The Rise of Negative SEO


Ah, Google. … Where to start?

OK, let’s start here: There’s a lot of craziness happening in Google’s search results lately. Some of it seems to possibly be related to some algorithm changes that were made recently, but some of it seems more deeply rooted than recent changes.

It’s hard to say why certain things are happening, and it may sound preposterous, but I would guess that even Google itself doesn’t know why some of it is happening.

How can I say that? Well, read on and look at some of the examples in this post. You may come to the same conclusion. There’s no way Google would allow some of this stuff to happen if it could prevent it.

“Make Quality Content”

We’ve all heard it a million times: making quality content is the answer.

If you had done a search recently for the very lucrative keyword phrase “make money online” in Google, however, you would have seen something odd pop up in the #10 position on the first page.

And this is what the site looks like on the inside.

 

When this was noticed, people in the SEO community started talking about it (and linking to it). It then shot up to the #1 position on the first page.

 

As of this writing, however, it is now gone from the first page and rests around position #44. Google often hand-edits embarrassing results, and that could be the case here. But it also might be the SERPS (search engine result pages) just shaking themselves out. Still, it doesn’t deserve a spot at #44 either, obviously.

If I were to really put on my conspiracy cap, I might say that it was hand-edited down to #44 to make it look as if it were slowly slipping out of the rankings, and then in a day or two (perhaps by the time you read this post), it will have been hand-edited completely out of the SERPS altogether.

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How Did It Get There in the First Place?

Conspiracy aside, the question still remains: How did it get there in the first place?

Some have shed a little light on the domain. Supposedly it was once an active site that actually held the top spot for the term “make money online.” Google then deemed the site to be a spam site, and they shut the owner out of it years ago.  As it was a BlogSpot blog, and Google owns BlogSpot, they could do this. (Some say it was NOT a spam site, but never having seen the original site, I can’t say.)

While all of that makes for interesting backstory, it doesn’t change the fact that the current site looks like this:

 

Fluke!

Of course there can be flukes, even in very competitive spaces such as the “make money online” space.

But that’s not the only “fluke” on Google these days. Take a look at this one.

And here’s the totality of the site that comes in at the #1 spot.

And while this one isn’t exactly a money-maker, it goes to show that this is a problem that spreads across the board.

 

 

So What’s REALLY Going On?

Well, it’s hard to say what’s really going on. Obviously if Google knew what was going on, they wouldn’t have results like those above showing up where they do.

There is a chance that all this above may be related to a very recent change in Google’s algorithm. And while that technological change is, well, technological, there are some other very human-related consequences that are starting to arise from it (and things like it).

In Google’s quest to root out spammers, it would seem it may have “broke the internet.” But how could that be? Well, it may be that Google doesn’t just want to discount spammers; it seems they may want more than that. It seems they may want to punish them — and badly.

Is it this desire for revenge that’s leading Google into whacked out ranking formulas? Is this thirst for blood also turning their enemies more vicious?

Maybe.

This gets a little complicated, but let’s see if we can tie it all together.

 

Google’s Recent Update and Their Motivations

Google recently announced that they have come out with an updated version of their algorithm. We reported that this was coming last month. At that time, Matt Cutts (Google’s lead engineer from their Webspam team) referred to it as a way to combat “over optimization.”

Seeing that the term “over optimization” sent many in the web community into fits of derisive, mocking laughter, Google has moved away from that term and now simply calls it combating “webspam.”

Make no mistake about it, however, this update is meant to combat over-optimization. In other words, it’s meant to devalue sites that seem to have followed Google’s rules too well – for example, sites that put too many instances of a keyword on a page, or sites that get “too many” links with perfectly crafted anchor text.

 

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The Problem in Google’s Eyes

It would appear that the problem, in Google’s eyes, is that people were beginning to more or less figure out their algorithm. Google being Google (arrogant, obnoxious, secretive, bullying, impersonal) didn’t simply want to discount these sites when they found them, they wanted to PUNISH them. They wanted to teach them a lesson. They wanted to show them who was boss. Perhaps, of course, they thought this would dissuade them from ever doing something similar in the future.

