Protecting Your Site and Brand From Negative SEO

by Alex Graves
Bronco - Digital Marketing Agency

Following the recent Google Penguin update that has been rolled out across their search engine just a couple of weeks ago, there has been a huge amount of concern within the SEO industry as evidence of ‘negative SEO' seems to have come to light with people looking to investigate their search engine manipulation theories on sites that carry no risk to themselves, meaning that YOUR site could be at risk.

I think that it is important to explain that not all sites will be under attack from people that are looking to find new ways in which they can gain rankings but there are clear indications that there are some people operating underhand methods in a bid to establish whether they are effective in the battle to gaining the number one position within the search engine results for keywords in which they are interested in and I will be showing examples of such practises that clearly highlight the risks that websites face in the current SEO climate.

In order to be able to help you understand a little more about the article that you are reading, I need to be able to highlight what both the Google Penguin update and negative SEO are and how they can affect your website, business and brand directly:

Google Penguin Update – Search engine giants Google are constantly looking for new ways in which they can alter their algorithm in order to deliver what they believe to be the best possible search results for the user and as part of that process their latest alteration has been created to combat "web-spam".

"Web-spam" is a term that relates to anything that has been created in a way that is designed to deceive the user or the search engines, resulting either as increased revenues for the person that owns the website that has conducted these methods or an increase in organic search result rankings so that a site ranks higher that it should, thus failing to offer the best search results that Google want to deliver.

Many sites that have been caught up within the filtration of the rankings due to this new change in the way that Google rank websites have suffered large drops in both traffic and rankings, some completely dropping out of the search engine results pages for terms that they previously held a strong position.

‘Negative SEO' – This is an industry wide phrase that has been created in order to reference towards reverse search engine optimisation practises, things that have been done with the sole purpose to be able to affect the targeted site in a negative manner and create issues for the site, whether that be reduced rankings for keywords that they are targeting, trying to trigger Google penalties relating to quality or backlink profiles or simply trying to tarnish the name and reputation of a brand, person or company that is competing with the site that has sanctioned the reverse SEO to be conducted.

So what does this mean for my brand or website?

Due to the uncertainty within the industry at the moment, there has been an increased visibility of negative SEO practices such as link dropping, the process of flooding a large quantity of links into a site without their knowledge, and unauthorised 301 redirects.

Although you may well think that additional links being placed into your site can only be a good thing, these links that we have witnessed have been completely unrelated to the sites that have been targeted and have resulted in sites that are not promoting a specific term rankings within the first few positions of the Google search engine results.

The most visible of evidence that has been seen that relates to this form of malicious strategy has been seen within the medical market for such terms of ‘Viagra' and ‘Cialis' with multiple reports of educational sites that do not even mention the medication once being seen ranking for the term and after a look at the backlinks pointing into the site, it is easy to see why Google has automatically ranked those pages there:

Backlink Data from Ahrefs

As you can see from the backlink profile of this site that specialises in the selling of custom cards, they have been targeted with a number of links that relate to the medical industry, a clean attack on the site as there are no mentions of those terms on the page that those links are targeted towards.

Looking further into these attacks, it seems that medical terms are not the only focus for the attackers, with unrelated sites ranking for a number of different terms, financial terms included, with one site seeing a flurry of unrelated anchor text links being placed into their site which has resulted in their homepage now suffering a ban from Google, evident when you search for the domain in the search engine.

The people behind this attacks will not have remorse for their actions, instead your site is simply a research tool in which they have no risk, making anybody's site a target to those that could be conducting this sort of methodology, meaning that you now more than ever need to protect your site and ensure that you are tracking the off-site activities that your site could be involved in.

How Can You Protect Your Site?

Due to the fact that your site often depends on search engine visibility, or rankings, in order to generate new business or reach out to your target market, that has to be considered to be the most powerful tool that you have to your disposal (if online presence is stronger than your offline) and this is often the first port of attack for anyone that is looking to perform negative practice towards you, your brand or your site.

As policing everything that is linking, pointing or sharing your site is simply not possible directly (preventing links that you have not placed into the site), the world of SEO has become an open battlefield and now more than ever, allows rivals to be able to run scripts to be able to flood your site with unrelated, spammy links and therefore placing you into the eyes of Google, whether that be through manual interaction (the filing of a spam report to the Google spam team) or via the triggering of an automatic filter system, potentially delivering a critical blow to your website and any related business or offering that you provide through it.

Although you may not be able to prevent sites linking into your web property, you still have the ability to be able to monitor what is being placed into the site and doing so would allow you to notice any unnatural linking that is being placed into your site, giving you the chance to investigate and take action on anything that you feel would be potentially damaging to your site.

Recently I have taken additional time to be able to really profile the links that are pointing into my own sites, seeing what is placed there on merit and what could possibly hurt the sites that I create, a process that has been made a whole lot easier thanks to well known SEO tools and software that are already available on the market.

Over the past week I have really stepped up my efforts to find tools that are able to provide me with information that would be able to inform me and anyone else of linkage being fed into my sites with a view for those links to take negative effect and believe that I have a duo of tools that are well enough equipped to be able to give you all of the data that you need to ensure that your site is not being targeted.

Ahrefs.com - This is a fantastic new addition to the armoury of SEO tools that I use both at Bronco and at home and although previously only holding a free account with the site, I have now upgraded into a paid plan and I am so glad that I did!

