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I really had another post topic in mind today that had nothing to do with Google, but I’ll wait on that. Seems the ‘hot topic’ is Negative SEO at the moment and I’m getting a lot of alarmed questions coming my way about it. So, let’s talk about it.
First off, what IS “negative SEO”?
Negative SEO basically means that someone else goes out and creates a mass of cr@ppy and spammy links to your site and/or web page with the intention of dropping your ranking.
In “real world” lingo – it’s like someone starting a bunch of nasty rumors about you in effort to destroy your good reputation (and/or to make THEM look good).
Got it? Ok, good – let’s move on….
Is Negative SEO Possible?
Is it possible to knock a competing site down in the rankings with bad links?
Of course it is!
Heck, if we can accidentally screw up our own rankings with back links, why couldn’t we do that TO another site? Right? Well, it wasn’t always that way.
I had always held on to my previous belief of some degree of ‘fairness’ when it comes to ranking in Google and held tight to how they used to handle ‘bad links’ – but that has changed.
I totally believed in the ability to decrease our own rankings (or the rankings of another web page) via an over-optimization type penalty. Basically, what I call an “AIA” issue.
AIA means “All In Anchor” and it’s a way to check if you are too “top-heavy” with the exact anchor text you used to build your links. I wrote about this back in January 2011 – if you want to understand more about that, you can read that post here: Building Links But Sinking in Google?
Ever since Google started using the words that linked to your page as a ranking signal (anchor text), over-doing that has been possible (or at least shortly there-after when it became an abused practice to manipulate rankings).
The solution or “fix” to an AIA issue was simply to dilute your back link anchor text.
The other “nasty” links were simply ignored by Google and did nothing to either help, or hurt, your rankings (unless that’s ALL your back link profile consisted of).
Now, Google is changing the game up yet again.
Now, WHERE your links come from and the detection of unnatural creation of those links is causing big issues when it comes to ranking.
To put that in ‘real-world lingo’ – once upon a time, those that had a bad reputation would be ignored when they talked about you. Now, you’re being accused of getting those “bad rep” folks to talk about you in attempt to falsely boost your rep. Like a fake testimonial, in a way.
When there is a pattern, or ‘footprint’, of low rep sites linking to you, Google is coming down on you – whether YOU got those low rep sites to do it or not.
Imagine interviewing someone for a job. They might have one or two references that seem a bit fake or “scripted”, but the others feel genuine to you. You just might ignore the “scripted” ones and get a good feel for that person from the genuine ones, right?
Now, say that same person gave you a long list of references and every single one of them was fake…they all said the same thing that felt “scripted” to you. Would you hire that person? I don’t think so.
Google works in a similar way.
Are YOU Vulnerable to a Negative SEO Attack?
If your ranking is artificially created, you are all kinds of vulnerable to Negative SEO. I can get in there and artificially create a BAD rep for you with Google – especially if a) you have a very light back link profile and b) I’m better at artificial rankings than you are.
In other words, you managed to skate thru your job interview with fake references and got the job. I can get you fired by creating a bunch of BAD fake references. You didn’t earn a reputation to defend yourself – it was all manipulated.
When it comes to Google, links are your reputation.
Based on all that, if you are ranking awesome in Google based on an artificial reputation – and you’re making money – you might want to watch your back.
Either Google will nail you on their own, or someone who really wants your ranking position might try to bring you down the same way you got up – artificially.
Now on the other hand, if you earned your top ranking with an organic link reputation built by real people who genuinely are giving you a “good reference”, you are much less vulnerable.
If other real people are continually linking to you as a good reference, you are even less vulnerable. Your good real “references” will continue to outweigh the massive amounts of artificial fake references being created.
Your link reputation (good AND bad) as well as what you offer on your site are what counts now. What people say ABOUT you as well as what you DO on your site.
Just like that job – what people say about you as well as how you perform on the job.
If people are saying great things about you and you do a great job, you’ll probably survive an attack of bad rumors – or at least recover quickly due to real people getting involved.
Has THIS Site Ever Been Attacked?
I left a comment today over at WebProNews on Chris Crum’s article about Negative SEO. In that comment I told of how a year or two ago, someone attacked this very site with really nasty back links. Someone had gone out and built a massive amount of p0rn forum profile links to PotPieGirl.com.
