenshot below.

what-is-negative-seo

Ask yourself: Does this reflect the number of pages I’ve got on my website? If not, it could be a warning sign of a recent attack.

For example, if you know that you’ve got 5,000 pages on your website but only five are being indexed by Google, there’s something fishy going on. (Potentially an attack.)

4. Spammy Links in Your Backlink Profile

Have you spotted a bunch of new, low-quality links in your backlink profile?

Backlinks that connect your site to an irrelevant website (such as loan, gambling or Viagra websites) is another warning signal of a negative SEO attack.

This is perhaps the simplest and most straightforward negative SEO attack and it’s the easiest to detect if you’re monitoring your backlinks in your Monitor Backlinks dashboard (but more on that later).

5. A Decline in Organic Search Visibility

Giving a brief overview of your SEO performance, a decline in organic search visibility is another sign of a negative SEO attack.

You can check this by referring back to the Keywords tab in your Monitor Backlinks dashboard:

what-is-negative-seo

(Don’t have an account yet? Don’t worry, you can still check if you’ve been hit with this type of SEO attack by grabbing a 30-day free trial.)

Now it’s time to learn about your search visibility. If you’re:

  • Ranking in position #1 for your keyword, your search visibility would be 35%.
  • Ranking in position #10 for your keyword, your search visibility would be 2%.
  • Not ranking anywhere for your keyword in the first 50 results, your search visibility would be 0%.

It’s a good idea to monitor this periodically (maybe once a month, or every two weeks). That way, you’ll know what your “normal” search visibility score is—and easily spot when it’s declining, so you can take action.

5 Common Types of Negative SEO Attacks and How to Recover from Each One

Have you spotted one of the warning signs of a nasty attack?

Depending on the sign you’ve spotted, you could be suffering from one of these types of negative SEO attack:

1. Spammy Link Building

Take a look at your backlink profile using Monitor Backlinks. You’ll need to click on the Backlinks tab on your main dashboard.

what-is-negative-seo

Have you spotted a surge of low-quality links? Look out for:

  • Citation Flow and Trust Flow below 10
  • Spam Score above 3
  • Site not indexed by Google
  • More than 100 External Links on the page
  • Flagged backlinks with a warning icon

If you’re seeing hundreds or thousands of bad links, it’s likely to be a spammy linkbuilding attack.

This happens when competitors go out of their way to build bad backlinks to your website. They could include links from:

  • Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
  • Link farms
  • Websites with high Spam Scores (>3)
  • Irrelevant websites—like the Viagra and betting sites we mentioned earlier

But why are these backlinks so damaging, and what makes them powerful enough to bring down your entire website?

It’s simple, really: Google uses backlinks as a reputation tool. They’re the strongest off-site indicator that identifies how trustworthy a website is. If you’re associating with the bad boys of the internet, you’re likely to be tarnished with the same reputation, too.

That isn’t going to end well—especially when Google’s main priority is to show the highest-quality and most relevant results for a user’s search query.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this data.

A recent study found that the average page ranked on position #1 in Google has 100,000+ backlinks pointing to it, on average. That decreases to about 75,000 for position #2, and fluctuates between 30,000 and 55,000 for every other position on Page One:

what-is-negative-seo

What does that tell us? Well, to stand any chance of ranking on page one, you’ll need the right backlinks to help you get there.

It does look like you need to have hundreds of thousands of backlinks to rank highly, but remember, in the world of link building it’s all about quality over quantity.

The websites listed in the graph above are likely to have 100,000+ high-quality backlinks pointing to it, not thousands of links from low-quality websites.

How to Recover from a Spammy Linkbuilding Attack

You don’t want to associate yourself with sites that have a bad reputation. That runs the risk of passing that reputation onto your own website—and being punished for it.

So, sieve through your backlink profile and highlight any entries that:

  • Weren’t built by you
  • Are low quality
  • Are irrelevant

Once you’ve ticked these, the next step to recovery is submitting a disavow. Essentially telling Google not to associate your site with the one it’s been linked from, it’s the best way to recover from this type of SEO attack.

To submit a disavow and banish these bad links, simply highlight the spammy links in your backlink profile and hit “Disavow”:

what-is-negative-seo

Congratulations! You’re no longer linked (literally) to the bad website and your job here is done, my friend!

2. Content Duplication or “Scraping”

If you’ve spotted a decline in your organic search visibility or drop in overall rankings, the content duplication (or “scraping”) negative SEO attack could be the root cause.

Content duplication attacks happen when competitors copy and paste your content to another site, word-for-word.

What happens then?

Well, it confuses Google. Their spiders won’t know which page to rank since they both talk about exactly the same things. One doesn’t appear to be better or worse than the other.

Because Google doesn’t know which page is better, it won’t reward either site with high rankings. Instead, both of the duplicated pages will share the ranking power—and this ranks them both lower.

Instead of one non-duplicated page getting 100% of the ranking power, search engines will split that with the duplicated pages.

In addition to this, duplicated content doesn’t prove authority. Remember how we mentioned Google’s main priority is displaying the most-relevant and highest-quality results? That’s a tough nut to crack if you’ve got the same content as another website.

