Recently, we discussed the increasing risks surrounding negative SEO and identified it as an option that less scrupulous companies can use to improve their own rankings in the SERPs via the destruction of others. With Google’s algorithm vulnerable to spam, negative SEO practitioners are able to damage the backlink profiles of their targets with relative ease.
The strategy behind negative SEO involves appropriating and subverting the backlink profile of the domain, making it appear like a badly managed SEO campaign ostensibly intended to promote the target domain in the hope that they get better search results. This makes it difficult to determine if an external source or the company itself is responsible for the activity, particularly in large organisations that may have multiple SEO teams or agencies working independently.
So how does a negative SEO campaign begin?
The tactic that many negative SEO providers will deploy is to play on the already bad SEO practices that they find present in the domain with tools like Ahrefs, Majestic SEO and Moz. It’s a simple matter of using the tools to spot the link accrual rates and anchor texts of value to the sighted target, blending the negative attack in with the existing campaign being conducted by the business itself.
The negative SEO provider will also exploit natural vulnerabilities in the site. Almost all domains have weaknesses of some kind, such as poor design, bad interlinking via the internal site structure, duplicate content, duplicate Meta data, 404s, server errors or wildcard subdomains. All a negative SEO provider needs to do is to find, highlight and exploit them relentlessly, as these weaknesses increase the likelihood of the negative SEO being interpreted by the search engines as misdirected SEO. Eventually, the nature of Panda and Penguin will flag the activity with Google’s webspam team, resulting in a manual review and a possible manual penalty.
The progression of a negative SEO campaign
A negative SEO provider would initially start developing large quantities of non-credible links, focusing on all the major search terms from which the target domain is currently benefitting (found in the anchor text elements of the current backlink profile). Targeting a wide range of search terms that are already present as anchor text in the inbound links to the target’s domain offers far greater long-term loss of rank than if only a small section of search terms were focused on. Additionally, non-relevant anchor text such as pharmaceutical or adult terms can be used to further diminish the credibility of the backlink profile.
Shortly after the initial phase of link accrual to the target’s domain, the domain will start to move up and down in the SERPs as the new links are picked up by the search engines. This is an indicator to the negative SEO provider that the links have been located by the search bots. The algorithms further analyse the bot’s findings to determine if there is a valid reason for a large quantity of new links, for example a news story going viral or increased brand awareness. Without this validity, it is generally only a matter of time until it triggers an investigation from the webspam team.
Such an investigation covers many different factors, including where the links are coming from, IP contributions, IP neighbourhoods, the increase in the ratio of links per referral domain, PR profiles, anchor text, contextual relevance, paid links, side bar linking, site wide links, duplicate content, type and theme of linking sites and similarities in the CSS modules, source code, GA codes, AdSense codes and WhoIs records. All of these signals possess the ability to generate spam flags against the domain.
The negative SEO provider will continue the activity, gradually increasing the quantity of low-quality inbound links and blatantly purchasing social signals from accounts with little to no credibility.
This activity is generally enough to cause sufficient damage to trigger a manual review and the possibility of a penalty being issued. However, if this isn’t enough to achieve the goal, there are other elements of the Internet that could theoretically be further exploited in order to ensure that the domain is penalised.
If the webmaster lodges a complaint about the penalty in one of the Google forums, the negative SEO provider can identify their Handle (User ID) and use it to create a range of social and SEO accounts in other forums. Bearing in mind that the goal is to make the company itself appear responsible for the activity, the negative SEO provider can then use the accounts to request that links be built to the target’s domain and if Google investigates, it would appear that the webmaster is responsible for a badly managed SEO campaign.
Another tactic could be to monitor and scrape the target domain for any new content and then replicate it on specific forums that are seeded socially each hour. This is an attempt to have the content cached in other locations by Google before that of the target domain so that the target appears to be publishing duplicate content.
Further steps could include a series of emails to the domains that offer high-quality inbound links to the target domain, asking that they remove the links and citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Although the law is slightly unclear with regards to this area, the citation of a Federal Act and the implication that the site to which they are linking is infringing copyright would generally be enough to get a webmaster to remove the link as they fear for their own domain. This would remove the positive effects of all good work applied to date.
Depending on the strength of the domain, the support of the client and the funding available to the negative SEO provider, a negative SEO attack can be a long, sustained affair and result in the penalisation of a domain and its removal from the SERPs for a period of days to months, causing disruption to the revenue streams and exposure of the target’s domain.
The Tools of the Trade
Automation is key in a negative SEO campaign. A negative SEO provider will use a variety of tools to assist with the job:
Xrumer & Hrefer – Incredibly powerful tools for scraping SERPs to identify forums and then fully automating forum registration, randomized profile creation, forum posting and most importantly building links from those forums
Ultimate Demon – Similar to Xrumer but designed to automate the creation of accounts on many free content platforms like Pligg bookmarking sites, open source wiki platforms, directories, web 2.0 blogging sites and a whole host of other types of sites on which it can automate registration, profile creation and link posting.
GSA Search Engine Ranker – Another powerful tool which does much the same as the aforementioned automation tools, but in many ways offers a lot more flexibility.
Scrapebox – Although Scrapebox has many useful features for actually identifying issues with a site’s link profile, it also offers the ability to automate the discovery of blogs with auto-approve comments and post comments to those blogs.
Automating the process enables the negative SEO provider to engage in the campaign at a rapid, unrelenting pace, making it even more likely that Google will begin a manual review.
The Availability of Negative SEO
A simple Google search for “negative seo services” returns:
http://killbizseo.com/ – Boasting discreet ‘biz killing’ SEO services
http://negativeseoguy.com/ – where for as little as $75 you can order 100k links to point at a site of your choice!
Fiverr, eLance and oDesk are other popular sites where freelancers offer a variety of services that can be utilised for a negative SEO attack.
Clearly negative SEO is widely available and very affordable. With so few disincentives to use negative SEO to gain traction in the SERPs, the reality is that it is not implausible to suggest that some companies would consider it to be a viable option.
With the difficulties involved with proving who is responsible, most SEO teams prefer to prioritise fixing the problem rather than highlighting the vulnerabilities in their domain by publicly complaining about a negative SEO attack. Marketing teams are reluctant to openly assert that they have suffered from negative SEO, as the claim will often be greeted with incredulity.
SEO has been said to be somewhat of a mysterious art, but the loopholes left in Google’s algorithms have enabled the rise of an even darker form of this practice. The only question that remains is what Google intends to do about it. Whilst Google will often provide warnings regarding issues, we feel that it should consistently provide clearer and more comprehensive notifications to companies before issuing a manual penalty so that they have the opportunity to investigate the situation.
Would you be able to tell if someone was running a negative SEO campaign against you? How do you monitor your own link profile? Share your thoughts in the comments.