Negative SEO Attacks: How Your Site May Be Targeted and What to do About it

Understanding the dark side of SEO
Published on 
May 2, 2024
Updated on 
May 2, 2024

One of the common complaints you find from people just getting into search engine optimization is that the internet is absolutely saturated with SEO-optimized content. 

Spend a few minutes searching pretty much anything on Google, and you will find that that is very much the case. 

It is getting harder and harder to rank online as SEO continues to become more competitive every year. 

Fierce competition in any area of commerce means there will be people who resort to underhanded tactics to try and gain a competitive advantage. Welcome to negative SEO. 

Negative SEO, in a nutshell, is where your competitors try to damage your position in the SERP by using black hat link building techniques to build spammy backlinks to your website in the hopes that Google will then penalize you for them. 

The following article will be a deep dive into how negative SEO works, including the different types of negative SEO, how Google views and responds to these attacks, and how you can prepare for and respond to it yourself if and when you are ever on the receiving end of it. 

The anatomy of a negative SEO attack

Negative SEO attacks can take many forms, but all are carried out with one thing in mind: to tarnish your backlink profile with spammy or shady backlinks in the hopes that Google penalizes you for them. 

Tactics include: 

  • Link farm attacks
  • Duplicate content attacks
  • Content modification attacks
  • Fake review attacks
  • Fake social media profile attacks
  • Heavy crawling attacks
  • Hacking and malware attacks

Link farm attacks

A link farm is a website that exists solely to sell backlinks. Very often, link farms are built on repurposed expired domains with residual domain authority, giving any backlinks from the site a veneer of credibility and authority. 

In reality, these links are spam, and Google views them as such. Google is also quite good at spotting these links and will penalize any black hat SEO techniques that source backlinks from such places. 

Its SpamBrain algorithm detects both sites that are buying these links, as well as sites selling them. The good news for anyone doing SEO the right way–people who wouldn’t dream about doing something as unethical as negative SEO–is Google is very good at neutralizing the effect of these kinds of links. 

If you purchased a link farm backlink from a website that is clearly a link farm, the odds are that Google’s going to discount any link juice you thought you might be getting. The corollary of that is that anyone targeting your site with a negative SEO attack using this strategy will also be wasting their time and money. 

Get enough of these links pointing towards your site, however, and Google may decide to take action. 

There are shady businesses online that sell negative SEO packages, and they will bombard a website with hundreds if not thousands of bad links. 

It may reach a point where you are hit with so many spammy links that search engines wonder what is going on and penalize you for unnatural links. 

Sorting it all out and clearing your name could take a while, during which time you lose ranking, traffic, conversions and revenue. 

Duplicate content attacks

Google is not a fan of duplicate content and if they see that you have copied and pasted someone else’s content onto your own site, you’re setting yourself up for a penalty. 

The way a duplicate content negative SEO attack works is someone will take content from your site and publish it somewhere else, unchanged. Very often, the duplicate content is posted on multiple sites to amplify the effect. 

Normally, Google is quite good at spotting duplicate content. It checks to see who published first (which is easily verifiable), and then indexes that original content. 

Sometimes, however, Google is unable to figure out who published first. When that happens, they may decide to remove the content altogether (yours included). 

A best practice to preempt this is to immediately submit an indexing request as soon as a piece of content is published. That will mitigate the risk of duplicate content negative SEO tactics affecting your site. 

Content modification attacks

Content modification negative SEO is more insidious than either of the two previous tactics because it involves infiltrating your website. 

This approach also differs from the above two in that it is more focused on boosting the malicious actor’s own SEO, rather than hurting yours. 

If you are the owner of a high authority website, someone might see it as an opportunity to send some high authority backlinks to their site free of charge. 

Someone will gain access to your website and will do things like add backlinks that point to their site or will add redirects to some of your pages, sending the SEO value of your page to theirs. 

They might even do things like insert advertisements for their own website or business into your content. 

Fake review attacks 

Fake negative reviews are often where unscrupulous competitors go first when trying to hurt your reputation and ranking. 

They will find your Google profile and often leave a hyperbolically negative review of you or your business. 

The best way to handle these reviews is to respond directly and, if you have direct evidence that there is no record of having done business with the person, make it clear that is the case. 

You can follow up with Google to have these sorts of reviews removed. 

Google reviews do have an impact on local search results, so it makes sense to take negative reviews seriously. 

An important thing to keep in mind when it comes to your Google reviews

Google treats reviews similarly to backlinks with respect to local search visibility. That said, it is important to recognize that too many perfect reviews may lead Google to believe you are buying reviews, which can lead to penalization. 