I was shocked, to say the least.
I was also concerned because I made up the term ‘potpiegirl’ – Google never heard of it before me. (big hint on branding there, folks)
I had one HECK of a time getting Google to understand that No, “I” wasn’t a typo and NO, the word ‘potpiegirl’ did NOT mean some other very weird and questionable phrase they were associating me with that I feared wasn’t what I wanted to be associated with (you can read about THAT experience in this post of mine from back in 2008).
But even back then, when this site didn’t have the link reputation it has today, it didn’t do a thing to my site. Part of that is probably because Google just ignored those links at the time, and the other part, hopefully, was because I had a decent link reputation that was not artificially created…and it was still growing. Those nasty links didn’t determine – or hurt – my reputation.
Negative SEO Case Studies
Over at Traffic Planet, Rand Fishkin is offering his SEOMoz.org site as a “guinea pig” to test Negative SEO on. Those involved in that thread want to know if Google has really opened the door and made Negative SEO possible – even on a site with a very, very strong reputation.
I really don’t think they can. Also, it’s not a clean test if it’s public like that.
Know WHY it’s not clean? Look back above – I just linked to SEOMoz and clouded any results they may claim to have or not have.
Testing things on Google is really, really tricky. It’s hard to get everything to remain static while you attempt to test the results of ONE action. If anyone else knows your test space, odds are good that your results are skewed and inaccurate.
However, I am FAR from a statistical or a technological genius so that’s just my thoughts on all that.
How Can You Protect Yourself From Negative SEO?
You just might hate this answer, but here it is. Break up with Google and focus all your energy on your readers and the PEOPLE in your niche. They are the ones that will help you survive and/or recover from an attack.
Virtually every site in it’s infancy is vulnerable – it’s easy to ruin a site that doesn’t even have a reputation yet – so protect your new baby.
Sneak in to your niche by “back-dooring” with longtail phrases…. do what you can to get people to your site and easy does it with the artificial reputation building.
A reputation built artificially is like a pretty sand castle… one good wave and it’s gone. So don’t build your ranking or Google reputation with sand. Build your foundation deep, like sky-scrapers do, and by the time anyone takes notice of you and gets a wild hair to try and take you down…your foundation is solid to withstand most attacks.
And that is what I spent my weekend doing and what I wanted to talk about today. I started a new site in a totally new niche not riding off this brand in any way. In other words, started from scratch – but this time – with NO thought about Google. I only thought about the PEOPLE in that niche.
It was fun 🙂
But we’ll talk about that later.
Thoughts, questions, comments on Negative SEO? Comments are open!
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The main question I have is this – how has the landscape for niche sites been affected?
Most niche sites are quick hit sites – keyword-domain, closely related long-tail keyword pages, 200-400 word blurbs, and amazon/ebay/clickback product links.
Without google shifts, these sites can fluctuate wildly in rankings anyway – needing constant upkeep in backlinks, etc.
What google is seeming to say with it’s changes is – put time into the site to make it really valuable (we presume that means something and google presumes their algorythm measures it well)
But in the end, it seems like we’re headed back to ‘authority sites’ (again, whatever that really means) are valuable, and small niche/affiliate sites – not so much.
Has the niche site shifted to being an ‘authority niche site’ ?? – is this the new thing?
Is this the death for the average niche site? Is this the death of being able to make 20-100 quick sites a year and make a livable income?
It’s tough to elaborate on all the questions here in this space, but there are a lot of real practical questions that need to be asked – and answered, somehow…
Good question, Kevin – thank you!
To me, the average “niche site” is a) Google dependent and b) most likely ranking well due to artificial means (if we’re both talking the same kind of ‘niche site’ concept of quantity vs quality type thing).
Both of those things make that site model vulnerable… HOWEVER, those type of sites (at least mine like that) are in low-competition/under the radar type niches.
To me, nothing has really changed about that model if the view was clear from the start. These are sites that have power as a portfolio…no ONE will make you rich…and you always knew you can’t depend on any of them sticking around forever. Like an 80/20 rule type thing.
