Negative SEO can hurt your website and your search work, even if your rankings aren't affected by it. In this week's Whiteboard Friday, search expert Russ Jones explains what negative SEO is, what it can affect beyond rankings, and gives tips on how to combat it.

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Transcript of the video

All right, everyone. I'm Russ Jones and I'm very excited to have the opportunity to present on "Defense Against the Dark Arts" I'm not going to pretend that I'm a big Harry Potter fan, but regardless, this is going to be fun.

But what I want to talk about today is actually pretty bad. It's about the reality that negative SEO, while completely ineffective in achieving its primary goal of getting your website out of the rankings, will still wreak havoc on your website and the likelihood that you or your customers will be able to make correct decisions in the future and improve your rankings.

Today, I'm going to talk about why negative SEO still matters, even if your rankings aren't affected, and then I'm going to talk about some techniques that you can use to mitigate some of the negative SEO techniques and also to make sure that whoever is attacking you gets hurt a little bit in the process, maybe. Let's talk a little bit about negative SEO.

What is negative SEO?

The most common form of negative SEO is someone buying tens of thousands of spammy links, even hundreds of thousands, using all sorts of different software, and directing them to your site in the hopes of what we used to call "Google bowling," which is to eliminate you from the search results in the same way that a bowling ball knocks down a pin.

The hope is that this is some sort of false flag campaign, that Google thinks you went out and got all these spammy links to try to improve your rankings, and now Google has caught you and therefore penalized you. But in reality, it was someone else who acquired those links. Now, to their credit, Google has done a pretty good job of ignoring these types of links.

In my experience, in most cases, negative SEO campaigns don't really affect rankings the way they're supposed to, and I give a lot of caveats to that because I've seen them certainly work. But in the majority of cases, all those spammy links are simply ignored by Google. But that's not the whole story. That's not the whole story.

Problem #1: Corrupted data

You see, the first problem is that if you have 100,000 links pointing to your site, what's really happening in the background is that there's a corruption of data that's important to make decisions about search results.

This makes you exceed the data limits in the CMS

For example, if you get 100,000 links pointing to your site, that will put you over the limit of the number of links Google Search Console will give you in the various link reports.

Pushing the right links

This means that in the second case, there are probably links, that you should know or care about, that don't appear in the report simply because Google limits the total number of links to 100,000 in the export.

This is a big problem, because if you're trying to make decisions to improve your rankings and you can't access the link data you need because it's been replaced by hundreds of thousands of spammy links, you won't be able to make the right decision.

Increased cost to see all your data

The other big problem here is that there are ways around the problem.

You can get the data of more than 100,000 links pointing to your site. You will just have to pay for it. You can go to Moz and use our Link Explorer tool, for example. But you will have to increase your spending to get access to the accounts that will actually provide you with all this data.

The major problem behind this is that even though we know that Google ignores most of these links, it doesn't tell us in a useful way. Even after having access to all this link data, all these hundreds of thousands of spammy links, we still can't be sure which ones are important and which ones aren't.

Problem #2: Copied Content

This is not the only type of negative SEO that exists. It is by far the most common, but there are others. Another common type is to take the content you have and distribute it around the web in the manner of article syndication. If you're new to SEO, one of the old ways to improve rankings was to write an article on your site and then syndicate it to a number of article websites, who would then publish your article and link back to you.

The reason these sites do this is because they hope to, in some cases, outrank your website and in doing so, get traffic and possibly make money with AdSense. But for the most part, this type of industry has died out because it hasn't been effective for some time. But again, that's not all.

No award

If all of your content is distributed to all of these other sites, even if it doesn't affect your rankings, it means that it's possible for someone to access your quality content without any form of attribution.

If they've removed all the links, all the names and all the signatures, it's your hard-earned work that's being exploited, even though Google isn't really the arbiter of whether or not traffic is coming to that article anymore.

Internal links become syndicated links

Then, if they don't remove the attribution, any internal links you had in that article in the first place that point to other pages on your site, become syndicated links, which are part of the link patterns that Google has always pursued.

In the same kind of situation, it's not just about the intent behind the type of negative SEO campaign. It's about the impact it has on your data, because if someone syndicates one of your articles that has, say, eight links to other internal pages and they syndicate it to 10,000 websites, well, you just got 80,000 new links that should have be internal links, now external links pointing to your site.

We actually know that a few years ago, several major brands got into trouble for syndicating their news content to other news sites. I'm not saying that negative SEO would necessarily trigger the same kind of penalty, but it is a possibility. Even if it doesn't trigger that penalty, there's a good chance it's tainting the waters in terms of link data.

