How to Detect and Stop Negative SEO Attacks

Organic rankings are incredibly important to websites and businesses looking to take the lion’s share of user traffic, but this pursuit of prestige sometimes leads to underhand tactics being employed by competitors in the way of negative SEO. The equivalent of a yellow card in football, negative SEO is an internet foul that is greatly frowned upon due to the widespread damage it can cause. Whilst Google has recently cracked down on these sly tactics, it is still possible for a competitor to knock you off the soapbox using disingenuous methods. So, how do you spot these dirty tricks and how can you stop them?

negative seo - The Brains
September 2, 2022
10 mins to read
negative seo - The Brains
Whilst search engines like Google will do the bulk of the work involved in preventing negative SEO attacks for you, some still slip through the net. When left unchecked, these attacks have the potential to tank your rankings and undo all your hard work. This means, despite Google greatly reducing the risk, the threat is still there, and you need to be able to spot and stamp out such attacks as soon as possible. That’s exactly what we’re going to walk you through here.

What is a negative SEO attack?

Firstly, it’s important to understand what is meant by the term ‘negative SEO’. Essentially, negative SEO is when a competitor of yours employs shady, duplicitous tactics to try and undermine your organic SEO rankings for either your overall website, or a specific web page. It’s important to note that negative SEO used to be a much bigger problem than it is now. 

Negative SEO attacks are widely seen as unprofessional, corrupt, and wrong, and sometimes, they cross the border into being illegal, too. This doesn’t stop people from using such corrupt tactics, though. If your website is popular and has lots of good rankings, this essentially puts a target on your back, and your SEO enemies will likely try everything they can to take you down, even if it means turning to the dark side. 

Google themselves often make statements diminishing the effect negative SEO can have. Gary Illyes, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, said: “[I’ve] looked at hundreds of supposed cases of negative SEO, but none have actually been the real reason a website was hurt. 

“While it’s easier to blame negative SEO, typically the culprit of a traffic drop is something else you don’t know about–perhaps an algorithm update or an issue with their website.”

There are plenty of SEO experts who disagree with Google, though, and who maintain that such attacks are still a threat to websites. Here at The Brains, we recognise that black-hat tactics, whilst more rare, can and still do pose a risk to high-performing websites (or those with particularly bitter competitors with cash and time to spare), so we believe it’s still important for marketers to recognise when there are other forces at play for their tanking organic metrics. If you feel as though your website is a victim of black hat SEO, speak to one of our SEO strategists who will run a thorough technical audit of your website.

negative seo - The Brains

What does negative SEO look like?

There are a few ways negative SEO can present itself, with the most common being low quality links that are spammy. It’s cheap and easy to do, with some providers offering as many as two million bad backlinks for less than £170. For not much money at all, a sly competitor could cause a significant amount of damage to your rankings purely from toxic backlinks.

“Before Google introduced the Penguin algorithm update, sites with a large number of backlinks were catapulted into prime ranking spots in the SERP without much consideration to the quality of the backlinks.

“Then, Google introduced Penguin to focus more on the quality, relevance and authority of a site’s backlink profile as an important ranking factor. This prevented sites from buying or artificially acquiring links in bulk to take advantage of this. However, it also meant that underhanded websites could target their competitors with spam links and undermine their authority.

“If your site is affected by the Penguin algorithm, this isn’t in itself a penalty – and you won’t receive a notification from Google that Penguin has affected your site. In most cases, you’ll notice a slip in rankings, usually quite suddenly rather than a gradual drop-off. This isn’t necessarily negative SEO; it could just be a sign that something isn’t quite right behind the scenes with your content, site health or backlink profile, but it’s worth investigating.”

In addition to bad links, there are a few other types of negative SEO that you need to be aware of:

  1. Site hacking
  2. Content scraping and duplication
  3. Fake reviews
  4. Removing backlinks via webmaster removal requests

These types of black-hat SEO tactics can all see your website lose authority and tank in Google, so being able to spot when malicious practices are at play is essential SEO knowledge.

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How to identify and stop negative SEO attacks

How to detect negative SEO attacks very much depends on the type of attack that is being launched against you, so we’re going to go type by type.

Toxic backlinks

First is toxic backlinks, because they’re the most frequently-used avenue of attack but also the most unsophisticated (which is good news for you). With toxic backlinks, you’ll find there are an unholy number of low-quality links directed at your site, or there are masses of exact match anchor text links pointed at a page on your site which looks unnatural and suspicious. Both can tank your rankings, but they’re easy to spot.

