How to Protect Your Organization’s Online Reputation from Negative SEO
Competition is healthy. To be on top of the game, some organizations though employ dirty tactics like the negative SEO.
What is Negative SEO
Search engine giant Google allows “white hat” search engine optimization (SEO) – defined as the legitimate ways of optimizing a site for search engines. What Google doesn’t allow are illegitimate ways of optimizing a site for search engines called “black hat” SEO.
Negative SEO falls under black hat SEO. Negative SEO is the act of sabotaging a competitor’s ranking in search engines. A competitor wanting to sabotage your ranking in search engines may build hundreds or thousands of spammy links to your website.
History of Spammy Links and Their Effects on Search Engine Results
A few years back, some organizations were able to successfully rank high on Google’s results by using spammy links. In early February 2011, the New York Times published an article that showed how J. C. Penney, an American department store chain, was able to successfully ranked number one on Google’s results for close to a dozen keywords by using spammy links.
To understand how J.C. Penney rose to the top of Google’s results, let’s understand how Google at that time ranked websites organically – not including paid advertisements.
In early February 2011, Google used hundreds of criteria for ranking websites in its search engine. These criteria are well-guarded secret by Google to prevent people from manipulating the search engine results. But one criterion used by Google to rank websites at the time was exposed and abused: links from one site to another.
At the time, links – regardless of their origin, whether from low quality sites or high quality sites – were considered by Google as votes of approval, listing sites with high number of links on top of its search engine results.
This happened to J.C. Penney. The New York Times report found that 2,015 pages with keyword “dress” bounced directly to the main page for dresses on JCPenney.com, making the company then the number one on Google’s search result for the keyword “dress”.
While some of these web pages were related to dresses, some weren’t. Sites such as nuclear.engineeringaddict.com; casino-focus.com; and bulgariapropertyportal.com were examples of sites with keyword “dress” that bounced directly to the main page for dresses on JCPenney.com in early February 2011.
Darcie Brossart, spokeswoman for J. C. Penney, told the New York Times, “J. C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies.”
Few hours after the New York Times’ revelation, Google placed Penney under what it calls “manual action”, demoting the site, for instance, in the keyword “Samsonite carry on luggage” from its number one position to number 71; and in the keyword “living room furniture”, from number one to number 68.
In April 2012, Google rolled out “Penguin” – an update in its search engine criteria, affecting 3.1% of queries in English. The Penguin update, in effect, demoted sites with spammy links.
While the Penguin update halted the practice of organizations from building spammy links to rank higher on Google’s results, this update emboldened some unscrupulous organizations to bring down the search ranking of their competitors by using spammy links.
In spammy links, Google has no way of finding who created the links. What Google does in the 2012 Penguin update was to demote the site which supposedly benefited from the spammy links. Your competitors may link unrelated sites – worst cases are porn sites and other low quality sites – to your site.
In September 2016, Google rolled out an additional update on Penguin, this time, devaluing the link spam instead of demoting the site it is directed at.
Disavow Links Tool
In a blog post dated October 16, 2012, Matt Cutts, former head of the web spam team at Google, said that his team is aware of negative SEO. Cutts’ first recommendation to victims of negative SEO was then to contact the sites that link to your site and ask site owners to get these links taken off the public.
If the links aren’t taken down despite your request, Cutts’ then recommended the use of Google’s Disavow Links tool. “In general, Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking,” Cutts’ said. “However, if you're worried that some backlinks might be affecting your site's reputation, you can use the Disavow Links tool to indicate to Google that those links should be ignored.”
Negative Effects of Spammy Links
Spammy links won’t immediately go away when you use Google’s Disavow Links tool. It takes days and in some cases months for spammy links to disappear from the search engine.
While the spammy links are still in limbo on the internet, these may affect the bounce rate of your website. Bounce happens when a visitor to your website only views one page and then leaves your site. Is a high bounce rate a bad thing? According to Google, bounce rate can either be good or a bad thing.
“If the success of your site depends on users viewing more than one page, then, yes, a high bounce rate is bad,” Google said. “On the other hand, if you have a single-page site like a blog, or offer other types of content for which single-page sessions are expected, then a high bounce rate is perfectly normal.”
Prevention is the Key
In dealing with negative SEO or spammy links, it’s important to be proactive. Use tools that automatically detect spammy links. Contact the site owner if you notice a spammy link. If this request is disregarded, use Google’s Disavow Links tool.
Remember that aside from spammy links, Google has more than 200 criteria as basis for ranking your organization’s website. “The web has significantly changed over the years, but as we said in our original post, webmasters should be free to focus on creating amazing, compelling websites,” Google said.
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