Recognising Negative SEO Tactics and How to Fight Them

15 February 2021
by Archie Williamson
5 mins
Recognising Negative SEO Tactics and How to Fight Them

Negative SEO refers to any underhand or malicious tactics that aim to sabotage a competitor’s search engine ranking.

While positive SEO uses organic tactics, such as content marketing and keyword optimisation, to improve rankings organically, the competitive nature of search can lead to certain parties acting in bad faith by deploying negative tactics.

These tactics are wide-ranging and often sophisticated and hard to spot. They include intentional content duplication, developing spammy links, web code changes, creating fake reviews and even hacking and attacking sites.

Negative SEO is often used interchangeably with black hat SEO but the two have different purposes. Black hat is focused mainly on techniques that manipulate search engines for higher rankings while negative SEO covers unethical strategies that attack a competitor’s URL directly.

Unfortunately, negative SEO can work more effectively than you would think, which can lead to a significant drop in organic traffic and in the worst cases, a complete loss of visibility in search as the rankings you have worked so hard for disappear pretty much overnight.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. If you know how to recognise negative SEO tactics and actively work at turning the tide against them, you can recover lost ground quickly and be better prepared for attacks in the future. This is all part of online reputation management (ORM).

What are the tell-tale signs?

Search traffic is always likely to fluctuate from one week to the next but if you have spotted a sudden slump, it may be time to investigate the possibility that you have been hit by a negative SEO attack. You can quickly analyse key metrics to see if there is anything that does not quite add up.

The second red flag is a manual penalty notification. These are different to algorithmic penalties that can occur if your content is thin or outdated or your site does not live up to expectations. Manual notifications are messages directly from Google informing you that you have been penalised. If action has been taken against your site and you have implemented only positive SEO, something might be amiss.

Harder to spot but no less relevant is a decline in rankings for individual keywords. These are likely to fall in tandem with search traffic but take a closer look at historical positions of terms and compare to recent rankings to determine if negative SEO could be a problem.

How to defend against common tactics

The scale and scope of these underhand tactics can make it difficult to keep on top of risk and threat management. A few of the most popular forms of negative SEO that you could face include:

  • Thousands of spammy links pointing to your website
  • Content being copied and distributed across the net
  • Fake social profiles that besmirch your brand online
  • Valuable backlinks being removed
  • Direct DDoS attacks and hacks

The first thing you should do to make it easier to react to these developments is set up email alerts from Google Search Console. Back in 2019, Google started sending out a new alert to webmasters when it detects a “substantial drop” in traffic and rankings, which can be invaluable.

Google will also tell you when your site is being attacked by malware, when there are server connection issues and if pages are not being indexed, in addition to the aforementioned manual penalties.

Spammy links

Now that you have the basics in place to recognise an attack, you can start fighting back. The methods you take will be dependent on the type of attack.

Spammy link building is one of the most prevalent tactics, so this is a good place to start. This is where a third party will try to direct a huge number of low-quality links to your site, which can lead to a manual penalty from Google or in the best-case scenario, only an algorithmic decline. Neither are ideal.

Spammy links are unsophisticated, though, so you can use this to your advantage. You can detect spam links by keeping tabs on any new backlinks that point to your site and by tracking the number of “referring domains”, using a relevant online tool.

While you can remove these links at source, you can disavow them by uploading a file that contains the problematic links directly to Google.

Protecting backlinks

Third parties may also try to disrupt your brand authority and trustworthiness by removing some of your best backlinks, which can have a detrimental impact on your SEO efforts.

Again, monitoring valuable backlinks and using tools to sort them by page rank and social activity will give you a clearer picture about their status. You can then get in touch with the site that hosts the link if any get removed. Just make sure to use an email address from your domain so you can prove you are authentic.

Content scraping

If you have partnered with a digital marketing agency to craft content to support better SEO, it can be truly disheartening to see such content disseminated across the web. This duplication or “scraping” is not looked upon favourably by Google and it can have a devastating impact on your rankings.

You can find out if your content has been duplicated by copying and pasting a paragraph from an article or blog into Google and seeing if there are perfect matches in results. This method has its limitations, though, especially if you need to vet hundreds or thousands of pages.

Fortunately, there are tools that will automate the process and even assess the risk of content matches. After you have found the culprits, you should email and ask them to remove content. If this does not work, which is likely, you should file a DMCA complaint via Google.

All of these issues put cyber security in sharp focus, something outside of the marketing realm but very much important when countering negative SEO strategies. Getting in touch with IT to ensure the best standards can reduce the chances of debilitating attacks.

To conclude, by recognising the ways in which malicious actors can target your site and by taking action quickly to address negative SEO, you can save your site’s reputation and search rankings.

If you need help with any of the issues raised in this article or are eager to improve your SEO via digital marketing, contact us today and our consultants will assist you.


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