Defense Against the Dark Arts: Why Negative SEO Matters, Even if Rankings Are Unaffected
Negative SEO can hurt your website and your work in search, even when your rankings are unaffected by it. In this week’s Whiteboard Friday, search expert Russ Jones dives into what negative SEO is, what it can affect beyond rankings, and tips on how to fight it.
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All right, folks. Russ Jones here and I am so excited just to have the opportunity to do any kind of presentation with the title “Defense Against the Dark Arts.” I’m not going to pretend like I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but anyway, this is just going to be fun.
But what I want to talk about today is actually pretty bad. It’s the reality that negative SEO, even if it is completely ineffective at doing its primary goal, which is to knock your website out of the rankings, will still play havoc on your website and the likelihood that you or your customers will be able to make correct decisions in the future and improve your rankings.
Today I’m going to talk about why negative SEO still matters even if your rankings are unaffected, and then I’m going to talk about a couple of techniques that you can use that will help abate some of the negative SEO techniques and also potentially make it so that whoever is attacking you gets hurt a little bit in the process, maybe. Let’s talk a little bit about negative SEO.
What is negative SEO?
The most common form of negative SEO is someone who would go out and purchase tens of thousands of spammy links or hundreds of thousands even, using all sorts of different software, and point them to your site with the hope of what we used to call “Google bowling,” which is to knock you out of the search results the same way you would knock down a pin with a bowling ball.
The hope is that it’s sort of like a false flag campaign, that Google thinks that you went out and got all of those spammy links to try to improve your rankings, and now Google has caught you and so you’re penalized. But in reality, it was someone else who acquired those links. Now to their credit, Google actually has done a pretty good job of ignoring those types of links.
It’s been my experience that, in most cases, negative SEO campaigns don’t really affect rankings the way they’re intended to in most cases, and I give a lot of caveats there because I’ve seen it be effective certainly. But in the majority of cases all of those spammy links are just ignored by Google. But that’s not it. That’s not the complete story.
Problem #1: Corrupt data
You see, the first problem is that if you get 100,000 links pointing to your site, what’s really going on in the background is that there’s this corruption of data that’s important to making decisions about search results.
Pushes you over data limits in GSC
For example, if you get 100,000 links pointing to your site, it is going to push you over the limit of the number of links that Google Search Console will give back to you in the various reports about links.
Pushes out the good links
This means that in the second case there are probably links, that you should know about or care about, that don’t show up in the report simply because Google cuts off at 100,000 total links in the export.
Well, that’s a big deal, because if you’re trying to make decisions about how to improve your rankings and you can’t get to the link data you need because it’s been replaced with hundreds of thousands of spammy links, then you’re not going to be able to make the right decision.
Increased cost to see all your data
The other big issue here is that there are ways around it.
You can get the data for more than 100,000 links pointing to your site. You’re just going to have to pay for it. You could come to Moz and use our Link Explorer tool for example. But you’ll have to increase the amount of money that you’re spending in order to get access to the accounts that will actually deliver all of that data.
The one big issue sitting behind all of this is that even though we know Google is ignoring most of these links, they don’t label that for us in any kind of useful fashion. Even after we can get access to all of that link data, all of those hundreds of thousands of spammy links, we still can’t be certain which ones matter and which ones don’t.
Problem #2: Copied content
That’s not the only type of negative SEO that there is out there. It’s the most common by far, but there are other types. Another common type is to take the content that you have and distribute it across the web in the way that article syndication used to work. So if you’re fairly new to SEO, one of the old methodologies of improving rankings was to write an article on your site, but then syndicate that article to a number of article websites and these sites would then post your article and that article would link back to you.
Now the reason why these sites would do this is because they would hope that, in some cases, they would outrank your website and in doing so they would get some traffic and maybe earn some AdSense money. But for the most part, that kind of industry has died down because it hasn’t been effective in quite some time. But once again, that’s not the whole picture.
If all of your content is being distributed to all of these other sites, even if it doesn’t affect your rankings, it still means there’s the possibility that somebody is getting access to your quality content without any kind of attribution whatsoever.
If they’ve stripped out all of the links and stripped out all of the names and all of the bylines, then your hard earned work is actually getting taken advantage of, even if Google isn’t really the arbiter anymore of whether or not traffic gets to that article.
Internal links become syndicated links
Then on the flip side of it, if they don’t remove the attribution, all the various internal links that you had in that article in the first place that point to other pages on your site, those now become syndicated links, which are part of the link schemes that Google has historically gone after.
In the same sort of situation, it’s not really just about the intent behind the type of negative SEO campaign. It’s the impact that it has on your data, because if somebody syndicates an article of yours that has let’s say eight links to other internal pages and they syndicate it to 10,000 websites, well, then you’ve just got 80,000 new what should have been internal links, now external links pointing to your site.
We actually do know just a couple of years back several pretty strong brands got in trouble for syndicating their news content to other news websites. Now I’m not saying that negative SEO would necessarily trigger that same sort of penalty, but there’s the possibility. Even if it doesn’t trigger that penalty, chances are it’s going to sully the waters in terms of your link data.
