When Google rolled out their Panda and Penguin updates earlier this year, I was one of many people who thought that this was probably a good thing. After all, it was sold to us as Google taking action against spammers and those paying for backlinks. For any business doing legitimate and honest link-building as part of a white-hat SEO, this seemed to create a more level playing field.
Indeed, our own rankings in Google for important keywords improved somewhat. I was satisfied and felt encouraged by this.
Little did I realise the unprecedented power Google was actually giving spammers, and the dangerous new wild-west Google world that had been born.
I'm talking here about the new world of 'Negative SEO'.
Negative SEO basically involves the building of low-quality and spammy backlinks to a competitor's website, in the hope that this will cause that website to have a poor reputation in the eyes of Google.
Here's Google's own advice to webmasters:
"When we see unnatural links pointing to a site, there are different ways we can respond. In many severe cases, we reduce our trust in the entire site."
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.
Google's advice to contact webmasters to have undesirable links removed, means by definition that these links 'can' have an adverse affect. And if a site owner's own ranking can be adversely affected, then by definition a webmaster can also cause a competitor's rankings to be adversely affected. After all, Google doesn't know who is responsible for the creation of these links. There would seem to be a logical pathway from this, to realising that site owners now have two options to improve their own SERPS:
1. Spend many months or years building up quality backlinks from legitimate and quality websites
2. Spend $25 and get someone to launch a negative SEO campaign against one of your competitors. Get them knocked out for that keyword. You yourself can then move in the rankings.
Here's what happened to us recently:
Last week I was contacted by three different site owners over the course of a few days. They all complained that their forums or blogs were getting a lot of comment spam, with the keywords "Sell My House", and a link to our website, For Sale By Owner. Another 2 days on, and I noticed that our website was now nowhere to be found for the search term "Sell My House". We had for the last 6 months or so held position 2 for this key-phrase.
On further investigation, it came to my attention that our website was now also being blacklisted on sites like sucuri.net for comment/forum spam. I contacted them and they removed us from the blacklist. However, as one of their support staff told me, "Unless you can prevent this, you may well start to appear on all sorts of other blacklists, including email blacklists".
It would seem we are not alone. For certain key-phrases, ByMyPlace is or was also being targeted, though on smaller scale.
What then are the options for webmasters to prevent this?
It would seem there are no real options for prevention. All that can be done is damage control once it happens.
Our options and/or actions so far:
1. We have contacted Google and reported this, and seeking advice. I'm not holding my breath for a response.
2. Wait until Google adds 'disavow' functionality to Webmasters tools, as Bing has already done. The fact that Matt Cutts, head of the web spam team at Google, even suggests that they are considering this, is surely further indication that a reasonable number of site owners are being harmed by negative SEO and want ways to be able to distance themselves from low-quality and spammy links.
For us, this simply is not an option. While the accuracy of sites like 'removeem.com' can't be ascertained, they are reporting that we have 116439 suspicious links. With thousands of spammy comments of forums and blogs going out every day, disavowing thousands of links is not an option.
3. Legal investigation. While this seems at first somewhat unrealistic, I actually do feel that this is not a completely hopeless avenue. Many people have a false sense of anonymity on the internet, and for some this will be their undoing.
Just as sites like 'negativeseo.me' (who promise to "Destroy Your Competitor's Google Rankings") seem to have no scruples and will gladly attack any sites as long as they are paid, it would seem that the anonymity of their customers is also not a great concern for them, as long as they are paid.
Without giving specific details yet, I have approached a number of these sites to see whether or not they would be 'in principle' willing to divulge details on who had ordered this Negative SEO campaign against us, if indeed it had been done through them (with a 'reward' and promise by us to not try and take any action against them being necessary). That is, if they were able to provide tangible proof, such as PayPal transaction number etc. A few of them seem open to this, and this is encouraging.
Who knows where our investigation of this issue will lead. Whatever the outcome may be, our business is not going to take this lying down.
Negative SEO can, in my opinion, be considered a form a sustained denial of service against a competitor. In the same way that a normal DOS or DDOS attack makes a website unreachable to those surfing the net, Negative SEO makes the site unreachable for those performing Google searches. It can also be considered a form of libel.
Nothing should ever be taken as being true, unless there is actual evidence to suggest it's true. While there are those who would dispute that Negative SEO can even work or is even possible, I personally consider Google's position, together with what has actually happened to us in terms of SERPS, to be reasonable evidence. As far as I'm concerned, there's every reason to believe that Negative SEO works, and this is something that every site owner needs to be concerned about.