Google penalties are a psychological phenomenon, and the fear of receiving a Google penalty has become an integral element of the SEO landscape. Negative SEO, with the intention to cause a Google penalty is then a fear redoubled, as it represents fear of both a perpetrator of negative SEO and the Google penalty itself. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” comes to mind then, as while the detrimental effect of negative SEO and penalties is real, it is also amplified and even distorted by personal interest, speculation and emotion. As both the perceived and real threats of negative SEO evolve, here are a few observations on understanding the psychological aspects of negative SEO.
Point 1# – Most sites have Negative SEO
Almost every link profile out there has its share of scraper and auto-generated sites linking to it, which in enough quantity can themselves cause a penalty. If you’ve ever hired an SEO firm in say the past ten years then unless they were truly extraordinary they will have built links Google sees as artificial, and if you haven’t hired an SEO service provider but tried to do it yourself you’ll almost certainly have artificial links also. So whatever the intention or source of a link may be, most people who have tried to rank a site will at some point have built the kind of links used by people engaging in negative SEO. The intention is different, the means often very similar.
Point 2# – Negative SEO is based on your point of view
Take two scenarios:
– I hire a guy from fiverr.com to blast a million blog comments to a site to potentially cause a penalty
– I hire a Western SEO firm for $3,000-$10,000+/mth with a strong reputation to increase my rankings, they outsource comment spam and get substantial ROI results.
The intentions of these scenarios are ostensibly opposite. From a more analytical point of view such as the Google Webspam Team might employ however, they are more similar than we might want to admit. They are both spam and they both result in artificial links as defined by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. For all the frenzy about penalties and the fear of negative SEO then, many sites have been negatively SEO-ing their own sites for years. Separating personal emotion from the nature of the links themselves is perhaps the key quality of link analysis, and if you have suffered from negative SEO staying cool and thinking clearly can get you on the fast track to identifying those links which are most likely intended to hurt your site and stay focused on how best to help your site recover and grow.
Point 3# – There is currently no way to stop Negative SEO
Negative SEO exists, de facto if it is possible to get a penalty it is possible to cause one, so yes the possibility now exists that a competitor can at any time spend a whopping $5 at the aforementioned fiverr.com and blast some links to your site. By watching link footprints it’s often possible to identify the likely culprit, but so far there are no case studies of for example an SEO firm or competitor being punished in any way for negative SEO, except revenge negative SEO which gets pretty self-defeating. So again, on a completely pragmatic level whether you are in say the finance or travel niches where negative SEO definitely does happen, or you are quietly building your site and perhaps are not even aware of negative SEO at all, once the emotion subsides arguably the most practical thing you can do is simply to check your links regularly, and especially if you are in a higher risk niche possibly setup alerts for sudden ranking movement which can be caused by link profile changes. The fear and worry surrounding penalties is in itself unproductive, and as there is actually no practical benefit to worrying, staying informed as to what links are being built for your site is the most positive thing you can do.
Point 4# Negative SEO isn’t hard to spot
Negative SEO is often the cheapest of the cheap, while you may fear competitors blasting out lots of spam links they are also easier to spot and disavow. It is very unpleasant having them in a link profile and knowing they have been built with intention to harm, but then again, as someone who sees spam links all day long, there are just so, so many legitimate sites that have built spam links for their own sites that the damage done by negative SEO is still inconsequential compared to the damage done by link building done for a site’s perceived own benefit. In all sincerity a few well-written guest posts with keyword links would worry me just as much, and possibly more than a bunch of cheap spam links, as they are initially less obvious but if identified as artificial then potentially just as damaging.
Point 5# – Spam works
Sites with spammy links done in the name of positive SEO still rank well across many niches. Spam works, it worked before and it works now. I have witnessed directly the penalties and link profiles of sites that get a penalty for unnatural inbound links, build more spam links to replace the old ones and rank again in no time (though for how long is another matter). Most niches are still riddled with sites that rely on artificial links, so even if you do suffer from negative SEO, the perceived difference between your “negative” link profile and the “good” link profiles of other sites is typically far less than people imagine. A site undergoing negative SEO very likely has a link profile that is not much worse than their competitors and at the very least, if you do have an increase in spam links pointing to your site you are very likely not alone.
Point 6# – Manual Actions are different from what we think they are.
Here are a few facts about Google penalties that give some perspective on what they really represent. Firstly, take a look at the graph here:
http://www.google.com/intl/en/insidesearch/howsearchworks/fighting-spam.html which shows metrics on the different kinds of manual penalties Google gives out. The overwhelming number of penalties are actually for “pure spam”, the number of “unnatural links to a site“ penalties – which are what most people refer to when they say “Google penalty” – is insignificant compared to the “pure spam” ones, yet the emphasis in the SEO community is overwhelmingly on the “unnatural links to a site” penalty.
