If your website’s search rankings have plummeted for no apparent reason, you could be the victim of negative SEO. While search engine optimization (SEO) is performed to increase a site’s search rankings, negative SEO is a black hat tactic used to harm a site’s rankings and visibility in the search results.

Overview of Negative SEO and Why It Happens

The purpose of negative SEO is to lower a site’s search rankings, thereby reducing the amount of organic traffic it receives. It’s typically performed by either a competitor or a disgruntled customer, client or employee. If your site ranks higher than a competitor’s site, he or she may perform negative SEO in an attempt to knock down its search rankings. As your site’s search rankings drop, the competitor’s rankings increase. Disgruntled customers, clients or employees may also perform negative SEO to harm your business and its reputation.

Combating negative SEO begins with identifying the type of attack. There are different forms of negative SEO, each of which requires a different approach to overcome.

Backlink Spam

The most common form of negative SEO is backlink spam, which involves the creation of hundreds or thousands of low-quality backlinks. Backlinks that are natural, relevant and authoritative can increase your site’s search rankings. However, mass-produced, artificial backlinks from irrelevant or spammy websites may hurt your site’s search rankings.

In 2012, Google rolled out the Penguin update to its search ranking algorithm. The focus of this update was to lower the search rankings of websites that engaged in black-hat link-building techniques. Although Penguin improved the overall quality of Google’s search results, it also paved the way for negative SEO attacks. By mass-producing low-quality backlinks, nefarious webmasters could lower their competitors’ search rankings in Google.

The good news is that Google does a pretty good job at identifying backlinks created for negative SEO purposes and preventing those backlinks from hurting the targeted website’s search rankings. If Google’s search algorithm believes that a handful of backinks pointing to your site were created by a competitor to lower its rankings, it will automatically filter them. But some bad backlinks may slip past Google’s radar undetected, diluting your site’s legitimacy and possibly lowering its rankings.

To protect your site from this type of negative SEO, you should proactively monitor all backlinks pointing to your site. There are several tools available that can analyze your site’s backlinks, including Google’s Search Console, Moz’s Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs Backlink Checker and Majestic SEO Backlink Checker. When analyzing your site’s backlinks, create a list of all URLs on which spammy or otherwise low-quality backlinks are located.

Signs of spammy, low-quality backlinks include:
• Blog or forum comments that you didn’t make.
• Websites with a foreign domain extension.
• Web pages with an excessive number of outbound links.
• Websites that aren’t indexed by Google.
• Web pages with viruses or other malicious code.
• Mass-produced backlinks with the same anchor text.
• Websites with excessive ads.
• Web pages with little or no unique content.
• Site-wide backlinks.
• Article directories with low-quality content.
• Any web page that violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
After creating a list of all URLs on which the bad backlinks are located, contact the webmasters of those sites directly and politely ask them to remove your links. If a site doesn’t have a contact form or email address listed, perform a WHOIS lookup at Whois.net. Assuming the site doesn’t privacy protection, this will reveal the webmaster’s email address.

Not all webmasters will respond to your removal requests. For every 10 emails you send, you may get one or two responses. And some of these responses may be rejections to your request. You can still combat the remaining bad backlinks using Google’s disavow tool. Available at Google.com/Webmasters/Tools/Disavow-links-main, it allows you to specify which backlinks you want Google to ignore. Adding any remaining bad backlinks to Google’s disavow tool prevents those links from hurting your site’s search rankings.

Content Scraping

Another form of negative SEO is content scraping, which involves automatically copying content from a website and publishing that content elsewhere. If Google encounters the same content published on multiple websites, it usually only indexes the site that published it first. With content scraping, nefarious individuals may trick Google into thinking that they published your site’s content first. If they scrape and publish the content before Google crawls your site, Google may assume that they are the original publisher, thus indexing their website instead of yours.

To discourage scraping, make sure your site’s content — not in full, at least — isn’t being displayed in a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed. By default, WordPress displays new posts in an RSS feed at Website(dot)com/Feed. When you publish a new post on a WordPress site, it’s displayed in the original URL as well as this feed.

Some nefarious webmasters use software to automatically scrape and publish content from other websites’ RSS feeds, so you need to update your site’s settings to protect against this activity. Log in to your site as the admin and click Settings > Reading and choose “Summary” for the field titled “For each article in a feed, show.” Your site’s RSS feed will now display excerpts of posts rather than the posts’ complete content. So, even if someone copies your RSS feed and publishes it on another site, they’ll only copy part of your posts’ content.

Like backlink spam, it’s difficult to prevent content scraping, but there are measures you can take to mitigate its harmful effects on your site’s search rankings. First, set up a Google Alerts at Google.com/Alerts for each page of content on your site. For these alerts, you should include two or three sentences of the page’s content — exact spelling and grammar — within quotation marks. Once set up, Google will notify you if another website publishes your content.

If you discover another website has published your content without permission, contact them directly and ask them to remove it. If they fail to comply, which is highly likely, file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) request at Google.com/Webmasters/Tools/Dmca-dashboard. Google will respond by removing the infringing website from its search index, at which point it should no longer affect your site’s search rankings.

Hacking

Some negative SEO attacks involve hacking into a website and modifying it so that it ranks lower, or not at all, in the search results. If a hacker gains access to your site, for example, he or she may delete your content. And when Google discovers your site’s content has been removed, it may deindex your site or lower its search rankings.

Some hackers perform negative SEO by deploying malware on the targeted site. Google automatically removes websites containing malware from its search results. If a hacker infects your site with malware, Google will likely deindex it.

Hackers can also modify your site’s robots.txt file to discourage search engines from crawling or indexing your site. Adding just a single line to this file can stop search engines from crawling your site, thus wreaking havoc on its search rankings.

You can protect your site from hacking by:
• Using a reputable web hosting service.
• Updating CMS, plugins, extensions and apps to the latest version.
• Create and use strong passwords.
• Prohibit visitors from uploading files.
• Use the SSL protocol.
• Hide admin directory or login URL.
• Review your site’s pages regularly in search of changes that you didn’t make.
• Install a website application firewall (WAF).
If your site has been hacked, you must repair the damage and restore it back to its original state. This may require nothing more than deleting a malicious line of code, or it may require a complete overhaul of your site’s content.

After restoring your site, check your Google Search Console account to see if Google has taken manual action against your site. If it has, submit a reconsideration request explaining that your site was hacked but you’ve since fixed it.

Lower search rankings don’t necessarily indicate a negative SEO attack. On the contrary, true negative SEO attacks are rare. So, consider other causes like recent changes to your site’s design or permalink restructuring. But if you are the victim of attack, follow the tips described here to retain your search rankings.

P.S. Wondering where to get started on your Digital Marketing campaign? Click here for the SEO report tool and see how you score.