How 'negative' search engine optimisation can significantly reduce your website's traffic – and how you can fight back.
Many businesses work hard – or pay someone to work hard – at optimising their sites' position in relevant search queries. But that hard work can be undone by malicious rivals.
Once search engines became one of the most important sources of web traffic, search engine optimisation (SEO) became an important issue for businesses. As with other areas of life, there are hygiene factors that – if ignored – push your pages down the rankings (such as slow page load times or broken links). Then there are the positives such as good quality content.
However diligent you've been with SEO-related issues, malicious rivals or individuals with an axe to grind against your business can relatively easily have an adverse effect on your site's ranking.
One simple method they can use is to place hundreds or even thousands of links to your site on poor-quality sites, a practice known as negative SEO. In a form of “guilt by association”, search engines regard such links as an attempt to artificially inflate a site's standing and so they mark it down instead.
This happened three years ago to online costume retailer Blossom Costumes. Owner Dony Ngamino said: "We experienced first-hand the detrimental effects of negative SEO. By the time we started working with [digital agency] Digital360, the severity of the damage was so bad they had to rebuild our link profile from scratch. This is a major setback for any fledgling ecommerce business."
Digital360 co-founder and managing director Adam Laurie said: "When it comes to negative SEO, the Blossom Costumes case is not unique. Almost any business can be a target for negative SEO. Unfortunately, the reality is there are businesses out there that get ahead by bringing competitors down."
If you're not in a position to pay someone to look after such matters on your behalf, there are things you can do for yourself.
Digital360 suggests these three key steps.
1. Monitor backlinks
Don't wait for your search traffic to dry up – regularly audit the links to your site so you can take action at the first sign of trouble.
Google’s free Search Console provides a good start, but paid software such as Moz, Majestic SEO and SEM Rush will provide useful quality indicators to help you easily identify the worst links, Laurie said. Combining the data from all these tools gives you the most complete picture of the quality of your backlinks.
To begin the audit, use one of these services to download backlink data and load it into a spreadsheet – as a minimum, you’ll need site name, URL, a range of quality metrics and the date the link was added or removed. Then sort the links by highlighting any suspicious or spam domains.
2. Disavow suspicious links
There are three things you can do about these poor-quality links. Consider contacting the offending sites with requests to remove the unwanted links. That may not be practical if you're dealing with thousands of links, and some site owners may refuse to remove the links, or ask you to pay them to do so.
Reporting the dodgy links to Google does help that company fight web spam, but this measure is not always immediately effective in restoring your ranking.
Updating your website’s disavowed links list with the suspicious links can help. The faster you act, the less impact the malicious links will have on your site.
3. Strengthen your link profile
Having plenty of quality links to your site helps drown out any from low-grade sites, reducing the impact of negative SEO. But building links requires effort – taking short cuts usually results in links from lesser-quality sites, and those are the practices search engines are trying to discourage.
Likely targets for quality links include existing partners, suppliers, industry accreditations and community associations that your business is affiliated with.
Make link building an ongoing activity as a part of your digital marketing strategy. Contributing articles to other sites in your industry is one way of generating links. According to Digital360, writing regularly on a blog is another excellent way to accrue links.
The sooner you get started, the better. A strong network of incoming links makes life harder for a negative SEO attacker, and the early removal or disavowal of unwanted links minimises their effect on your ranking. If you let things drift, it can take so long to reverse the effects of negative SEO that it may be better to cut your losses by starting again with a new domain name and a strong SEO strategy, Digital360 suggests.