So pure spam penalties are hardly talked about yet they occur much more often. Why would this be? Well it’s just a theory, but with pure spam people who get this penalty are likely aware to some degree they’ve been engaging in pretty spammy practices anyway, for example cloaking, sneaky redirects and so on, tactics truly of yesteryear. With the unnatural links penalty however, many people believe that links being built to their site are “SEO” or a somehow legitimate practice, so the reaction caused by the unnatural links to a site penalty represents more of a threat, as mentioned above even more so when the intention is to harm. But as far as actual numbers go, “pure spam” penalties are far more common, so again the emotional response to a the collective fear of a penalty is possibly inconsistent with how things really are.
In the above link also, you’ll see that Google has been sending penalty messages since 2007, we all talk about Penguin and Panda and the dramatic changes in modern SEO, but the process of change has been quite gradual, there are penalty recovery stories going back seven years, check out this classic one for example:
reads as though it could’ve been written a month ago until you check the seven-year-old date stamp, also the various -30, -50, -100, and total ban penalties listed here for example:
the links that caused these older penalties were then perceived as positive SEO, although they still regularly caused penalties just there wasn’t the actual message from Google which carries so much authority. All spam links have a time limit to them, sometimes they work for years sometimes for days, but they all fail sooner or later. From the negative SEO outlook then, anyone who builds artificial links to harm is engaging in something which ultimately is a waste of time.
Getting a message from Google saying you are penalized has a pronounced psychological effect because of the perceived authority behind it, and similarly every SEO firm under the sun seems to be proclaiming how “old practices” don’t work anymore and how much “SEO has changed”. Well yes they have, but many pundits who denounce the old ways were also behind them, and in denouncing them they are tagging along by reacting to those authoritative penalty messages from Google. And while the fear of penalties has skyrocketed, it may even be that the fear of the penalty sometimes exceeds the effect itself. As Google endeavors to change behavior by discouraging practices that meddle with its algorithms and possibly lose it money, it also unwittingly highlights how far their own spam deterrent system has yet to evolve.
Point 7# – Partial penalties are good news for negative SEO
Think about it, the most common kind of unnatural links penalty is the “partial action” which in the words of Google means: “Some links may be outside of the webmaster’s control, so for this incident we are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as a whole.” Surely if you are a victim of negative SEO then this is great news, the ranking as a whole is unaffected, but the negative links have been devalued which is exactly what we want. For fear of repetition, the problem is that the penalty message itself causes so much fear, the simple systematic action required to effectively deal with penalties and negative SEO becomes that much harder to see. It’s incredibly uncomfortable having a Google penalty message in your Webmaster Tools account inbox, but the actual wording of suggest that by having spam links discounted while rankings remain untouched, that actually doesn’t sound so bad.
Point 8# Negative SEO threats
Quick note, negative SEO threats are best dismissed, for the simple reason that like any blackmailing effort the most profitable targets are those who pay up. Surely as a negative SEO blackmailer the unfortunate people who do pay $1,500 or however much it is would then be the best targets for future extortion, a kind of re-targeting if you will. Not to mention the idiocy of paying such a large amount for $5 worth of spam services, which even if you do pay could still be used against you by anyone at any time. Again emotion aside, paying offers absolutely no guarantee of avoiding the negative SEO, so there is absolutely zilch to gain from responding to a negative SEO threat mail. The negative SEO email itself destroys its own credibility.
Google penalties, negative SEO, and SEO are all a hotch-potch of speculation and emotion, and the best way to deal with any link-building initiative, regardless of personal interest or perceived intention, is to simply be aware of the importance of checking on your link profile and working steadily to dispassionately filter those links which are built to influence rankings, whether done in the name of negative SEO or just SEO, and dispassionately generate links which are based on personal relationships and genuine informational value.
If you speculate Google penalties are unfair, Google is collecting disavow data, Google is targeting high PPC keywords, Google has itself generated the negative SEO industry and so on, and if any of these claims anger or frustrate you, as they understandably will if you are on the end of a negative SEO campaign, well they could all be true. As a link analyst that speculation doesn’t help, if it did I’d speculate all day long, all I do know is I have now seen just so many artificial links that they all fuse, spreadsheet after spreadsheet after spreadsheet, everyone has artificial links, everyone makes them. It’s a ratios game, and if you watch your link profile and keep the ratios of artificial links and keyword anchor text down while generating better links through relationships and content, you have the best long-term shot at surviving and thriving in Google. If you have suffered a negative SEO attack, it’s a nasty experience which no one wants to face, but if it does get you in the habit of watching your link profile, well that’s a possible silver lining at least. By understanding the psychology of negative SEO you can save yourself a significant amount of emotional energy, time and money, go beyond the ubiquitous fear and hope, and train yourself to focus on those processes which will actually help your site now and in the future. Hope this helps, good luck everyone.