Here’s what Google has to say about the topic:

Google tries hard to index and show pages with distinct information. This filtering means, for instance, that if your site has a ‘regular’ and ‘printer’ version of each article, and neither of these is blocked with a noindex meta tag, we’ll choose one of them to list.

In the rare cases in which Google perceives that duplicate content may be shown with intent to manipulate our rankings and deceive our users, we’ll also make appropriate adjustments in the indexing and ranking of the sites involved.

As a result, the ranking of the site may suffer, or the site might be removed entirely from the Google index, in which case it will no longer appear in search results.

How to Recover from a Content Duplication Attack

You can check where (and who) has duplicated your website content by using a tool like Copyscape.

Simply pop the URL of your page into their search box, and you’ll instantly find a list of URLs that have exactly the same content:

what-is-negative-seo

For each instance, you’ll want to change the content on your website to new, fresh content. This can be done by giving the entire page a complete overhaul, or re-wording each sentence to make it unique.

Once that’s done, it’s also a good idea to report the duplicated site to Google. This will warn them of their negative SEO attacks—and punish them instead of you for it.

Who said that being a tattle-tale was a bad thing?

Although this type of negative SEO attack is easy to find, it’s hard to prevent—all of your website content is public. It’s pretty hard to exclude competitors from seeing it, right? You just have to stay on top of it.

3. Fake Social Signals

Social signals are another huge factor considered in search engine algorithms.

This relates back to the main priority of Google—to always show the highest-quality results for a user’s query.

So, let’s do a mini-experiment. If you were Google, which one of these sites would you be more likely to place higher in the SERPs?

a. A blog post with 5,000+ social shares and a few hundred comments.

b. A blog post with 2 social shares and zero comments.

Congratulations if you chose option a! Google would, too.

In fact, this “social signal experiment” proves it:

what-is-negative-seo

After building Google+ followers, increasing Facebook shares and creating a Twitter conversation about one website, their overall rankings shot up—proving that social signals do impact rankings.

…but how can competitors use this methodology to plan their sabotage?

The answer is simple: by using social media to spread bad news about your business, website or brand.

Competitors could perform this type of negative SEO attack by:

  • Saying negative things about your website to put off customers (and discourage them from clicking your website should they see it in the SERPs).
  • Using social platforms to spread malicious, fake news about your company.
How to Recover from a Fake Social Signal Attack

To find out if you’ve fallen victim to this type of negative SEO attack, search for your brand name on various social platforms—including LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Can you spot any fake profiles that imitate your brand, but haven’t been created by your business? Chances are, they were created by a competitor in an attempt to damage your SEO performance.

For each fake profile tweet you spot, report it.

(Here are some detailed guidelines on how to do that for LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.)

You should also tell your customers about the fake profiles, and urge them to avoid it. This can be a simple as tweeting from your verified Twitter account, or publishing a quick blog post to your website to explain the situation, and discourage your audience from accidentally following the scammers.

4. Fake Reviews

You probably already know that reviews are important.

Over 80% of online shoppers look for reviews throughout their purchasing decision, mainly because they want to know whether the website can be trusted with their hard-earned cash.

Google follows a similar philosophy—but assess whether the website can be trusted with high rankings (and their searcher’s cash), instead.

In fact, review signals account for 10.3% of all ranking factors for local SEO pages:

what-is-negative-seo

Granted, that’s a small percentage—but competitors will go to the extreme to sabotage your website.

You can fall victim to this type of attack, especially when negative reviews are so easy to fake. Many review websites don’t require proof of purchase before you can submit a genuine review, meaning it’s easy to trick the system and have a competitor damage your reputation.

Bad reviews can be left on various directories, but the most harmful reviews come from those left on your company’s Google My Business listing.

(Which makes sense, really—it’s Google’s own reviewing platform.)

How to Recover from a Fake Review Attack

If you’ve spotted a fake review of your business, your customers (and Google) are likely to spot it, too.

…hence why we’ll need to banish them as soon as possible.

For any fake reviews you’ve found, you’ll need to:

  • Ask your real customers to leave their reviews on the same platform, which will boost your overall rating and reputation.

When you’re doing this recovery strategy, there’s one thing to remember: we only want to remove reviews from people who haven’t actually purchased from you.

Removing bad reviews from genuine customers could make your brand look untrustworthy—which could be just as damaging as the negative SEO attack, itself!

5. Website or Hosting Hacks

The final (and most harmful) type of negative SEO attack you might suffer from is hacks to your website, hosting or CMS.

This happens when a competitor susses-out the log-in details for your website, and makes changes to its appearance.

Those change could include:

  • Changing on-site content and keyword targeting to make the page totally unrelated to what you want it to rank for.
  • De-indexing the entire website from Google.
  • Worsening user experience by changing colors, fonts and increasing page loading speeds.
  • Adding external links from your site to Viagra, loan/betting sites (known for being spammy).
How to Recover from a Negative SEO Hack Attack

If you’re questioning why these types of negative SEO attacks are so harmful, it’s because the changes are made to directly your website. The security of your site and personal information has been compromised.

