Have you always had a solid ranking for a particular web page or piece of content, and all of a sudden it has tumbled? Or have you noticed in your analytics tool that your overall traffic has taken a significant dip? If nothing much has changed on your end in terms of publishing frequency and strategy (other than you continually try to optimize, of course), then your business may be a victim of negative SEO.
Search Engine Land defines negative SEO as any tactic that is performed in order to negatively impact search engine rankings for a particular URL and/or the entire host domain. One business trying to outrank or impact the online reputation of their competitor may employ techniques like:
Adding a target link to low-quality sites, within the copy of a low-quality blog post, for example, or to the comments sections of low-quality pieces of content.
Stuffing comments on target pages with keywords, so that the main message of a page is changed.
“Hotlinking” website files like images or videos (using the full URL of the image or video on another website), which results in bandwidth theft because the image or video must download from the original site whenever it is viewed on the new site.
Buying links to low-quality pages with the exact match anchor of the page that is being targeted, which can push rankings of the target page down.
Getting high-quality sites to stop linking to the target site, as well as getting those high-quality sites to link to a competitor, instead.
Plagiarizing the content of the target site and putting it on low-quality sites, or putting it on high-quality sites in an effort to outrank the target site.
If your website experiences any of these types of negative SEO attacks, your search results could suffer. When the attacks are perceived as hacking, they can also be illegal.
How to Tell If You’re a Victim of Negative SEO
Before you assume you’ve been attacked and that’s the reason why your search results are declining, investigate some common reasons why your site may not be ranking well on search engines like Google. These include:
Your website is too new, and it hasn’t been crawled by the search engine bot yet.
There are “noindex” meta tags in your web page HTML code.
You’ve violated the quality guidelines of the search engine, such as keyword-stuffing your own site, or you have created content in an effort to game the search system.
- Your site’s content is thin, is low-quality compared to competitors or isn’t optimized for SEO, since it lacks metadata and relevant keywords.
If you’re confident that you aren’t committing any of these errors, here are some other steps to take to get an idea of if you’ve been attacked.
Search Your Site on the Search Engine
Type in site:[your website domain] to see how the search engine views your site. If there are spammy sites appearing in your results, that’s worth investigating. You can also perform this search and add keywords you’d normally rank for. If there are new suspicious sites taking your place, that may be the result of negative SEO.
Dive into Analytics
Look at your analytics for anything that seems fishy. Are there odd referral sources pointing to your site? Has the bounce rate increased sharply, or has the session duration decreased notably? These are signs that your site may be being linked to on bad sites.
Refer to the Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a free service that monitors your presence in Google results. Using Google Search Console, you can check that Google has access to your content, and monitor spam issues and remove content you don’t want seen in search results. You can see new links to your site, so you can check if there is a sudden increase in low-quality links pointing back to you. You will also receive messages from Google if there is suspicion that your website has been hacked. Bing Webmaster Tools provide similar functions.
How to Protect Your Site Against Negative SEO
To combat some of the tactics that can make your website fall prey to a negative SEO attack, take these steps.
- Host your site on its own protected server.
- Prevent hotlinking – here are some tools for WordPress.
- Make sure your comments are marked as “nofollow,” which prevents links in comments from receiving SEO benefits. Or, turn off comments altogether.
If you discover that another site is plagiarizing your content, you can send a notification of the infringement via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. You can also file a spam report with Google for negative SEO actions.
Ultimately, the more good SEO practices your website uses – like getting high-quality sites to link back to yours and creating great content on your site – the more you can protect your site from any negative efforts and recover if you’ve been hit.