What is Negative SEO? (And How Defend Against It)

With fame comes jealousy, and that's true even on Google. Ranking on search engines is such a competitive game that some will go to drastic lengths to achieve it. While most companies are content to compete with each other above board, inevitably some will stoop to scammy and slimy tactics to get ahead. Negative SEO (search engine optimization) is a tactic that some businesses will employ to strike down a competitor ranking on first page for a desired keyword.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is the malicious attack of one company against a competitor, with the goal of decreasing the search rankings of the competitor's website. Sometimes these attacks are directly against a website (i.e., hacking) while other times they occur on third party websites. There are a variety of different negative SEO tactics that companies employ against competitors. 

You can never stop another company from trying negative SEO tactics. However, by familiarizing yourself with them you can recognize them and take action before they impact your search rankings long-term. If you find yourself the victim of SEO, use these tips to protect your business.


Types of Negative SEO

1. Scraped and duplicated content

Another factor that Google considers when ranking websites is their originality. A site can be dinged for too much duplicate content - content that appears on the internet on more than one website. Similar content or repeated phrases isn't a cause for concern; duplicate content refers to whole pages or blog posts duplicated word-for-word. Some attackers will scrape your website's content and paste it to several other websites. 

How to Defend Against This Attack:

First, get in the practice of adding canonical tags to your content. These are html tags that show Google your content is the original. The process of adding them can be a little bit complex, so we recommend checking out this guide by Ahrefs: Canonical Tags: A Simple Guide for BeginnersUsing canonical tags is the best way to prevent against duplicate content attacks.

A tool like Copyscape will scour the internet to see if your content is being used anywhere else. If someone has duplicated your content, there are a few different options you can take:

  • If a site owner is listed, contact the site owner and CC your company's owner. This will usually take care of any mistaken duplicate content without malicious intent behind it.
  • Report the website to Google for duplicate content.
  • Report the website using the FTC Complaint Assistant.

2. False, negative reviews

Another factor that Google considers when ranking websites are online reviews. Some attackers will strike with a barrage of false, negative reviews against a business. Not only does this impact your SEO, but it also impacts your average star rating on Google and your business' reputation.

How to Defend Against This Attack:

Make sure to monitor your reviews as they come in so you can respond appropriately. Tread carefully before accusing any negative review of being fake - signals of a fake review are negative reviews in bulk or if you have no record of the person as a customer. If the reviews are coming in on Google, you can report a review right on Google for being fake. If they're coming in on Facebook or another website, these won't have nearly as much impact on your SEO but it's still a good idea to report them to the website they're posted on.

→Read Now: How to Clap Back at Trolls (Without Losing Customers)

3. Spammy backlinks

One of the factors that Google uses when ranking a website is by looking at backlinks - a link from one website to another. Backlinks show Google that other websites trust the authority of a website enough to send their viewers to it. However, Google also penalizes a website for having too many "bad" backlinks. These are links from websites flagged as being untrustworthy, not owned by a human or serving a misleading purpose. Too many links on those types of websites can cause Google to flag your website as untrustworthy. Someone looking to weaponize negative SEO will post links to a website across these spammy sites in an attempt for Google to flag the backlink source as being spammy themselves. 

How to Defend Against This Attack:

It's critical to regularly monitor your backlinks. By far the easiest way is to use a monitoring tool like SEMRush that will atomically pull all of your backlinks into one place. Some of these services will also flag any spammy websites and report them to Google on your behalf. Even so, it's still a good idea to manually review your backlinks. Your monitoring tool should tell you the backlink score of a website, which indicates the reliability of the site. You can also sometimes tell simply by looking at the name of the website that it's illegitimate. Once you've identified the spammy websites, you'll want to report them to Google. Most analytic tools will give you that option right on the platform, otherwise you can use Google's Disavow Tool to report these sites. 

4. Website hacking

If a skilled competitor hacks into your website, they may be able to make changes without you even noticing. They may set up redirects on your pages that send users to spammy sites, they might edit the backend of your pages' code, they might edit your site's robot.txt file to tell Google not to index your site or they might mess with your sitemap in Google. All of these negative SEO attacks could have drastic effects on your search engine rankings.

How to Defend Against This Attack:

First, don't make it easy for potential hackers - make sure everyone with access to your website is using a strong password. Also make sure you never install unverified plugins on your website. However, your website can still be hacked even if you take stringent security measures - so if it happens to you, don't beat yourself up.

In Google Search Central, set up email alerts so you'll be notified immediately if Google notices malicious or suspicious activity on your site. You can also periodically check using the tool Is It Hacked? Both of these tools will help you catch any potential hacks. It's also important to choose a good website host who will watch out for hacking attempts to your site.


Final Thoughts

Negative SEO is an aggressive practice born out of malice. While you can't stop a competitor from using a negative SEO tactic, you can use these tips to undermine their efforts. The good news is Google is constantly becoming more sophisticated and better at recognizing and stopping negative SEO itself. When it comes to your own website's SEO, don't play games. Sticking to SEO best practices is the best way to get your website ranking online.

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BizzyWeb is a Minneapolis-based digital marketing and web design agency that helps companies get the high-quality leads they need to grow and thrive. Our tactics include inbound marketing, SEO, advertising, web design, content creation and sales automation. We are an accredited HubSpot Platinum Partner and we offer full-service HubSpot onboarding, enablement and strategy for new and current users.

Dave Meyer
Author: Dave Meyer
Dave Meyer is President of BizzyWeb. Dave has more than 20 years of experience in marketing and communications and has presented digital marketing topics to thousands of people across the US and Canada.