I don’t think this is the death of that model, however *I* wouldn’t build my entire business around it (and have always felt that way). It’s the ol’ eggs/basket thing.
Funny, Google made a fuss about people buying links, but this is one fairly sure way to generate traffic without depending on Google, and with all Google’s changes it’s become a good alternative to insulate yourself from some of those changes. So whether they intend to or not, Google’s actually encouraging the behavior they say they want to discourage, even if people are doing it for a different reason.
I haven’t yet done much traffic buying, but you can be sure I’m studying up on it and doing some testing!
Hiya BJ =)
You can buy links… you just can’t have them be ‘do-follow’ (if you are playing by Google’s rules). Regardless, alternative traffic sources are super important.
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That’s not entirely true. The way you should go about business is by getting links you would go after if google never existed. For instance, the yellow pages in the UK is bought advertising with do follow links.
I find it fair what Google did. Right now everyone is equal online and the websites that are truly good will get a good rank and not the one that have budget tobuy a lot of links. I think Google is sick of all this manipulations.
It’s cute you’re that naive.
yeah, Alex – you’re really cute 🙂
People often wonder what “alternative traffic” actually is.
To those who wonder, I have only one question – how did you arrive on this blog post? Did you do a search? I’ll take a wild guess that majority of us landed here from…alternative traffic sources. 😉
You are absolutely correct 🙂
Can you share your alternative traffic sources with us?
As always, thank you for your help.
This is one dilemma that Google has always had. Links can be used for good or bad. Thus Google is slow to knock sites down with bad links, unless there is alot of evidence that they themselves are building spammy links. Is it possible to knock a competitor down with a bunch of bad links? Very unlikely. If that was true it would be happening all the time to big sites for big traffic keywords. Instead they (Google) just don’t count those links or discount them heavily.
hehe, I also wrote about this over at my blog.
That thread is complete gold mine for learning how they practice the dark arts of negative SEO. The over optimized “algo” update – if it ever takes serious root will def open the doorways to negative SEO.
I think its crazy how there are so many different tactics involved, like getting the sites orginial content indexed before the actual owners do! And even to go as far as spamming the businesses google reviews pages. ….crazy
and Rand’s site will never see tanked rankings. Way too authoritative
p.s. got to this blog post from “Negative SEO” then filtered to past hour. One good reason to stay on top of trends!
I think that we need to get back to using outbound links more in the web, even though we are sometimes competing against one another. The world is big enough for all of us and together we’ll be stronger.
For example, in this post you linked out to SEOMoz, Traffic Planet and WebProNews. All of these articles are relevant to yours and improve the reader’s experience. They build our trust in you and expose us to other sites that we may not have heard of before.
Thanks for another great post. I always wonder when someone says they have tested on Google too. I mean they say, this is all I did, but what did someone else do? Did someone send traffic, build links on their site, delete links, how do you know it was indexed or de-indexed (if deleted links get de-indexed).
I think writing for the people is a lot better than writing for Google, you might be a bit behind here and there when Google is still trying to perfect their algorithm but that’s better than getting dropped like a hot potato when they make an update, and they always will.
I really enjoyed this article and truly like this answer:
“How Can You Protect Yourself From Negative SEO? You just might hate this answer, but here it is. Break up with Google and focus all your energy on your readers and the PEOPLE in your niche. They are the ones that will help you survive and/or recover from an attack.”
It seems that Google will keep changing the game and no matter who you are you will not be able to protect yourself from it. Best o build a following and interact within your niche.
I do wonder though, does Google penalize only small sites?
As a case study what would happen if people build “bad links” and promote on pay to click sites a website like EzineArticles.com? I wonder if Google would penalize them even more.
Thanks for the post!
This all sounds like a ridiculous can of worms to me. Google has enough trouble providing good quality search results when using plain old SEO. So why would it make it’s job 100 times worse by allowing people to game the results in both directions? It make no sense!
I think this might be a double bluff. Google knows there’s a huge number of people out there that hang on Mr Cutts every word and when he says something, they must be able to observe the resulting trends over the coming days/weeks/months.