Conversely, too many bad reviews might trick Google into thinking that your business is not worth showing to people in the search results. 

Always stay on top of your reviews. 

Fake social media profile attacks

Another negative SEO tactic that targets a business’s reputation is the fake social media profile attack. 

Like the Google review bombing, this approach doesn’t involve spammy links, but instead tries to sabotage a company or brand’s goodwill by impersonating them online and doing things that are reputationally damaging. 

Someone will make fake social media profiles using your business name or website and then proceed to post low-quality content and negative reviews. 

They might even reach out to your actual social media followers and try to embarrass you or cause other problems. 

This is why it’s important to make sure you are always aware of brand mentions on social media so that you can spot fake profiles and promptly report them. 

Heavy crawling attacks

This is a less commonly used negative SEO tactic, but it can have a devastating impact. 

Heavy crawling is where malicious actors will target a website and unleash thousands of bots to crawl it at the same time, overwhelming the server and crashing that site. 

When you buy a hosting plan, there is a bandwidth limit that specifies how many people are allowed to be on your site at one time without it crashing. 

If there are too many people (or bots) using the site at a given time, your site will either slow down considerably or it will just plain crash. 

Google doesn’t like this because it hurts user experience, which could end up hurting you in the rankings. 

You can protect yourself from this type of negative SEO attack by purchasing DDoS protection from companies like Cloudflare. 

DDoS mitigation helps to identify malicious traffic and stop it from reaching your website. It stops heavy crawling in its tracks. 

Hacking and malware attacks

Hacking and malware are the worst kind of negative SEO attacks because they represent the biggest opportunity for unrestrained damage. 

If someone intent on doing harm to your SEO and website gains access, they could end up doing any number of things to hurt your business. 

This includes: 

  • Creating low quality content or adding duplicate content to your site from elsewhere on the web
  • Creating a bunch of spammy outbound links to low quality or dangerous websites
  • Editing your Robots.txt file so that search engines don’t crawl you
  • Making site-wide changes that completely alter the theme and intentions of your site
  • Planting spyware or malware on your site

The worst type of hacking is when you’ve been hacked but are unaware. 

Sometimes hackers will gain access to your site and make small changes over time that add up to significant damage to your search engine optimization. 

This is why it is important to conduct regular website audits and keep cybersecurity best practices in mind.

Preventing and responding to negative SEO attacks

Alright, so now that we know what kind of negative SEO techniques are commonly employed to hurt websites, how do you defend against them. 

Keep in mind that Google is normally very good at identifying malicious negative SEO attacks and has gone as far as to say that negative SEO is not an effective tactic (for anyone considering it):

That said, nothing is a guarantee. 

In the below sections, we will lay out some of the primary ways in which site owners can fortify their sites and their businesses against negative SEO attacks. 

Setting up email alerts in Google Search Console

Google Search Console is one of the most useful tools and dashboards for every site owner and it is an important part of keeping your website safe. 

Google search console will automatically let you know if it has discovered malware on your site, whether some of your pages aren’t indexed, whether you’re having server issues, or if you’ve received a penalty from Google. 

Always set up these alerts because they help safeguard your site and they are completely free. 

If you have already connected your site to Search Console, log in and click on the settings tab in the top right: 

Then click on “Preferences” and click on the “enable notification by email” box. 

Google will now send you emails if it detects anything you need to be aware of. 

Monitoring your backlink profile for spammy links

Part of running a website means staying on top of new links. It’s important to keep an eye out for both high and low quality links. 

Bad quality links is the most common way that people engaging in negative SEO attacks against you will target your site. 

Just go to a website like Fiverr and look at how many low quality links you are able to buy for next to nothing. 

Or, take a look at the graphic from earlier in the article where negative SEO “specialists” let you know exactly how many spam links you can bombard someone’s site with. 

You should always know what’s going on with your backlink profile so that you aren’t suddenly slapped with a link penalty by Google because some shady character decided to flood your site with bad links. 

There are plenty of analytics tools you can use to keep tabs on your backlink profile. Ahrefs will give you a very comprehensive breakdown of your backlink profile, as well as let you filter by metrics like Domain Rating and traffic so that you can more quickly evaluate your inbound links. 

There are also tools like Monitor Backlinks that you can integrate with your Google Analytics account that will show you where your backlinks are coming from and, importantly, will highlight any red flags when it comes to low quality links. 