That’s all fine and dandy … unless you’ve ever seen a Kung Fu Panda movie. Even a semblance of kung fu in an animated movie can teach you some lessons about redirecting another’s energy away from you.

And that’s exactly what some have started to do. As Google charges at them full force, they have learned that they can redirect that massive Google power and determination away from them. Specifically, they have learned that they can use it to hurt others – i.e. their competition. This is known as Negative SEO.

 

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO has actually been around for a while. Some have claimed to use it for years. As long as Google was doling out penalties, anyone who wanted to could simply turn those penalties onto their competition by doing exactly what Google didn’t want them to do, only for their competitors’ sites, of course.

Comment spam? Sure, give me a 50,000.

Paid links from blog networks? Yeah, I’ll take 10,000.

Forum profile spam? Yes, please. How about 30,000? … No, wait, make it 40,000.

 

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Foul, but No Harm

It used to be that Google said there was practically no way you could harm someone else’s rankings.

But as long as Google’s punishments were meted out blindingly and impersonally by its algorithms, of course that made no sense. If you could hurt your own site with “off-site SEO” (getting spammy inbound links, etc.), then you could obviously hurt someone else’s.

No matter what came out of the mouth of Google, there was simply no getting around that logic.

However, even though it was possible to perform Negative SEO, not many did it. Either they believed Google when they said it wasn’t possible, or they simply chose not to go down such a dark path.

 

The Tides are Turning

Now, however, it seems the tides are turning in the SEO world. As Google tightens every possible noose it can find in the hopes of strangling those it deems spammers, it has unwittingly done two very important things:

  1. It has put the spammers in a corner with their backs against the wall, and …
  2. In its wild-eyed zeal, it has created a lot of collateral damage, wiping many non-spammers off the map

 

The Rise of Negative SEO

Group 2 above, the non-spamming collateral damage group, unfortunately, don’t matter much. They have their businesses wiped away in an instant, and they’re gone. They don’t know what happened, and there’s no one who can tell them how to fix it. They are essentially powerless in this SEO struggle.

If they’re smart, and they can muster the energy again, they come to the conclusion that they need to get away from their Google addiction. In order to do this, most turn to social media. If they can get some traction in social media, ironically enough, Google may start to love them again.

Happy ending, right?

Well, maybe not.

And the answer is “maybe not” because there is still a very pissed off Group 1 from above – those that Google has cornered.

This group doesn’t just want to “go social.” No. They want to get even.

And how will they do that? … Well, they’ll just kung fu Google’s ass.

Enter Negative SEO.

 

A Real Life Example

Dan Thies is pretty famous in the SEO world. He’s known as being “white hat” (as opposed to a “black hat” spammer). He’s also famous enough in the SEO world to be able to chit-chat with Matt Cutts (Head of Google’s Webspam team).

Being chums as they are, and hating spam as they do, Dan and Matt had a nice little exchange via Twitter about some actions Google recently took to devalue paid links from blog networks. (These networks are set up for the sole purpose of buying links. Typically, you buy a subscription from a network, and then submit content to them with links pointing wherever you want them to go.)

Some didn’t like that, it seems, especially a few posters from the forum TrafficPlanet.com. They called Thies “a suck-up-brown-noser.” But that wasn’t all; they decided to target Thies’ site (seofaststart.com) for a Negative SEO case study to see if they could actually negatively affect his rankings.

Results of the Case Study

The reason why many believed Google when they said you couldn’t negatively affect someone else’s rankings was fairly logical.

  1. If you were spamming and gaming the system, you might at first move up in the rankings.
  2. When Google caught on, they would simply discount your spammy links.
  3. You would subsequently fall in the SERPS because your rankings were built on spam that had been removed, NOT because you were “penalized” per se.
  4. Therefore, throwing spammy links at a legitimate site would not affect it. Google didn’t punish for spammy links; they simply discounted spammy links.

All that makes sense. And so to go after an authority site like Thies’ seofaststart.com would be a real test. Thies already had high rankings for competitive terms like “SEO” (#11 in the SERPS according to the testers). These rankings (if we are to believe Thies, and there’s no reason not to) were built from years of strictly white hat SEO.  Therefore, if throwing spam links at Thies’ site affected it negatively, it would be proof of Google “punishing” sites, not simply discounting links they deemed unworthy.


