Following Google’s major updates in 2011 and 2012, many businesses were dismayed to find their websites were buried in the search results for their major keywords. One of my company’s current clients, for example, discovered too late that the agency they were trusting to get their website to the top of Google had used unsavory tactics, including buying links and had gotten their website blacklisted by Google so that no one could find the firm online.
By now, most businesses are aware of black hat SEO tactics and try to avoid them to keep their sites from being penalized. However, many are unaware of the very real threat of malicious tactics. Known as “negative SEO,” this unethical practice relies on using black hat tactics to purposely get a website penalized. A competitor, or someone with a grudge, can, with a little knowledge of SEO and a lot of malicious intent, destroy years of work on your website and its ability to generate revenue for your business.
Understanding Search Engines and SEO
To try to protect yourself from the threat of negative SEO, you first need to understand how search engines and search engine optimization work. Google uses a complex program called Googlebot to “crawl” billions of websites and “fetch” new and revised pages to add to Google’s index. Driven by algorithms, Googlebot visits chosen websites, fetches pages to add to the index, discovers links on pages and adds the linked pages to the ever-changing list of pages to crawl.
Google’s index includes the words Googlebot has found on web pages, as well as the words’ place on web pages, headings on the page and alternative text written for images. When someone does a Google search, Google’s programs search the index for the pages most relevant to the search term used and display them in order of relevancy. It is this calculation of relevancy that then determines a web page’s position in the search results for a given term.
Relevancy for a search term (or keyword) is based on over 200 elements, including domain characteristics, keyword placement, and frequency, the length of content, the newness of content, relevant multimedia and PageRank, a measure of quality based on inbound links. If the inbound links to a web page come from what Google considers authoritative, high-quality sites, then the page’s rank is positively impacted. If, however, they come from irrelevant or spammy websites, then the page’s rank will be negatively impacted.
Being aware of Google’s ranking factors and using that knowledge to optimize your website for search is very important to your business’s success. If people searching online for a particular product or service do not see your website on the first or possibly the second page of Google results, they will not know you exist. All of the time and money you spend developing and maintaining your site are literally wasted if people can’t find it.
The Threat of Negative SEO
The flip side of having a knowledgeable search engine optimizer (SEO) work to improve your site’s ranking in Google through enhancements to the website is having someone who understands how Google’s ranking factors work use his knowledge to get a competitor’s website penalized so that it doesn’t appear on the first few pages of results or is removed from the index altogether.
Whether you view this negative SEO as unsavory sabotage or cunning competitiveness, the reality is that it can threaten your website and your livelihood. Unfortunately, you can’t do much to prevent someone from attempting to harm your website’s ranking in Google. However, you can take action to protect your website as much as possible and contain the negative impact should your website be attacked.
Fighting Back Against Negative SEO
The first step in the fight against negative SEO is knowing what you’re looking for. First and foremost is damaging backlinks. With a little time and effort, someone wanting to destroy your website’s authority and rank in Google can, unbeknownst to you, link thousands of spammy web pages to your site. If you regularly check your website’s position in Google’s results for specific keywords, you might notice the negative effects of the links, but you need to use a backlink checker tool (available online) to identify them.
Having identified the spammy backlinks, you can take action by requesting removal. If you know for sure who is responsible, you could try the direct approach and ask them to stop what they’re doing. You could follow up on an unmet request with social media posts identifying them and their malicious intent.
This direct approach might not be feasible, so, if you have numerous harmful backlinks, you can use Google’s disavow process, ostensibly asking Google not to consider specific links when crawling and indexing your website. You can also report the backlinks to Google using their Spam Report Form.
Monitoring Your Website’s Quality
Proactive monitoring of your website’s quality will save you time and money in the long run. Regular use of backlink checker tools or a service that automatically monitors your website and sends you a report on new backlinks could help you discover negative SEO before it damages your website’s page rank in Google.
Another good practice is to monitor the speed of your website since small changes to a page can affect its speed and thereby affect its rank in search. There are numerous tools available to check page speed, including one from Google that analyzes a web page’s content and generates suggestions to improve the speed.
Finally, by all means, set up Google Webmaster Tool alerts. Google will not be able to notify if someone has started using negative SEO to harm your website, but the notifications will help you be aware of issues affecting your site, and you’ll definitely know if the Google robot can’t access your site.
Maintaining a High-Quality Website
The best protection for your website is to ensure its quality from the get-go. That means making sure your website is aligned with Google’s design, technical and quality guidelines; that it provides authoritative, valuable content that is updated regularly; and that it is mobile-friendly.
Google offers many articles and online courses to help you understand its guidelines and improve your website. However, if you’re busy running your business and don’t want to become a Google expert, there are plenty of digital marketing agencies, such as my company, Trighton Interactive, that can help you redesign your website, optimize it for search, monitor its rank in search, regularly update your content and make other improvements to increase your site’s ranking in Google.
Your website is a valuable asset, a powerful marketing tool and an effective means of communicating with prospects and current customers or clients. However, in our highly competitive digital market, your site is only valuable if people can find it and use it. Maintaining a high-quality website, engaging in vigilant monitoring and fighting spam are essential to protect your website from negative SEO and its damaging effects.
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