Hackers will often change the password so you can’t log back in and change things back, making it tough to recover from.

However, you’ll be glad to hear that recovery isn’t impossible.

As soon as you notice your site has been hacked, you’ll need to ask your web developer or hosting platform to identify how, why and when the hack took place.

You’ll also need to ask them if it’s possible to kick out the hackers and regain access. If so, you’ll need to change your log-in details immediately, and restore an older version you’ve backed up of your website.

(If you ever needed a reason to regularly back up your website, let it be this!)

The 4 Golden Rules to Prevent a Negative SEO Attack

Have you ever heard the phrase, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”?

(In simpler terms, it refers to the fact that prevention is better than curing an issue.)

It’s not just relevant to general healthcare, though—it’s relevant to the health of your website.

So, instead of picking up the pieces after a negative SEO attack, you can prevent yourself from falling victim to one by following these four golden rules.

1. Use Google Webmaster Tools Alerts

No matter which type of website you’re running—from a blog to an e-commerce site—you’ll need to have access to a Google Webmaster Tools account.

Why? Well, it’s how Google communicates with website owners.

They’re unlikely to pick up the phone and have a conversation with you about issues on your website. Instead, they’ll add an alert to your Webmaster Tools account and let you check it out in your own time. Aren’t they nice?

Once you’ve created your account, it’s wise to set-up alerts. That way, you can be notified of any changes to:

  • Pages not being indexed
  • Server connectivity problems
  • Crawl errors
  • Software updates on your site
  • Malware detection
  • Your website, in general—or if it’s soon to be under attack

The sooner you’re aware of these potential negative SEO attacks, the sooner you can recover from them— or prevent them from damaging your search visibility, at all.

I told you Google is nice!

2. Always Check for New Backlinks

Remember how earlier, we mentioned that spammy link attacks are one of the easiest ways a competitor can sabotage your website’s SEO power?

That’s because links are so easy to build. All they’ll need is access to a spammy website (which can be created within a matter of seconds) to get the job done—and let you experience the punishing consequences.

For that reason, you should constantly be checking your backlink profile, and disavowing any links that are likely to hurt your site’s reputation.

Fancy some good news?

You don’t have to set email reminders to do this—and potentially forget about the risk, entirely.

That’s because our Monitor Backlinks tool will send mini email reports on your website’s activity. It’ll include changes to key SEO metrics (like Alexa Rank and Page Rank), along with any new additions to your backlink profile.

Here’s what they look like:

what-is-negative-seo
Handy, right?

Not only will these email reports and notifications help you to spot an impending negative SEO attack, but it’ll help to monitor your SEO performance, too.

Talk about killing two birds with one stone!

3. Regularly Change Passwords

Although website hacks are the trickiest type of negative SEO attack to recover from, they’re one of the easiest to prevent.

Why? Well, the easiest way for hackers to get into your private CMS is to guess the password, username or log-in details.

How do you prevent them from guessing, you ask?

The answer is simple, my friend: make your passwords tricky to guess, and change them regularly.

Let’s look at an example. If a competitor wanted to hack into our website and damage our chances of ranking, they’re likely to guess a password like “monitorbacklinks”, “MonitorBacklinks” or “password.” Sounds silly, but people do make passwords like this all the time.

Fun fact: “password” is the second-most popular password used by people all over the world. Shortly followed by “123456” and “qwerty.”)

Instead, you’re safer by using these tips when creating a log-in:

  • Use a combination of letters, numbers and special characters.
  • Don’t use your brand, first or surname (or any other personal information, for that matter!).

It also goes without saying that you should avoid storing your log-in details in obvious places—like a piece of scrap paper or even worse, an Excel spreadsheet or Google Doc.

4. Monitor Brand Mentions

Do you want to find instances of where competitors have posted fake reviews, negative coverage or impersonated social media accounts?

These are often trickier to track because your competitors don’t always link to your website. Instead, they mention your brand—which is why they won’t be shown in your backlink profile.

That doesn’t mean they’re totally unfindable, though.

Tools like Mention, Awario and Talkwalker find brand mentions for you, or you could choose the free route and set up Google Alerts to be notified whenever your brand name is picked up by Google.

Once you’ve found the negative coverage, follow the recovery stages outlined above.

You’ll soon be negative SEO risk-free, and be adding value to your strategy—rather than have a competitor remove it.

 

Now you’ve got the ultimate guide to negative SEO, you’ll always be aware of any black hat SEO strategies that might be having an adverse impact on your website.

Remember that keeping on top of small negative SEO attacks means you’re less likely to be severely impacted. Should you keep an eye on each element and regularly follow the prevention steps, you’ll be able to rest assured that you’re not at risk of catastrophic SEO damage to your website.

Having said that, you shouldn’t be overly worried about falling victim to an attack.

With Google constantly updating their algorithm to know which strategies are genuine, checking for negative SEO attacks should be a bi-yearly task included in your SEO checks.

Let’s give three cheers to not letting competitors drag you down!

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