Problem #3: Malicious no-follow links and pirated content

There are a few other types of negative SEO that aren't talked about much.

Malicious links not followed in the UGC

For example, if you have user-generated content on your site, like comments for example, even if you don't follow those comments, the links in them can point to things like malware.

We know that Google will eventually identify your site as unsafe if it finds these types of links.

Pirated content

Unfortunately, in some cases, there are ways to make it look like there are links on your site that are not really under your control, such as HTML injection. For example, you can do this to Google right now.

You can inject HTML on the page of a part of its website to make it look like there is a link to someone else. If Google were to crawl itself, which fortunately is not the case here, if it were to crawl that page and find that malicious link, the entire domain in Google's search results would probably start to indicate that this site might not be safe.

Of course, there is always the problem of pirated content, which is becoming more and more popular.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt

It all boils down to the concept of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). You see, it's not so much about getting you out of the search engines. It's about making SEO no longer possible.

1. Losing access to critical data

It's been at least a decade since everyone started saying they were using data-driven SEO tactics and strategies. Well, if your data is corrupted, if you lose access to critical data, you won't be able to make intelligent decisions. How will you know if the reason your page lost ranking to another has anything to do with links if you can't access the link data you need because it's been filled with 100,000 spammy links?

2. Unable to discern the cause of the loss of ranking

This brings us to the second point. It is impossible to discern the cause of the ranking loss. It could be duplicate content. It could be a problem with those hundreds of thousands of links. It could be something completely different. But because the waters have been muddied so much, it's very difficult to determine exactly what's going on, and that of course makes SEO less certain.

3. Make referencing uncertain

As it becomes more uncertain, other advertising channels become more valuable. Paid search becomes more valuable. Social media is becoming more valuable. This is a problem if you're an SEO agency or consultant, because you have the real likelihood of losing clients because you can no longer make smart decisions for them, their data having been damaged by negative SEO.

It would be really wonderful if Google would show us in Google Search Console the links it ignores and then allow us to export only the ones it is interested in. But something tells me that this is probably beyond what Google is willing to share. So do we have a way to fight back? There are a few.

How to defend yourself against negative SEO?

1. Burned canonical pages

If you've seen some of my other Whiteboard Fridays, chances are you've heard me talk about canonical pages to burn. To put it simply, when you have an important page on your site that you intend to rank, you should create another version of it that is identical and has a canonical link pointing to the original. Any type of link building you do, you should point to that canonical page.

The reason is simple. If someone is doing negative SEO, they are going to have two choices. Either they're going to do it on the page that's linked or they're going to do it on the page that's ranked. Normally, they're going to do it on the page that's ranked. If that's the case, you can get rid of that page and keep the canonical burn page because it doesn't have any of those negative links.

Or if they choose the canonical burn page, you can get rid of it and keep your original page. Yes, this means you sacrifice the hard-earned links you acquired in the first place, but it's better than losing that opportunity completely in the future.

2. Integrated stylized attribution

Another possibility, which I find quite sneaky and fun, is what I call built-in stylized attribution.

You can imagine my content might say "Russ Jones says this and that and so on" Imagine surrounding "Russ Jones" with H1 tags, and then a span tag with a class that makes the H1 tag below it the normal size text.

Most likely, if they are using one of these content copying techniques, they are not copying your CSS either. When the content is published on all these other sites, your name or whatever phrase you want to appear in big letters. This won't really solve your problem, except that it's very frustrating for whoever is trying to mess with you.

But sometimes that's enough to make them stop.

3. Link lists

The third tool, the one I really recommend, is Link Lists. This is a feature of Moz's link explorer, which allows you to track the links that point to your site. As you get links, real links, good links, add them to a link list, and that way you will always have a list of links that you know be good, which you can compare to the list of links that could be tainted by a negative SEO campaign.

By using link lists, you can discern the difference between what Google really ignores, at least to some extent, and what really matters. I hope this is helpful to you to some extent. But unfortunately, I have to say that at the end of the day, a sufficiently well run negative SEO campaign can make the difference between using SEO or not in the future.

It may not eliminate you from Google, but it can make other types of marketing better choices. So I hope this has helped you. I'd love for you to talk in the comments about different ways to deal with negative SEO, like how to track down the people responsible. So go ahead and fill out those comments with your questions or ideas.

I'd love to hear them. Thanks again and I look forward to talking to you in another Whiteboard Friday.

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