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So What Happened?

Well, one thing that happened was that Dan Thies (as we learn from a post he made on a Google Webmaster Central Forum) got a smart letter from his buddies at Google telling him he had spammy links pointing to his site.

These letters (that a lot of webmasters get, it seems) read in part like this:

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

So, we know that you can definitely get blamed for spammy links to your site even though you weren’t responsible for them. But the question remains – do they matter? Will Google still punish you?

 

Thies’ Rankings Drop

In the forum entry linked to above, Thies says that his rankings weren’t affected. But then a little later on he says that his rankings had gone down; however, he attributed this drop to a change in his WordPress theme.

(This brings up a whole new question about how changing your theme can tank your rankings, but we don’t really have time for that now.)

In the comments on a blog post at SEOBook.com, Thies weighed in some more on his situation, saying that the Negative SEO campaign wasn’t responsible for the drop in his rankings. In fact, he said, he had seen some uptick. A poster claiming to be the original case study author (Jammy from TrafficPlanet) weighed right back in with the following:

I’m not sure who you are trying to fool here? … Ranking for SEO, you started at number 11, now you can’t be found! “Can’t be found” isn’t higher than you were before.

And as of this writing, that’s still true. Searching Google for “seo,” Thies’ site is … um … nowhere in sight.

Here are some results on the keywords targeted by the Negative SEO campaign as reported in the original case study:

  • dan thies – number 1 (still number 1)
  • seo – not in top 1000 (down from number 11)
  • seo service – not in top 1000 (down from number 34)
  • seo book – number 34 (down from number 3)

 

The Larger Questions

While it appears that Thies is adamant that his rankings plummeted for reasons other than Negative SEO, that confidence belies the questions he seems intent on getting answers to in the aforementioned Google Webmaster Forum post.

Namely, he mentions four:

  1. What should a webmaster do when something like this happens?
  2. Will Google still state that what others do on the web should not be able to affect the rankings of one’s web site?
  3. If #2 is not true, does Google realize that they are actually creating a larger market for the spam they want to prevent?
  4. Why, if you find unnatural links, don’t you simply delete the links from your index and carry on?

 

He then goes on to say,

The only reason I am bothering to post anything here now, is to try to get some answers for everyone on whether Google has decided to open up the market for “negative SEO.”

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So Is Negative SEO Possible?

The authors of the Negative SEO case study above seem to think it’s possible. They even left a little message to Matt Cutts saying as much: “Negative SEO is possible. Sort it out!”

(By the way, they also negatively affected another site in the case study at the same time as Thies’ site – negativeseo.me. This site, presumably, did not have a theme change at around the same time. Of course it didn’t have the authority of Thies’ site either.)

And to Thies, they had the following warning, “Next time you want to smugly throw your holier than thou 2 cents into the ring, think before you speak.”

 

Who’s to Blame for Negative SEO?

Case study or no case study, as mentioned before, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if Google will penalize you for spammy links, they will also penalize your competitor for spammy links (regardless of who created them). And there are countless stories on the web of self-inflicted spammy link wounds.

It would appear, therefore, that Google is penalizing for spammy links.

None of this is meant to excuse those who would use Negative SEO. But reality is reality. If it’s possible, some will use it. And the more some use it, the more others will use it.

Google is upset that people try to game their algorithm. I get that. But it appears that they have taken the whole thing a little too personally. It seems they’ve gotten a little too upset and a little too bent on revenge. Why not just discount spam? Is it really their job to “teach spammers a lesson”?

At the moment, it would almost appear as if Google’s lust for blood is greater than its desire for good SERPS. And in this time of cut-throat competition, as they battle everyone from Facebook to Apple to Twitter to Microsoft, search is the absolute ONE thing Google can’t afford to lose on. And for that matter, neither can most of the rest of us.

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Comments (30)

  1. Excellent recap of the situation Joseph. It will be very interesting to see how Google handles this. SEOBook has been saying for years that Google is hypocritical about the whole link buying issue, and now this is proving that a lot of what they’ve been telling us all along is nonsense. Kinda proves that a ‘stealth google-bomb’ will work.