The well designed and user friendly interface meant that making use of the fully exposed tools and reports was simple and the data that I could collect from within their site was invaluable for the detection of any foul play. Not only was I able to be able to analyse my competitors to see where they have managed to pick up links that are driving their site forward, but they have a clear breakdown of when links were placed or removed (based on their own crawling stats).

The image above shows you the backlink options that you have once you join Ahrefs.com on a paid subscription (they have a number of different pricing options which makes the software accessible to almost everyone!) and I would like you to pay particular attention to the calender layout on the left side of the image as this has to be one of the best additions to an SEO tool that i have seen in a long time.

Although it may look like a standard calender, this is a complete breakdown of links that are either found being pointed into the site or if you select the ‘Lost’ option, being removed, laid out in daily format, meaning that you can see when the link has been added or removed quickly and easily.

The dates are clearly shown as you can see and the smaller numbers indicate the number of links that have either been seen to be pointing into the site or the date of link removal (great for tracking those old school three way link exchanges that some of you may well have taken part in over the years), meaning that you can quickly and easily see if there are changes happening to your site’s backlink profile.

Using this brilliant tool, you can see data like this:

So from that, we can see that a link was placed into the target site which was indexed by the crawlers operated by Ahrefs.com on 2nd March 2012, showing that the site has come under a very recent attack but also we can valuably see on the same screen (just above the links list where the above image was taken from) how the links were fed into the site:

March 2012 Backlinks via Ahrefs

Due to the fact that you can now see the links being added into your site, you can monitor the growth of your banklink profile, meaning that should there be a high number of links that appear as ‘New' on this calendar, you can see where they have been placed as well as what details have been used.

Just as the example images show, the site that I have used to demonstrate the benefit of using Ahrefs has clearly seen a vast increase in the number of links that were being placed into the site on a daily basis and if they were monitoring their profile, they would have been able to identify that and take action to either have the links removed or look to perform damage limitation to ensure that their site remained safe.

Now I have never been a person that likes to limit his options when it comes to anything and so I ensure that I have a broad scope whenever I conduct my own backlink profile checks, after all, you want to make sure that you get as much data as possible so that you are as informed as you can be.

To enable you to do that, I strongly recommend that you pair Ahrefs.com up with another of my favourite SEO tools, Majestic SEO.

Majestic SEO has been a long standing favourite of mine and has helped to me overcome so many issues over the past few year, meaning that I can completely and whole-heartedly recommend that this has to be the second tool that you simply HAVE to use if you want to stay on top of your online properties.

The sheer fact that they crawl, index and analyse as many websites as they do means that you are able to get a huge collection of data of which you can then look through and ensure that you are happy with how things are going in terms of online development for your site.

Their tool is easy to use, can be filtered to show whatever you want to look at directly, such as the PageRank of links, the age of the domain or the number of backlinks the sites that are linking into your site have, meaning that you have full understanding of what sites are pushing your site forward and if any of the sites that are pointing into yours are potentially holding your growth back.

What Are The Signs of Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is not something that will be openly discussed with you, whether it be a competitor that is looking to have this process done to you with a bid to slow down your search engine rankings or just simply that the person or company that are actively doing this to your site are looking to experiment, so you need to ensure that you are monitoring your site to the best of your ability.

The example for of Negative SEO contains a process where there are a high number of unrelated links that are flooded into your site in a bid to trigger a penalty within Google, whether that be a manual penalty or automatic, so keeping close eye on what is being pointed into your site will help you to avoid anything like this happening to your site.

But here are a couple of hints and tips that I would recommend that you follow in order to protect your site:

  • Keep A Close Monitoring of Backlinks – Make use of tools such as Ahrefs.com and MajesticSEO.com to see what links are being placed into your site and when. Make sure that you are happy that the links look natural and that you are happy with that site linking into your site.
  • Check Backlinks Positioning – There have been a number of reported cases where the links that are being placed into target sites through injections into the source code of the sites, meaning that they are not visible when you access the site. Make sure to check every link to ensure that they are not being hidden or cloaked.
  • Remove Low Quality or Spam Links – Links will appear into your site naturally over time and this means that there will be sites that are linking into you innocently, whether it be as they have reviewed your product/service or that they wanted to share your link on their site, so you need to establish whether the link is beneficial to your site or not. Although you can't always have links removed, the owners of the sites could welcome the suggestion to place a ‘no-follow' tag into the link.
  • Look Out For 301 Redirects – Ahrefs.com has a clear indicator towards 301 redirects that are pointing into your site and so you need to make sure that these are only placed into your site by you or someone that you have working with the site. If you find 301's that aren't operated by you and you want them removed, look for the whois information of the domain and contact the hosting provider within the same email.

Now that you have the knowledge of what to look out for while monitoring your site, you should be able to ensure that you can avoid such action being taken against you but remember that letting your attention to detail slip for a few days could mean that you are about to be faced with an increased workload to have those links removed, so try to keep on top of the data as much as possible.

As my final advice for all of you guys reading this post I would like to say that using such SEO methods as these listed above will result in you being exposed should the owner of the site realise that there is something unnatural happening and could well result in retaliation from them, so we STRONGLY advise that you do not conduct this process.

Bronco - Digital Marketing Agency
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