Google recently de-listed a lot of link farms and low quality article directories, but they didn’t do a complete job. After that and the impact it had on so many sites, what better better way of rooting out the rest of the rubbish than to ask a large bunch of scared site owners to disassociate themselves for the sites that they feel might be harming them? I mean, who in their right mind would ask the BBC or the New York Times to take down a link?
If you ask me (and not many people do!) this is not about dodgy inbound links but about guilty consciences, and Google has just undergone an exercise in link shrinkage. In the process they have Identified a load of blog networks etc. (which they may have been completely unaware of) and sites who have been engaging with them.
The problem is that if you keep quiet here, someone else would have already squealed on the blog network that holds some of your back link profile, so you can’t get out of that one. And as soon as you start to withdraw links, then that will incriminate you just as much.
My theory is to keep quiet – don’t do anything. Because in this situation you appear to have nothing to hide – no guilty conscience. I suppose if I’m correct here, this means that negative SEO could strangely come in the form of a competitor trying to remove some of your links in an attempt to incriminate you – YUK!
Google can continue to pull strings in which ever direction it likes, but I’ll bet that this won’t lead to better search results.
Hi Jennifer, congratulations on another informative post.
As a mature-aged newbie, it’s getting a bit disheartening reading all this Google doom and gloom.
Being technically challenged, I was quite proud recently about finally getting my first review site together. Now I am about to tackle the backlinking process.
However, it seems that building links, especially to niche sites, which is where most of us begin, is a bit of a minefield.
I’m still trying to get my head around the no-follow/do-follow concept, and now I learn there is the possibility of getting “back-doored”.
I think the key for us beginners is not to worry too much about negative SEO, but to keep on the white hat path and work on building links slowly and naturally.
Anyway, that’s what I’m doing until I get a bit more savvy and learn how to speed things up without upsetting Mr. Google.
Great info Jennifer…I also read about the SEOMoz.org site and the others that did bring their own sites down…but like you said they were on the shaky side anyway….
Folks should loose the term “getting backlinks” and focus on creating good quality marketing practices like writing articles, blog post, and other things that will build a business on a solid foundation…works every time…
I do despise others that try to ruin folks with malicious attacks simply out of meanness or envy…
Well I originally found this site from a google search (if I remember correctly), and don’t really know much about ‘alternative traffic sources’. I would really like to learn about this, as I’m trying to get traffic to my site by building links from my own wordpress blogs, blogger blogs, ezine articles etc.
So do you have any articles that explain this, or are you intending to write any?
Thanks for this post though. Very informative.
My guess is that all this noise going on with Google is just pushing people to become an expert in their industry by building a BRAND.
Those who can nurture a genuine following of readers and customers will be able to survive. Pretty much it will require everyone to build authority sites that provide enough value to the marketplace that people naturally link to it.
I’m beginning to think the only way is to build your own blog network with web 2 sites, domains in separate C blocks etc. Then you can link to these with whatever links you like. it would provide a buffer to your main site.
Time consuming though!
The problem is that Google is trying to penalize (or at least not reward) the artificial means of increasing your rank. We need to steer away from ‘natural-looking’ linking schemes because they aren’t really natural. Google will eventually learn how to detect this.
I believe Jennifer’s point in all of this is to stop worrying about what Google does and just build quality content. Not that we forget about good SEO, but that we don’t focus on it so much.
I think this happened to me late last year. I was cooking along at the bottom of the first page of Google, when I got impatient and wanted to be higher. I bought some links. Before long I was on about the fifth or sixth page. Still haven’t recovered at that sight, but I learned the lesson.
It seems to me that online marketing is slowly catching up with its “sister” – the brick and mortar business industry.
Bad rumors and negative rumors (like the negative SEO) has been around since the time when malicious competitors who wants to win regardless of the cost were around.
And the only antidote, build a solid relationship – as solid as a chain – with your lovely readers and customers. Thanks for this article Jen.
I always enjoyed your insights. May I ask what you consider to be a light and heavy back link profile? Seems subjective, or is it? Take financialsamurai.com and Yakezie.com for examples.
Great post. And thank you for your advice on how to protect yourself from negative SEO. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but will keep this in mind as I build my future websites.
Do you have any info on the new web spam update by Google? Im interested to see your thoughts. Make money online keyword has a blog spot that is completely empty ranking for one of the highest searched phrases. I’m hoping these changes are not permanent.