    • Thanks, Paul.

      Yes, Google has said many things over the years that people have proven not to be true. It seems a lot of it is meant to try to intimidate people into doing what their algorithms can’t quite do (at least not consistently).

      Let’s hope some of this leads to a little more transparency.

  2. Yeh good story Joseph,

    This seems childish beyond belief that Google should sit there as Judge, Jury and Executioner! Who gave them that right!

    If this case study is indeed true then Google has got some serious explaining to do and needs to sort it asap. Unless they want their search results to become whoever has the least negative seo wins! Total joke. If this carries on then Bing is gonna get a bigger share in the search market.

    • Thanks, Neil.

      Yes, “the least negative SEO wins,” but then that identifies the true culprit. So maybe it will turn to the most negative SEO wins … until spammers catch on to that, etc., etc., :)

  3. Hey Joseph, great article, the SEO Fast Start books have been free and a good read for years (although not read one since maybe 2008) and that is seemingly a fairly strong case study of a really well established site getting hurt in no time at all. Interesting but scary stuff.

    • Thanks, Marcus.

      Yes, Thies is a respected white-hat guy, and so I’m sure his books are good. The problem is how good can you be acting as a white-hat in a black-hat world? To a large degree, Google has set up this ying-yang world: For every action, an equal and opposite reaction.

  4. Google creates NegativeSEO, so spammers can easily take easily take down your competition… Are these guys crazy????

    “At the moment, it would almost appear as if Google’s lust for blood is greater than its desire for good SERPS. And in this time of cut-throat competition, as they battle everyone from Facebook to Apple to Twitter, search is the absolute ONE thing Google can’t afford to lose on. And for that matter, neither can most of the rest of us.”

  5. Thanks Joseph, Great article! I’ve been following Dan for years and believe he’s been doing what he’s been preaching. – Anyways, black or white, it’s not
    Google’s job to blame anybody and to hammer punishments.
    I Hope, in Google, they’ll put some serious thinking over the next quote of Richard Branson (a true visionary):

    “Explore this next great frontier where the
    bounderies between work and higher purpose
    are merging into one, where doing good
    really is good for business.”

    P.S. I just lost my #1 spot on Google for the keyword phrase having over 1,2B competitors (years of work / complete white hat / Nothing to so with Negative SEO, I think) …don’t even know it’s whereabouts right now :( – Shame on you Google!

  6. Matt Cutts is the www version of Bagdad Bob. He keeps on saying everything is OK and they are gonna continue to fight evil (spammers) and send the intruders (hell)to hell. Just replace the dropping bombs from the sky with dropping websites from the SERPs.
    I think this is all about money, the revenues from AdWords are decreasing so they need to wipe out the 1% that makes money from organic searches and increase their revenues.

  7. Was reading about google’s penguin update this morning and wondering if it would work against competitors.. thanks for the clarification

    not that I would dream of doing such a thing ;)

  8. I am just beginning to educate myself on SEO and it appears I have chosen a really interesting time to do so. I’m not sure whether to say this article is enlightening or the negative, un-enlightening, since what you’re saying is basically that trying to build search engine ranking could, and probably will, have a negative impact on my site’s ranking – at least as far as Google is concerned. Maybe I should avoid using keywords altogether, and somehow discourage others from linking back to my site? Hmm… seems a bit counterproductive. Or maybe I should just stick with a few descriptive keywords and the standard <160 character meta-description. But after reading this article, that seems a bit precarious.

    Just wondering, how much impact do you feel +1 activity might have on search rankings?

    Also, and dare I ask, is it possible that Google is penalizing WordPress sites? After all, it may well be the #1 platform used by spammers. On that same note, could it be that Google is penalizing any sites for which SEO is the main subject matter?

