The Google Penguin update, launched last month, punishes sites participating in dodgy paid link schemes by removing them from the search results.
Now, post-Penguin, the Internet marketing industry is debating whether the algorithm change has become a charter for negative SEO.
Negative SEO is essentially search sabotage: giving competitors a Google Minus, if you will.
The idea is to use underhand, blackhat SEO techniques on a competitor's website – as though the competitor had done it themselves. Google sees dodgy SEO activity on the competitor site, and downranks it as a result. Your site then sails up the rankings as your sabotaged competitors disappear.
It's a horrible strategy.
Penguin's introduction was supposed to bolster honest, white hat SEO: not destroy it.
But some commentators claim that by arbitrarily downranking sites with unnatural link profiles, Penguin has made negative SEO strategies a very stark reality.
One of the main problems is that most small websites can't actually control their own inbound links. Bigger companies can afford lawyers to run round getting dodgy sites to remove links. Smaller sites cannot.
If you run a small e-commerce site, which currently ranks on the first page for your core products, will your business survive on Google's first page if a nefarious competitor aims 50,000 bad links in your direction?
Some experts say it would be too hard to make negative SEO foolproof, and it would essentially be impossible to downrank well-established sites because of Google's other ranking factors.
Negative SEO has always been in existence and it's not something Google would want to promote.
Yes, Penguin has made backlinks a dangerous factor for all sites, but in reality, it shouldn't really increase the prevalence of negative SEO campaigns.
That's partly because backlinks are just one metric Google uses to analyse the quality of a website. The basic idea is the more backlinks a site has, the more trustworthy it must be, the more useful its content must be, and the more valuable it is to a searcher.
Sites like the BBC, Daily Mail or Wikipedia have massively strong link profiles, and they rank very well for a huge number of search terms as a result. Their SEO work, compared to smaller, less-known sites, is pretty much an effortless process.
Smaller sites are judged on the same metrics as massive global brands, and that includes backlinks.
Some experts have cited examples of negative SEO campaigns actually working on smaller sites – especially as SMEs don't have the international recognition or consumer loyalty of bigger brands.
The advice for vigilant SEOs is to stay vigilant. You should be checking sites for evidence of negative SEO campaigns anyway – and there are some steps you can perform to help protect you against this kind of underhand campaign.
If you notice a spike in unnatural-looking backlinks, work quickly to try to get them removed. Contact sites who have given you positive links and establish a line of communication. If those links are suddenly removed by a fraud, you have more chance of getting the link back.
Other negative SEO tactics to look out for include crawlers sent to your site to scrape it and slow down load times – this can cause visitors to bounce very quickly, so you should always be checking the IPs visiting your site, and blocking potential crawlers.
Stealing content from competitor websites before Google has indexed it is another means of sabotage. If Google sees your content on a competitor site first, it will discount yours as duplicate or plagiarism (even though you wrote the piece). Using rel=canonical tags can help prevent this.
Other tactics can be harder to deal with: this includes spamming review sites with bad reviews, or even with good reviews, as a huge swathe of positive reviews (especially from the same IP address) would immediately appear dodgy to Google.
The first iteration of Penguin was always going to have a few creases to be ironed out.
It's unlikely Penguin can be refreshed to recognise whether a site owner or webmaster has paid for backlinks, or whether a competitor has attempted to sabotage them.
But it's also highly unlikely that Google will allow negative SEO success stories to become the norm.
Something's got to give.
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