ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Our CEO Ali Husayni recently shared a chilling blog post with the SEO team that discussed how to kill competitors’ ranking on Google.
The author, Jared Bates, listed three techniques that a competitor could theoretically use to attack another company’s website and cripple their business by causing their rankings to tank.
“Someone can easily sabotage your search engine presence,” wrote Bates, who is an affiliate marketer. “These techniques are the worst of the worst, although there is really no reason to think they would not work. They violate all of Google’s terms almost simultaneously, yet there are little safeguards implemented to protect us against them.”
Thankfully, the Millionairium website has not been a victim of a negative SEO campaign and neither have any of our clients. Husayni has a decade of experience in search engine marketing and has seen plenty of companies use unscrupulous tactics, but he said the article still sent shivers down his spine.
The internet marketing community has been buzzing about negative SEO with many top SEO bloggers weighing in with opinions. The topic has gotten so much attention that Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web spam team, addressed it in a video on Dec. 18.
“Most people don’t need to worry about this,” reassured Cutts. “If you’re just a regular mom and pop, you’re a small business, this is not the sort of thing where you are likely in any way, shape or form to run up against this.”
Extremely competitive niche markets such as casinos were the exception. Cutts pointed out that although a lot of people have been stressed about the possibility of negative SEO, so far Google has observed very few instances of actual attacks. On Oct. 16 last year, Google released a tool that they claim is a simple way to diffuse potential attacks: disavow links tool.
Users can upload a text file list to Google and tell them which links they want the algorithm to ignore or to not count when determining the ranking. For example, if an SEO scammer tried to send thousands of low-quality inbound links to an online gambling website, the site’s webmaster could use the disavow links tool to tell Google to ignore those links and avoid a penalty.
“In theory, this should be a good tool to combat negative SEO if you’re actually experiencing it, though there is no guarantee that Google will actually ignore the links you tell it to,” writes Chris Crum in a WebProNews post.
In a question and answer section in the official blog post announcing the tool, Google explained:
This tool allows you to indicate to Google which links you would like to disavow, and Google will typically ignore those links. Much like with rel=”canonical”, this is a strong suggestion rather than a directive — Google reserves the right to trust our own judgment for corner cases, for example — but we will typically use that indication from you when we assess links.
While Google said it might be rare, there are some cases of negative SEO, such as Robert Prime, a web developer who had a site designed to help people sell their cars sabotaged by competitors before he even officially launched it. Although he admits to using black hat SEO techniques with previous sites, he decided to strictly use organic SEO for his new site. To his dismay, he noticed a sharp drop in rankings and discovered his site had been blasted with more than 13,000 bad links just before the drop. Prime opted to use the disavow links tool and hoped that Google would show mercy, but on Twitter a month later, Prime said the site was still not doing well despite disavowing them.
Google said that the process can take multiple weeks since they have to recrawl and reindex the URLs a company has disavowed before the disavowals go into effect.
“The disavow tool taking months is a token gesture that doesn’t near cover things,” said Prime in the comments section on his blog post.
Like the founder of SEO Book Aaron Wall mentioned in the comment section, someone with ill intent could easily cause 10 hours of link cleanup work each week with only $10, an anonymous email account and some gift cards. Or they spend $20 daily and make it where cleaning up links is all the person under attack has time for, which Wall called a pretty stupid, perhaps evil, incentive structure by Google.
“It’s not very hard for a software to produce 10 million bad links and direct them to different pages of a website from different URLs,” said Mahdi M. Zadeh, who is one of our SEO experts in the sales department. “How can it be affordable or even possible for a human or a team of humans to sit down and clean up the mess a high-performance machine created in no time? Then the victim of the attack is penalized by Google and has to spend more for Google AdWords to stay visible in search results.”
In the race to rank at the top of Google, there will always be individuals that attempt to harm competitors with unethical tactics, but according to Husayni there is a way to help prevent potential damage to a website. The main tactic is to keep a close eye on the site’s backlink profile.
He recommended doing this by downloading a complete list of links pointing to the site, marking any that came from the negative SEO attack and submitting those links using the disavow links tool. Just disavow with caution because, used incorrectly, the feature can potentially harm a site’s performance in Google’s search results.
“Google needs to accept responsibility for the mess it made and take more aggressive measures, even consider algorithm changes, to correct the problem,” said Zadeh. “In the meantime, people will have to use the disavow tool.”