    Anyway, really interesting read. Thanks for sharing! :)

    • Ted – SEO is still important. You should use keywords, but don’t overdo it. You should also get links (but don’t buy them). Some of your competitors may overdo the keywords and get ahead of you (for a while). Some of your competitors may buy links and get ahead of you (for a while). If you want some *really* interesting times, then try to find the best ways to game Google, and then try to find a ways to change quickly when they penalize you. Or, just take the easier route and do simple, basic SEO and then also focus on social media. Some of your competitors may beat you out in certain areas from time to time with tricks, but tricks always go away in the end, and you have to invent new tricks.

      As for +1s, I think they’re important. Google is trying to leverage it’s #1 position in search to make Google+ relevant. One way to do that is to say you can get higher rankings in our search engine by encouraging others to buy into our social system. That may not be “fair” in some people’s eyes (and I have a feeling the govt may one day look into it), but it’s reality.

      As for Google penalizing WordPress sites or SEO sites — I don’t think so. It wouldn’t make sense. There are many more non-spammers using WordPress than spammers. Also, SEO sites compete against themselves. It’s not like they’re getting ahead of sites in a completely different niche.

      • Thanks for the insight, Joseph. I think I’ll take your advice and stick with the simple, basic SEO and focus on working social sites for promotion. I’m too cheap to buy links, so no problem there. I guess my biggest concern is overdoing the keywords, so I’ll just be careful to not do that.

        I’ll keep the +1 buttons on my sites, as I too think they are important. I have two sites currently under construction – one running on Joomla and the other on WordPress. I would just hate to get off on the wrong foot with Google. But then, I’m not going to worry too much about it. Bottom line is if people like what they see, they will be back and they will tell their friends about the site. If not, then I will just have to make the sites better.

        I guess my implication, that Google might be systematically penalizing WordPress and SEO sites was a bit far fetched. Sometimes I have to see my thoughts in print before realizing how ridiculous they might be. :)

    • Really a great stuff you have added, it is really useful. My site has drop down to 4th ranking from 1st.. what should i do in my first step, I need to start optimization or need to do some changes, like checking backlinks and removing bad links or any thing else.. what can you suggest for me.. please share your views

      • Ashwani – Going from 1st to 4th isn’t such a big drop. It wouldn’t appear you have been “penalized” per se. If your rankings just went down in the past week, it might be due to the latest update. The latest algorithm update was mostly about onsite SEO, so you might want to make sure you don’t keyword stuff, etc. The latest update is about “over optimization.”

  9. Surely all Google has to do is not count links from spammy sites!

    This ‘negative SEO’ issue was foreseen. Penalising a site for external links that are mainly not under the control of the target site is unfair and open to competitive abuse.

  10. The only way around this issue is for Google to totally ignore spammy black-links. If there is no positive or negative influence conferred from black-links the market for them evaporates and a big chunk of web spam get’s nuked in one fell blow. The only issue now is successfully identifying spammy-black-links without collateral damage.

  11. We’ve witnessed an example of what we think is Google Penguin triggered negative SEO on recipe blog Italyum.com. They have never engaged in spammy practice but have been clobbered in the rankings just recently. This is what happened – http://webbactivemedia.net/marketing-blog/285-google-penguin-update-could-it-be-used-as-a-weapon.html

    I think Google have made a mistake with this one. The only approach to spammy links is to ignore them surely?

    • Jeremy – You might check to see if you’ve been hacked. Sometimes a hacker will take over your site or parts of it (without it being obvious to you — maybe it’s just for the search engines). They they’ll drive spammy links to your pages in order to help them rank better.

      Here’s one place to check if you’ve been hacked: http://sitecheck.sucuri.net/scanner/

  12. Hey Joseph,

    This is my first comment ever. I have been practicing SEO for the past 4 years. After reading your post I am kind of scared and it is actually scary for the people in the SEO business. Seems like Google wants a war, a cyber war rather than transparent seo practices. God, I hate Google.

    You have written an awesome post there is no doubt about that. I am running 8 SEO projects in my company and one of the project lost ranking. One keyword which was on first position is on 6th and 2 other main keywords went from 4th position to 55th.

    I did received this message in my webmaster tool;

    We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

    Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

    We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

    Do you think I should go for reconsideration report.

    Thank you

  13. Ali,

    If you know why your links are considered unnatural, and you can fix it, then I would suggest doing so and submitting a re-inclusion request.

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