Staying Positive About Negative SEO
Following Google’s “Penguin” algorithm update in late April, many SEOs have been debating the possibility of a practice called “negative SEO,” whereby one SEO could hurt another’s websites by intentionally pointing unnatural, “spammy” backlinks to their sites. Unnatural link activity includes links offered via paid inclusion directories and “link farms”; others have even suggested that anchor text diversity may trigger a Penguin penalty too.
Overall, the aim of Penguin is pure: penalize websites that attempt to artificially manipulate the signals that Google has traditionally used to determine relevance and authority. In the wild, it was only logical that a few black-hat SEOs would attempt to use this against their online competitors. The debate over the effectiveness of this tactic has been growing ever since.
The negative SEO dispute is an interesting one, with some SEOs claiming it is possible, while others are saying it’s not likely. There’s a lot of fervor in these discussions, with plenty of data and dialogue to support both sides. Google’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts, has gone on record acknowledging that Google has taken measures to “make sure one person can’t hurt another person” when it comes to negative SEO, but it’s clear that concerns remain.
To help quash some of these concerns by proving it can’t be done to clean websites, SEOmoz’s Rand Fishkin famously challenged SEOs to take down his site, SEOmoz.org, with negative SEO tactics. This was both a bold challenge, and a clever bit of PR. Clearly, Fishkin isn’t worried, and neither am I.
Though I’m not knee-deep in the types of anecdotal data that others have produced, I’m not sweating negative SEO one bit. I don’t think you should, either.
Five reasons not to sweat negative SEO:
1. This is short-term gain territory. Negative SEO is a black-hat tactic no different than keyword stuffing, doorway pages, cloaking, or paid links. The common element between them all is that they promise short-term wins at the expense of the long-term. None of these tactics is sustainable.
Eventually, Google catches on and your site can recover from the bad deeds of others (if you were ever really affected at all).
2. White hats don’t appear to be susceptible. Danny Sullivan’s interview with Matt Cutts on this subject (link above) references this point: that the majority of sites that have been alerted about “bad link” problems have suffered from algorithm penalties in the past. Websites that have consistently followed the rules should be impervious to negative SEO attacks. This is also the message that Fishkin sent by issuing his “challenge.”
3. This is a lot of work! Think of how much time it would take to intentionally build enough spam backlinks pointing to your arch nemesis’ sites to have an impact, especially if they’ve kept a squeaky clean reputation otherwise. You’d be better off using that time building legitimate links and authoring compelling content across your own sites. With the time saved, you could even work on the social signals surrounding your content.
This approach is not only white hat, it’s sustainable and more effective.
4. Being discovered as a negative SEO spammer would be a death knell. Just as JC Penney and Dun & Bradstreet have discovered, black-hat SEO can become a PR nightmare. Not only do search engine penalties result from employing the wrong SEO or SEO firm, but it shines a light (not the right kind) on the SEO industry and the people involved.
While it’s bad for all of us collectively as SEOs, imagine being the person publicly identified as overseeing black-hat SEO for a high-profile employer or client. You could likely recover from the discovery of a few paid links here and there, but as an active negative SEO spammer? You could find yourself unemployable in this industry.
5. It could invite litigation. Proving that negative SEO can work can also lead to proving loss of economic value as a result of those same actions. That sounds like a scenario ripe for litigation to me. I don’t know too many people willing to take on that risk.
So while negative SEO may be a possibility, I think that possibility is remote. Stop sweating the what-ifs, and stay positive about aspects of your site and SEO you can control.