Wow, lots of info here that I wasn’t aware of. Thanks for sharing!
My sites got hit really bad with the last update. I mean to the point of uselessness when it comes to Google search (still have Yahoo and Bing and Facebook as referrers though).
I have a new domain of the same niche and am planning to start from scratch again or is 301 more preferable?
Also, do you have a guide on how to get found when you are not optimizing for Google? I have decided that I should break up with Google too, just like you did.
Thanks in advance, Jennifer. You are my heroine, since day one I started IM.
Why do you think your sites got hit?
After the update, the site lost all keywords I am targeting, which are on page one to… nada. :(. And we are not talking about five to seven keywords, around thirty, all of which I wrote by myself. And they are talking about “rewarding quality content”…
I think we have to let the dust settle before coming to any conclusions on the changes. There are still a lot of amendments that Google will be implementing to sort out these changes and to guard against negative SEO which it will have to do otherwise an online war will break out. Anyway why the name pot pie girl, it hasnt got something to do with something then hunger and your are female?
Thanks for this Jennifer! I have been wrestling with where to spend my very limited time — either on maintaining a lot of not so great mini-sites or to go with “my baby” (my life story site). Well, I just decided to nurture my baby thanks to you!!!
PS It is not anyway near ready for public view, but as soon as it is I will be back here to let you know about it!
What I can tell you is the negative seo is VERY real. And with google’s latest algorithm, it’s easier than ever. Despite was Matt Cutts has said in the past, links that google deems as “bad links” will carry negative juice to your site. And if a competitior (or somebody conducting a test) decides to dump a couple thousand or a couple million links from crappy profiles and de-indexed blog networks, you’re screwed. Really disappointed with google. They’ve created the hottest new industry on the internet = negative seo.
I am a physician with a niche information site with cutting edge treatments, original and unique content that took a hit over the last few days due to the Google penguin update. Niche sites are the reason for search engines! Everyone can find the website for the Mayo Clinic or look up a health issue on Wikipedia….whether they are on page one of a Google search or not.
Wipedia sites are virtually written “by committee,” that is, by a concensus of active authors and can provide a lot of mainstream and canned information. It is the niche sites that provide the latest information and newer technologies, some of which have not become the “standard of care” in the medical community as it can take 10 to 20 years in the conservative health care community for that to happen. Patients often go to the internet because they may have a difficult condition which has not been effectively treated by the more common treatments and seek diagnostic and treatment alternatives which may only exist on a niche site.
Negative SEO has been around for a long time but backlinks were not a preferred method.
Thinks like Proxy Hijack or 302 Hijacking a negative review were more effective.
It has always been possible to nuke a decent quality site with bad links, but the effects were always temporary and you could see the site come back stronger a couple of months down the line.
That has now changed, it looks like the effects are permanent now, that is the big change.
Whilst Google view spam either positively or negatively it “makes a difference”.
As long as spam “makes a difference” it has commercial value.
I have a couple of sites related to this stuff, and can tell you more people are hitting those sites over the last couple of days.
Today someone asked me for some a set of “files” which I gave to him, in the current climate I suspected they were for “negatvive” use, he later told me he was going after 5 sites on a particular SERP.
No doubt if he is successful the owners of those sites may retaliate, perhaps figuring out who did it, or just nuking anyone who stood to gain from it.
Its a shame the “estimeed engineer” cannot seem to get his brain in gear on this one.
Spam will only go away when Google IGNORE IT.
When i said I had sites “releated to this stuff” I do not mean negative seo as such, but sites that get traffic for information on things that could be used in that way.
I would also add I am not in the business of trashing other peoples sites, I am concerned about this as I have a number of new sites that are going to be vunerable to this.
It would be nice to get some ‘official’ word on this as whilst it’s all very nice that larger, authoritative sites can’t be hurt but what if small or new sites can? Surely, it would easier in some niches to damage the competition than to actually do what is needed to beat them the right way.
The possibility exists, that if a spike of bad links gets googles attention, then your site loses some trust that may impact other ‘less than perfect’ links you may have built or had built that may have been propping things up.