Problem #3: Nofollowed malware links & hacked content
There are a couple of other miscellaneous types of negative SEO that don’t get really talked about a lot.
Nofollowed malware links in UGC
For example, if you have any kind of user-generated content on your site, like let’s say you have comments for example, even if you nofollow those comments, the links that are included in there might point to things like malware.
We know that Google will ultimately identify your site as not being safe if it finds these types of links.
Unfortunately, in some cases, there are ways to make it look like there are links on your site that aren’t really under your control through things like HTML injection. For example, you can actually do this to Google right now.
You can inject HTML onto the page of part of their website that makes it look like they’re linking to someone else. If Google actually crawled itself, which luckily they don’t in this case, if they crawled that page and found that malware link, the whole domain in the Google search results would likely start to show that this site might not be safe.
Of course, there’s always the issue with hacked content, which is becoming more and more popular.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt
All of this really boils down to this concept of FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt. You see it’s not so much about bowling you out of the search engines. It’s about making it so that SEO just isn’t workable anymore.
1. Lose access to critical data
Now it’s been at least a decade since everybody started saying that they used data-driven SEO tactics, data-driven SEO strategies. Well, if your data is corrupted, if you lose access to critical data, you will not be able to make smart decisions. How will you know whether or not the reason your page has lost rankings to another has anything to do with links if you can’t get to the link data that you need because it’s been filled with 100,000 spammy links?
2. Impossible to discern the cause of rankings lost
This leads to number two. It’s impossible to discern the cause of rankings lost. It could be duplicate content. It could be an issue with these hundreds of thousands of links. It could be something completely different. But because the waters have been muddied so much, it makes it very difficult to determine exactly what’s going on, and this of course then makes SEO less certain.
3. Makes SEO uncertain
The less certain it becomes, the more other advertising channels become valuable. Paid search becomes more valuable. Social media becomes more valuable. That’s a problem if you’re a search engine optimization agency or a consultant, because you have the real likelihood of losing clients because you can’t make smart decisions for them anymore because their data has been damaged by negative SEO.
It would be really wonderful if Google would actually show us in Google Search Console what links they’re ignoring and then would allow us to export only the ones they care about. But something tells me that that’s probably beyond what Google is willing to share. So do we have any kind of way to fight back? There are a couple.
How do you fight back against negative SEO?
1. Canonical burn pages
Chances are if you’ve seen some of my other Whiteboard Fridays, you’ve heard me talk about canonical burn pages. Real simply, when you have an important page on your site that you intend to rank, you should create another version of it that is identical and that has a canonical link pointing back to the original. Any kind of link building that you do, you should point to that canonical page.
The reason is simple. If somebody does negative SEO, they’re going to have two choices. They’re either going to do it to the page that’s getting linked to, or they’re going to do it to the page that’s getting ranked. Normally, they’ll do it to the one that’s getting ranked. Well, if they do, then you can get rid of that page and just hold on to the canonical burn page because it doesn’t have any of these negative links.
Or if they choose the canonical burn page, you can get rid of that one and just keep your original page. Yes, it means you sacrifice the hard earned links that you acquired in the first place, but it’s better than losing the possibility in the future altogether.
2. Embedded styled attribution
Another opportunity here, which I think is kind of sneaky and fun, is what I call embedded styled attribution.
You can imagine that my content might say “Russ Jones says so and so and so and so.” Well, imagine surrounding “Russ Jones” by H1 tags and then surrounding that by a span tag with a class that makes it so that the H1 tag that’s under it is the normal-sized text.
Well, chances are if they’re using one of these copied content techniques, they’re not copying your CSS style sheet as well. When that gets published to all of these other sites, in giant, big letters it has your name or any other phrase that you really want. Now this isn’t actually going to solve your problem, other than just really frustrate the hell out of whoever is trying to screw with you.
But sometimes that’s enough to get them to stop.
3. Link Lists
The third one, the one that I really recommend is Link Lists. This is a feature inside of Moz’s Link Explorer, which allows you to track the links that are pointing to your site. As you get links, real links, good links, add them to a Link List, and that way you will always have a list of links that you know are good, that you can compare against the list of links that might be sullied by a negative SEO campaign.
By using the Link Lists, you can discern the difference between what’s actually being ignored by Google, at least to some degree, and what actually matters. I hope this is helpful to some degree. But unfortunately, I’ve got to say, at the end of the day, a sufficiently well-run negative SEO campaign can make the difference in whether or not you use SEO in the future at all.
It might not knock you out of Google, but it might make it so that other types of marketing are just better choices. So hopefully this has been some help. I’d love to talk you in the comments about different ways of dealing with negative SEO, like how to track down who is responsible. So just go ahead and fill those comments up with any questions or ideas.
I would love to hear them. Thanks again and I look forward to talking to you in another Whiteboard Friday.