Negative SEO | Keeping an Eye Out for the Saboteurs of Search

Negative search engine optimization! Does it really happen? Can someone who understands the rules of search actually use them not constructively but destructively to sabotage a website’s rankings up the search engine results? If so, should you be worried? And what can you do to protect yourself from potential search saboteurs?


Those are all excellent questions for any online business relying on Google searches for traffic. So let’s talk about negative SEO and shed some light on the subject.

The Concept of Negative SEO

Negative SEO is the name given to the process when someone (a search saboteur or a competitor) makes an attempt to lower a website’s rankings in the search engine results.

But does it really work?

Hypothetically, if a new website gains thousands of links over the course of a weekend, the site will look like it’s engaging in unnatural link building and pushing its rankings up the SERPs artificially; a tactic known to attract the disfavor of the major search engines including Google in a post-Penguin world. In response, it is highly likely that Google’s search algorithms will punish such a website by pushing the offending website pages into the deep invisible layers of the SERPs.

So, if buying or selling links and excessive link exchanges you engage in can harm your website rankings in the SERPs, it follows that similar unnatural links created by a search saboteur can have the same negative effect.

As a matter of fact, prior to January 2003, Google had statement on one of its website pages. It read:

“There is nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”

In 2003, that statement was modified. It now reads:

“There is almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking….”

Clearly negative SEO is a real threat and under certain circumstances, it is actually possible for someone with a vindictive agenda to harm your website by, say, changing your robots.txt file so the search engines don’t crawl your website anymore. As for negative SEO via link building, Google has things included in its algorithms to help them determine whether links are self-made or not and ensure that a competitor cannot hurt your site rankings in the search engine results. But even Google admits that they may not get things 100% right all the time.

The conclusion: Negative SEO is real and if you see a situation where you feel that negative SEO is actually being effective, it does not help to bury your head in the sand. You need to recognize the warning signs.

The Warning Signs of Negative SEO

Negative SEO red flags include:

  1. A large number of links from foreign forums
  2. Thousands of links from sites with top-level domains such as .ru, .pl, .ro, .cz, .biz, and .info
  3. Multiple unnatural links from nonsense blog posts
  4. A large number of keyword-anchored links from multiple sources
  5. A large link influx from bad online neighborhoods such as porn sites and/or payday loan sites.

Note that “weird” links are not necessarily bad links. So if your website has a couple of links from or Chinese sites that scrape, that’s not the same thing as negative SEO. But if you suddenly experience a large influx of links from Russian sites over a relatively short period of time, you may be under attack. The question is: What next?

For the most part, Google does a really good job of algorithmically protecting sites from these types of links causing a problem. So for the vast majority of online business owners reading this post, you PROBABLY don’t need to worry about negative SEO at all. Sites that could potentially be negatively impacted by a link based negative SEO attack include:

  • Sites in very competitive niches such as casinos, insurance and payday loans. These people have the budget to find loopholes in Google’s search algorithms that they can then use to take down a competitor. It’s very unlikely that the average small business owner will have the knowledge or resources to undertake such an agenda.
  • Sites that have a history of doing manipulative linking. If a site has signals indicating a long history of link spamming, Google may not be able to tell apart negative SEO from the site owner voluntarily engaging in web spam.

But better safe than sorry!

To protect your website against negative SEO:

1. Set up Google Webmaster Tools alerts

This may not signal the start of a spam attack (by the time you get these notifications, the damage will already have been done) but it will help you maintain a defensive posture against SEO bullies.

2. Monitor your backlinks

The key to defending your website against negative SEO is vigilance. You need to create a system that allows you to stay on top of your inbound links. The best way to do this is to set up times each week to check your backlinks through services like Open Site Explorer or Google Webmaster Tools.

3. Remove/Disavow suspicious backlinks

The more unnatural links point to your site, the higher the probability that your website will be penalized by the search engines. So if you identify toxic backlinks, get them removed or update your disavow.txt.

4. The best defense is offense

And finally, if you transform your website into an entity of authority, out growing, out ranking and out marketing your competitors on every front, that’s a much better strategy to ensure high rankings up the SERPs than monitoring your backlinks and disavowing spam links. Be so powerful that no amount of spam attacks can bring you down. The way to do this is to create an unending stream of powerful, high-quality and authoritative content.

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