These include: 

  • Links with low pagerank
  • Domains that have a disproportionate number of external links (a sign of a link farm)
  • Links from spammy sites
  • Links from niches that Google looks askance at–gambling, crypto, adult, cannabis, etc. 

Once you’ve identified referring domains you don’t like, your options are either to reach out to these sites and ask them to remove the link or to use the disavow tool in Google Search Console. 

Sending an email is often enough. 

If your request is ignored (which it sometimes is), then your other option is to send a request to Google to disavow the backlinks. 

You can do this straight from the Monitor Backlinks tool,

Or, you can create a CSV file and upload it to your Google Search Console. 

Keeping tabs on your most valuable links

Spammers will not only try to damage your SEO by flooding you with low quality links, but they may even try to get your best links removed. 

This will lower your domain authority and could even hurt your search engine rankings and organic traffic. 

Negative SEO spammers will contact the referring domains where your links are hosted and, posing as you, request a removal

Monitor Backlinks also lets you stay on top of your most important links. You can add a “premium links” tag to any links that are especially important to your backlink profile and SEO and have the software send you a notification if and when you lose the link. 

This will allow you to reach out to the website that has removed the link and find out why it was removed. This is usually the best way to get a link reinstated, whether it was removed on purpose or because someone was using a negative SEO technique. 

Audit your site for duplicate content

If you want to protect yourself from the duplicate SEO content strategy outlined above, then you need to stay on top of your content. 

As discussed, a commonly used negative SEO technique involves copying your content and then publishing it on multiple websites. 

You definitely don’t want Google to index and rank duplicate content. 

A good way to monitor any duplicate content is to use the free tool Copyscape

Simply enter a URL into the search bar (i.e., one of your pages), and then hit Go. 

Copyscape will then examine your content against everything in their database and let you whether there are duplicates.

It helps you find out whether someone has published your content elsewhere without your permission. 

Dealing with duplicate content

If and when you find dupliate content, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Ask them nicely (but forcefully) to remove it
  • File a DCMA request

The first, much like the first step before using Google’s disavow links tool, involves reaching out to the offending sites and politely but firmly asking for the duplicate content to be removed. 

If that doens’t work, Google allows you to file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint against the thieves. 

Log into your Google account and click on “Create a Request.”

You will then be walked through a series of prompts and options to choose from. 

Bear in mind that it can take quite a while for this process to play out. It’s really only worth your while if the offending content is outranking yours or could potentially hurt your ranking in the future. 

If Google concludes that the site in question has, in fact, stolen from you, it will remove the URL from the search results as well as hit the site with a search penalty for violating intellectual copyright. 

Be diplomatic online

We consider this a good preemptive strategy for dealing with negative SEO. It’s also part of running a business. 

A lot of people end up losing control of their emotions and better judgement when things start to get heated online. 

Arguments happen all the time, and there are a lot of people out there who are looking to start fights. They might say something incendiary or provocative, or even outright false to get a reaction out of you. 

Don’t react, and don’t lose your cool. 

You could end up offending or slighting the wrong person who makes it their mission to mess with your business and SEO. 

Approach disagreements and arguments cautiously and in control of your emotions. Resist the urge to be rude to people who are being rude to you. The person who remains calm and civil is almost always going to be the person who comes out on top in the court of public opinion anyways. 

In summation

The odds are, if you run a site long enough, you’re going to come up against negative SEO. Google continues to get better at spotting and ignoring these tactics, but it’s always good to know what you’re dealing with and how to respond. 

Ultimately, you should spend far more time worrying about how you do SEO and not how unscrupulous competitors might be plotting to undermine it. Spend your time and resources building high quality links to reputable, relevant, high authority websites and you will succeed. 

That is what we at dofollow do for our clients. If you would like to find out more about what we offer and how we operate, get in touch today and let’s chat about levelling up your link building. 

Why Trust Us On SEO

Eric Carrell & Sebastian Schaffer have been working in SEO for over a decade, building their own projects - understanding and testing SEO strategy, along with building hundreds of white hat links per month for our projects. They take their learnings and experience and apply them to the strategy that drives our link building strategy for our clients.

Eric & Seb have always believed in quality over quantity, doing things the right way so we future proof our client’s websites against future Google updates and the evolving industry of search.

While Seb handles the company strategy around culture, processes and structure, Eric is constantly working to improve our service offering, customer experience, and following the industry in parallel with Google’s Quality Guidelines so that we are always one step ahead of our competition and aligned with what Google wants to see for your site to rank higher.

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