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How to Defend Against Negative SEO

It’s been a tough couple of years for many SEO professionals and brands alike, since Google finally took the steps necessary to ensure that everyone abides by their rules when it comes to spammy links. As we know, there have been many high profile brands dropping out of the SERPs thanks to a penalty and countless smaller incidences involving businesses both large and small.

It’s also safe to say that a good few SEO agencies have had to have a complete rethink in the wake of the guest blogging crackdown, since many relied heavily on such posts for gaining backlinks.

We all know where we stand now though, or at least we should, so SEO should now be straightforward right? Follow the rules, take a holistic approach to online marketing and all will be well … or will it?

Not if you suffer the effects of negative SEO, no.

What is Negative SEO?

It’s basically SEO that can affect your rankings and get you a penalty and it can be broken down into three main types:

  • Inexperienced staff taking on SEO
  • Deliberate sabotage
  • Collateral damage

Inexperienced Staff Carrying Out SEO

All of us in business want to save money wherever we can, but when it comes to SEO, it’s a dangerous business if you use poorly trained staff to carry out it out. Professionals spend a lot of time and money gaining their knowledge, that’s why people pay for it, so assuming that it’s a job that anyone can do is going to harm your site, one way or another.

In fact, often it’s not even staff that are in junior positions that do the harm, but seniors that assume they know enough to be placing spammy links all over the place without being aware of the dangers.

What can be done about it?

Simple. The marketing department or webmaster should create a policy document that outlines SEO practices and who is responsible for them. It should outline exactly what a penalty can do and link building practices should be forbidden to everyone in the business, except those that work on the SEO.

Deliberate Sabotage

It’s sad but true that there are competitors out there that have no scruples when it comes to damaging your business wherever they feel they can get away with it. This is nothing particularly new, industrial sabotage is a term we’re all familiar with and have been since well before the dawn of the internet age.

In this context, this will of course mean that your competitors (or even just someone with a grudge) will be carrying out spammy back link activity without your knowledge.

Collateral Damage

For me, this is the most worrying of the lot, as automation is involved, potentially making it very difficult to get over a penalty should you get one due to a large number of links being generated. This involves using software to build links automatically and some that use it also include links to other, higher profile sites, as well as the target site.

These are commonly used by porn and pharmaceutical sites and the reason that other (more authoritative) sites links are included is that it makes the spam links appear more natural to the search bots – in theory, anyway. The software automatically finds sites to post articles to and these are often spun, so are also very low quality, as well as containing spam links. It’s rare to have this happen to you, especially if your site isn’t as well-known as say, Wikipedia, but it does happen.

A good example of this is written up on the Moz website and details what happened when author Yonaton Dotan’s client Ginger Software suffered a Google penalty due to a problem of this nature.

Defending Your Site

Whilst it’s a simple matter to defend against honest mistakes within your company, deliberate sabotage and collateral damage are much more worrying for the average website. It’s easy to think “it won’t happen to me” because you’re not a major concern, but therein lies the danger. Taking a laid back approach because you believe your company isn’t a target won’t be of much help to you if the worst does happen, which means that you should take steps to ensure that it doesn’t.

This means that it’s vital to ensure that you’re always aware of your back link profile and which sites are linking to yours. There’s a huge variety of tools to help you to carry this out, starting with Webmaster Tools – others include:

Link audits should be carried out regularly using these tools – you can export the data and go through it manually, or you can use software tools built for analysing link quality. However, note that software tools that identify links as being bad are not always 100% accurate, so you should review manually anyway. Note that this can be a time consuming process (eg see how much effort Bartosz put in to the Expedia analysis we linked to at the start).

When reviewing links, look at:

  • The nature of the site that’s linking to you – is it industry relevant?
  • The anchor text used – is it relevant to the page and site it’s linking to, or is it suspiciously different text, perhaps relating to pharmaceuticals or even just obscure words?
  • The domain name - again, is it relevant and is it good quality?
  • Is it a directory? If so, is it one that’s relevant to your industry, location and is it maintained well and uses a good editorial system
  • Is the link from a forum?

A good SEO will be able to spot a lot of these straight off the bat, but not all of them, but business owners will have a lot more difficulty in attempting to do this themselves. If in doubt, hire a SEO and get them to do it for you, it’s likely to cost you less in terms of cash, time and heartache in the long term.

You should also look for social bookmarking links, which like directories can be a good thing, but are also open to automation abuse.

Cleaning up Before a Penalty

Carrying out regular link audits will give you the chance to clean up bad links before you get the dreaded mail in your Webmaster Tools inbox. To do this you should first email all site owners/webmasters wherever possible and ask them to remove the link or place a nofollow on it.

Keep a comprehensive record of everything you do with regard to link removal – in fact, set up a Gmail account specifically to deal with it, so that if you do get a penalty, you can prove that you have been doing everything possible to ensure your link profile is clean.

Once you’ve done everything you can to get links taken down, the next step is to use the Disavow tool. Whilst this is used by most people after the event of a penalty, it can and should be used before to remove any toxic links that are found.

However, be warned that the tool should be used only if you believe the spam links to be harmful to your site and not as an everyday get-out-of-jail-free card. If used incorrectly, it too can hurt your search results, so approach with caution.

Negative SEO is something that should be guarded against and there’s never any harm in keeping a close eye on your link profiles anyway. Doing so will flag up any issues before you are hit with a penalty and will ensure that your site stays healthy.

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