The best way to spot them is to use the backlinks alert feature offered by a number of SEO tools, like Ahrefs. This will send you a report. If the report shows a sharp spike in the number of new referring domains, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s a negative SEO ploy. If you check the referring IPs and notice that a number of domains have the same IP address, this means the sites targeting you are run by the same person, and this is a tell-tale sign of a negative SEO attack.

To spot an anchor text attack, most SEO tools will have an anchor text report. If you notice a lot of keyword-rich anchors, this is a good sign you’re being targeted.

To get rid of the links, you need to disavow them. This means basically telling Google that you have no idea what those links are and to ignore them. Generally speaking, Penguin is good at identifying spammy links so you don’t always need to disavow them, but if you’ve seen a drop in traffic paired with an influx of backlinks and you can’t find another reason for the drop in users, disavowing the links is your best bet.

Site hacking

Hacking into a website is a criminal offence, but it still happens. Google is quite good at identifying hacked sites, so if your site still shows in SERPs despite being hacked, Google may flag it with a notice that reads ‘this site may be hacked’. That’s a sure-fire way to get people to not go on your site, so your rankings will inevitably fall off the face of the Earth if this happens.

Luckily, you’ll likely spot that your site has been hacked immediately, in the same way you’d probably notice if your house had been burgled. Lots of funky stuff can start happening when you’ve been hacked, but if you’re unsure, you can go to the Google Search Console and into the security issues tab. Ideally, you want to see ‘no issues detected’, but if you’re unlucky enough to have been hacked, you’ll see a number of security issues listed.

Preventing hacking is key, so make sure you have a security plugin added to your site, your passwords are all strong, and your CMS and plugins are all updated. If you do get hacked, it can be a tricky job to get everything back to how it was, so it’s best to contact a specialist in the field who can help you remove malware, restore your site back-up, set up two-factor authentication, change passwords, and quarantine the site.

Content scraping and duplication

You don’t need us to tell you that Google doesn’t like plagiarism. If it spots duplicated content, it will generally go with the highest authority source, even if that’s not you and you’re the original source. Spotting content scraping can be as easy as copying and pasting content from your website into Google in speech marks and seeing what comes up.

Otherwise, go to Google Search Console, paste the URL you think may have been scraped into the search bar, and check the indexing section. In an ideal world, you want to see ‘inspected URL’ next to the Google-selected canonical section, as this means Google thinks your copy is the most authoritative and therefore original source of content. However, if you see an external URL, you’ve been the victim of a negative SEO attack. If you see an internal URL, your content is duplicated on your site and you need to fix that yourself.

The most efficient way to check for content scraping attacks is to use Copyscape and do a batch analysis of URLs. If there is organic traffic going to the scraped content, you can file a digital millennium copyright act complaint (DMCA) for every page that is copied via the DMCA dashboard. You’ll need to make sure you’ve asked for an attribution link (credit to be given) or for the duplicated content to be removed by the copy site before doing this, though.

Fake reviews

Fake reviews can be a real kick in the teeth for businesses. Reviews carry weight when it comes to buying decisions, so if you get targeted with fake reviews, a lot of users will skip over you, because who would want to engage with a company with only a two-star rating?

Your only real line of defence against fake reviews is to report them. This won’t have an immediate effect, but you need to be patient so they can be investigated and removed. Again, the best way around this is through prevention. Encourage real customers to leave genuine reviews and they will offset negative, fake ones. Respond to reviews and highlight false ones to the relevant review platform and you can generally keep on top of this type of negative SEO attack.

Removing backlinks via Webmaster removal requests

Noticing fake backlink removal requests is best done using an SEO tool, with Ahrefs Alerts being a good option for this. Through this tool, you can get weekly reports of lost backlinks. You need to be able to filter through the noise here, as a lot of quality backlinks can be lost naturally through page removal or redirects. However, if the original page is up and running and the content seems the same, it’s likely that someone submitted a false removal request.

Your best bet is to contact the site provider directly to see what happened and if they’ll reinstate the link.

Final thoughts

Overall, there’s not much you can do to stop negative SEO attacks off the bat – if someone wants to buy bad backlinks to your site, they can, and if they choose to submit a false link removal request, you can’t stop them from making that request. That being said, taking appropriate steps to monitor and keep on top of potential attacks is part and parcel of SEO and is your best chance at stopping attacks before they cause more widespread damage. 

If you need help with keeping on top of your SEO campaigns, talk to us today. 

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