The Internet a crowded and noisy place, so when you search for something online, you’re going to get a barrage of search results. Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands. No one would click through on each of them. Most web users will click on the first couple results that are listed, and then modify their search if they don’t see what they want.
This is where search engine optimization (SEO) comes in. SEO is a set of practices and techniques to optimize a website to get it to the top of the search result listing for specific keywords or terms.
But, of course, where one thing works to positively influence rankings, there are those who will find ways to use it for the opposite effect.
While Google and the other search engines have learned to detect a lot of these shenanigans, a lot of ethically questionable companies still feel like they’d rather try to tear other websites down than build their own site up.
When you get hit by these types of unethical “SEO attacks,” it can be hard to bounce back – but definitely not impossible. So, let’s start with the basics so we understand exactly what these strategies are and what you can do about them.
Understanding How SEO Works
Search engine optimization is a set of best practices that cater to both Google’s algorithm and the user experience. The ranking factors that play into Google algorithm have various weights and importance, and the algorithm constantly changes.
If you provide valuable information on your website for visitors, design a good user experience, and implement all the known algorithm factors, your website has a good chance to move up on the search results list for your company’s targeted keywords. This type of SEO is sometimes called white hat SEO, but you can just think of it as the proven and ethical methods.
However, depending on the industry, competition for rankings can be fierce.
To get the upper hand on the competition, some companies have tried to gain the system with dirty SEO practices. These bad SEO practices, called black hat SEO, are penalized by Google when caught.
But there are always those who are willing to risk it.
What is Negative SEO?
As Google has become quicker in catching webmasters who use unethical SEO practices and has implemented harsher punishments for offenders (lower rankings or banning of websites, etc.). Some companies desperate for improved search rankings have found ways to hack into the websites of competitors and implement some nasty strategies on those sites.
But they don’t even have to go that far. There are plenty of tactics that they can implement to make it appear as if your website is doing some questionable things, whether it’s scraping and posting your content, causing problems with your local profile, or building thousands of links from questionable sites.
The goal of negative SEO is to lower the rankings of competitor websites. This, they believe, will subsequently elevates their own rankings once the competition is out of the way.
How do You Know Your Website Has Been Attacked?
Most negative SEO attacks come in the form of an outright website hack, spammy links, and fake reviews.
There are clear signs that your website has been attacked. Regular maintenance of the website can detect formatting and coding issues caused by a website hack. Looking into the analytics of the website and noticing sharp increases or decreases in website traffic and bounce rate are red flags that something is going on.
What to do if Your Website is a Victim of Negative SEO
If you suspect your website has been attacked with negative SEO, there are some things you can do to prevent further, even irreversible damage.
It is imperative that you take immediate action to resolve these issues and alert Google of the attack. When you’re up-front with Google about it, and it is seen that you’re addressing the issue, Google will not likely penalize your site for the apparent unethical SEO practices.
Here are some steps you can take to both mitigate a negative SEO attack and prevent one from occurring in the first place:
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1. Consistently Keep an Eye on Your Links
Performing regular audits on your website’s links is a good way to detect suspicious, potential negative SEO activity. Regularly monitoring of your link profile can also help you catch a possible attack early and prevent it from spiraling out of control.
What should you specifically look for?
When you look in your website analytics, an ideal, normal graph will show a gradual increase in backlinks and linking domains.
If the graph for your website shows sharp spikes or drops, beware. Pay special attention if you notice sharp drops or spikes when you haven’t been working on link building. These are big red flags.
You should also regularly look at the content on your website and the links within the content.
If your website gets hacked, for example, your content may include additional spammy links and links that get redirected to either a competitor’s website or another inappropriate site.
If you’ve discovered spammy links on your website, alert Google and have them disavow the links.
2. How Fast is Your Website?
If you notice a sudden slowdown in your website’s load speed, it is possible that your website has gotten hit either by a virus, hacker or with negative SEO.
A negative SEO strategy involves crawling a website. This “forceful” crawling of the website puts strain on the web server, causing the website to slow down or even crash.
The speed of your website is a prominent ranking factor for search results. If you don’t contact your web hosting provider or webmaster immediately, you’ll get a lot of frustrated website visitors and lowered search result rankings.
3. Watch for Copy-Cat Content
If you regularly produce great, quality, original content, be aware of content scraping.
Content marketing has become a major player concerning SEO in the past few years. Interesting, useful and original content has become an important ranking factor in Google algorithms.
With content being king, some companies will do whatever they can to beef up the content on their website, including stealing it from another website and claiming it as their own.
In negative SEO, attackers will copy content verbatim from another website, put it on their website, claim it as their own and combine it with a link farm attack.
Copied content can greatly affect the rankings of your website. If your content isn’t indexed before the copied content, your content will be tagged by Google as the copied, duplicate content and your website will be the one that will be penalized with decreased search result rankings.
4. Monitor Google My Business
A favorite tactic of negative SEO attackers involves flooding a company’s online business listing with fake, negative reviews.
Unless your company has had some sort of hiccup or controversy, it is unlikely to have an overabundance of negative reviews.
If you don’t do anything to address these false reviews, they will corrode your company’s reputation which will lead to decreased profits and sales.
With Google My Business, it is easy to report these malicious, fake, negative reviews. All you need to do is find your business listing, go to review summary, click flag fake reviews and then fill out the report form.
5. Keep an Eye on Your Site’s Click Through Rate (CTR)
Click through rate is a good indicator of whether you’re attracting the right or wrong website visitors and if your website content is what your website visitors are looking for. If you’re attracting the wrong audience or your webpage content isn’t interesting, relevant or useful to the audience, your CTR will be low.
If you are consistent in producing the same type of content and you’ve done adequate audience research, your click through rate will be high. If you notice a sudden decrease in your website’s CTR, something’s not right.
On the flip side, a high bounce rate (which is paired with a low CTR) can indicate that a negative SEO attack has occurred on your website. In these circumstances, the bounce rate results can be a symptom of false SERPs created by malicious bots.
6. Check Your Search Engine Rankings
A sharp decrease in your websites search rankings can be an indicator of inaccurate SERP rankings caused by a vindictive attack that can be the result of a complete de-indexing of your website.
If you want to get a full, broad view of how your website is performing, you can use various analytics tools in Google’s Search Console as well making sure your website’s robot.txt. is properly set up.
7. Beef Up Your Security
While negative SEO attacks aren’t the same as cyber-attacks, they both can negatively affect your website’s search rankings. When Google detects a site that has been potentially hacked by a cyber-attack, the site is flagged with a line warning the website has been compromised. Usually this somber warning is enough to scare much potential website traffic away.
To guard your website against cyber-attacks, make sure your web security is up to date and working. Some suggestions for a more fully protected website include installing security patches on your website software, migrate the site from HTTP to HTTPS and making sure your content management system (CMS) is equipped with user encryption protection.
If your website has been the victim of a negative SEO attack, you don’t have to panic. You do, however, have to act quickly to resolve the issue before it snowballs into a bigger problem with potentially irreversible consequences.
Not all negative SEO attacks are readily noticeable.
It is important you routinely monitor the content and performance of your website to prevent possible negative SEO attacks or to stem an attack to keep it from escalating.
You also need to protect your reputation on social media. Download this checklist and make sure you’ve got everything in order.