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Negative SEO: Beware the Black Hatters

July 22nd, 2007

Managing an e-commerce site or a popular blog can be difficult enough without having to worry about other people sabotaging your search engine rankings. Nevertheless, there are people out there who can and will do this. They are often SEO experts who are paid very handsome sums of money by their clients in an effort to do whatever they can to rank above other sites for very competitive keywords. Although many of the tactics they employ are considered unethical, it is still a good idea to be aware of them, especially if you have a site that is doing relatively well in the search results. Here are seven negative SEO methods that may be used against you in an attempt to decrease your search engine rankings or revenues:

1. You could be framed by a competitor and penalized for link spam. Often referred to as “Google bowling” by SEO enthusiasts, this tactic involves setting up thousands of inbound links to the target site and making it look like its webmaster is spamming for links and attempting to “game” the search engine rankings. In recent times, this has become somewhat more difficult to pull off because it takes an inordinate number of links within a very short period of time to trigger a search engine’s spam detector and get a site knocked down. However, it is still possible with a concentrated effort, so if you notice that your site has suddenly attracted thousands of suspicious backlinks within a day or two, this is a clue that a competitor may be targeting you. This article from Forbes goes into greater detail about the practice of Google bowling and explains that professional SEO firms are often paid $6,000 per day or more to do this in the service of their clients.

2. A competitor may report you to Google for buying links or linking to questionable sites. Because of the recent trend towards search engines tracing link buying schemes and giving obviously purchased links much less weight in the algorithms, it is now possible to report sites to Google through their Webmaster Tools section. Competing sites can use this feature to “tattle” on each other even if the reports are bogus. While this kind of activity usually results in little more than a slight adjustment to the algorithms, some search engines still use manual methods occasionally to filter out sites that seem to be cheating the system.

3. Competitors can intentionally use positive SEO methods on several other sites to get them ranked above yours. This “insulation” strategy is probably the least unethical of all the negative SEO methods, but it can still be very effective. This strategy can be used in different ways; for example, the owner of a competing site may try to raise the rankings of other sites that give positive reviews to the competition. Meanwhile, that same site owner may also attempt to bump up other sites that have given you negative reviews, thus damaging your reputation and drawing more traffic to the competition.

4. Other webmasters can file a bogus copyright claim against you. If others are desperate enough to knock you out of a top position, they can report to Google that you copied some content or infringed their copyright somehow. When Google receives such a notice, they will remove the targeted site from the search results for 10 days while the copyright issue is resolved. Although this tactic has only a temporary effect, it can still be very costly for a site that is mostly dependent on search traffic for large amounts of revenue. However, it also exposes whoever makes the fraudulent copyright infringement claim to a lawsuit, which means that it is possible to defend against this insidious tactic if it should ever be used against you.

5. The other guys may decide to steal your content outright. Because Google’s algorithms are designed to function automatically without much need for manual human intervention, it is possible to fool their duplicate content filter by copying material from other sites. When the algorithm encounters an exact duplicate of an web page, it must decide which copy is most likely to be the original, most trusted source. This is usually the site that is the most established and has the highest page rank. The pages with duplicate copies of the material in question will then be thrown into the supplemental index, rendering them nearly invisible in terms of search engine traffic. Thus it is possible for a more “trusted” site to copy an article (or two or three…) from a relatively new site and instantly outrank that site for the copied article(s) even if the owner of the newer site wrote the original copy. This can give novice webmasters who write high quality articles lots of problems with supplemental results due to being outranked by article hub sites and unscrupulous SEO firms. It is still possible to mitigate the damage from this tactic by reporting the offending sites for copyright violations while also working to raise your own site’s page rank, but it is still a big hassle.

6. They can always use the infamous DDOS attack. DDOS is an acronym that stands for Distributed Denial Of Service. I like to call this tactic “flooding” because it involves using other compromised computers or “botnets” to flood the target site with lots of fake hits for page requests. If the volume of fake hits is high enough, it can cause legitimate page requests to become unbearably slow and will often cause the user’s browser to display a message indicating a server connection error. In extreme cases, it can even cause the server itself to crash and reset, effectively taking the targeted site offline. This is a very cheesy and well-known tactic, and most companies of any significant size have some type of filters or protection in place that can defend against DDOS as soon as it is detected. However, it can still be a nasty problem for smaller companies and novice webmasters who may not have the money and equipment required to properly deal with it.

7. They may use fake clicks to damage your PPC revenues. Otherwise known as click fraud, this tactic does not really target organic search rankings, but instead tries to eat up a competitor’s advertising budget. People who want to sabotage Google AdWords campaigns can click on their competitors’ ads and soak up clicks that might otherwise result in sales. Click fraud can become especially aggressive when saboteurs employ whole networks of computers and special automated click software. As one might expect, the question of exactly how much of a problem click fraud really is has become a hotly debated topic among webmasters and PPC advertisers. The search engines have lots of automatic filters set up to detect and weed out fraudulent clicks, and in extreme cases they will even use manual methods to compensate advertisers. But it seems reasonable to expect that a small percentage of fake clicks will still slip through, so it is wise to consider this possibility if you see unusual fluctuations in your PPC statistics.

Summary

Some negative SEO tactics can be tricky to defend against because of their “black hat” nature. They are quite devious and many people consider them highly unethical, so some site owners who are not paying attention may be caught off guard. If you are a victim of these practices, it is possible to fight back by using good business practices that fall generally under the category of “reputation management” according to the current vernacular. This means that you can manage problems that may occur by responding positively to complaints and negative reviews, reporting copyright violators, and improving your own SEO position so that attacks by competitors are less likely to have any damaging effects. If you are in a service-oriented business, it is often better to overdeliver on the service and give customers a bonus instead of making excuses and/or blaming the black hatters. In the long run, this can improve your overall reputation and cause the negative SEO attacks to backfire, giving you extra publicity from the controversy.


One Response to “Negative SEO: Beware the Black Hatters”

  1. comment number 1 by: Oliver B.

    8. Be very careful with competitors who want to share some power links with you!

    First they come and ask you for special keyword links. You answer: “Hey, I normally share very seldom and you are one of my competitors, no problem, but why should I give you a special keyword promotion without any charge?”

    They tell you that your links would be very helpful (something you normally know already) so you`ll get some very nice backlinks for that.

    You have a look at your competitors portal and wonder why they do that. A backlink on every single page of their huge portal? Well, good deal. So you aggree with it. They told you that this is the only way they can share links because of technical issues.

    … Now it`s christmas time and you wonder why your portal still doesn`t work anymore. All your ranks are gone. Very bad situation. You start your backlink checker and recognize that thousands of power links are gone with the wind. You check your competitors side and it`s exactly like that. Lot`s of new partners but no single link back to your own site anymore.

    It can take up to six moth until your old rankings come back. So be careful when you try to help competitors. Very careful!

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