In the case of Dan Thies site, it seemingly had little to no recent content, no social signals and some dubious existing links so could the problem be more that the existing links got more scrutiny after the spike in bad links.
Additionally, if someone had it in for your business, there is a lot they can do without negative SEO. Spurious bad reviews, website defacement, false duplicate content, hacking or attempting to take your site offline or to get in and link out to bad neighbourhoods, deliver malware, defamation across forums and blogs (the list goes on). If negative SEO is something that people have to add to their toolbox then so be it but the big picture is that this is nothing new and it has not caused the internet to sink into a burning pit of hate, lies and false reviews (although I am sure there are lots of false good reviews out there so this may balance that out some).
The thing that I really take away from all of this is that the core white hat principles remain unscathed: build content, build a site for your users, aim to get authoratitive links and simply put, just keep fighting the good fight!
If they hack your websites, they are illegal. But negative SEO is legal.
I think the big worry going forward is that established sites could just trash any newer sites entering the space. If you identify a site early on in its life you can cause a hell of a lot of damage, potentially killing a new startup.
Yep, I agree, it’s not a good thing, far from it but maybe this noise will end up being a good thing as Google simply can’t let this be the case as it would be far simpler to do this than concentrate on doing the right thing. If this turns out to be true, then, there credibility is really at stake if they don’t sort this out and with all the effort being put into the spam / quality side of things, this is just going to allow the cheats to run rampant.
I am still not entirely convinced though that clean sites can get hurt. Will be really interesting to see how this pans out over time and what experiments get put together and what the real deal is.
The problem is, some sites ranking don’t have all that many links someone doing negative SEO on them is going to have a huge effect.
My sites are squeaky clean in terms of on site work. Good content, custom graphics, custom features, good user interraction.
Alongside all this investment I also built links, which is why my sites died.
Long since abandoned sites have improved their rank substantially.
I have a very good idea which links caused the problem, these are extremely easy to point at another site.
I am sure I could bring down other sites very easily.
I have looked at some penalized sites which were owned by “no hats”, i.e. Mom n pop sites who did no seo and made innocent mistakes on some of their sites. These sites had a mass of very good content and resources, and actually had very few links compared to my own sites.
Google trashed them for these minor (innocent) infringments, it would be so easy to induce this penalty its ridiculous.
Time will tell, there are a number of people busying themselves with negative SEO now, we will soon know one way or the other what kind os sites can be brought down and which cannot.
If those “pioneers” are successful and report their findings publicly things will get even worse.
I am very worried about some of my own fledglings.
Absolutely, if Google whack sites for building links, then regular sites will build less links than they once did making them more vunerable.
I have been following Pot Pie Girl on and off for several years. I’ve piddled in online marketing and have made a few bucks here and there while raising young kids. I was planning on going full time this July when my kids start school. I can write decent content but I just don’t know how to promote the websites. I felt like I had some good ideas and a decent start but now that things have changed so much in this past year I’m starting to feel totally lost about what direction to go. I will be watching. Thanks for all the great info Pot Pie Girl!
It has been proven by many people now that it is possible to drop a website in the serps. Someone was ranking on google UK for a very popular term. They built a few hundred thousand links with the exact anchor for the search term and have dropped 10 pages. They have been filtered for anchor text, because they still rank well for loads of other terms.
Wow… thats just mean to o knock a competing site down in the rankings with bought links.
I guess its possible, but as mentioned only if the site is not ranking too good or is too dominant.
I agree with you Jaya, this is a battle of giants where the most dominant website can use this methods to kill new upcomming sites.
Wow… thats just mean to knock a competing site down in the rankings with bought links.
I guess its possible, but as mentioned only if the site is not ranking too good or is too dominant.
I agree with you Jaya, this is a battle of giants where the most dominant website can use this methods to kill new upcomming sites.
The Google SERPS may not have always been fair. People who are better at building links always did better than those who were not. This new update has made it real hard to get any kind ranking for a new business. The rules clearly benefit Sites that have been around for a long time. I think the Wal-Mart’s and Amazons of the world have enough of an advantage. The internet use to be the one place a small business could compete if they were good enough. Seeing the first 5 pages of Google now is like looking at a NASCAR, one big company logo after another.