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Negative SEO is a controversial topic in the digital marketing community. If you’ve worked in the industry for long enough, chances are you’ve heard horror stories about how rankings and business has been sabotaged by a negative SEO attack.

But how common is negative SEO, really? Should you be worried about an attack? And is there a way to know if someone is trying to harm your organic search presence with negative SEO?

In this article, we’ll cover the basics of negative SEO, what you can do to prevent an attack and what you can do if you’ve been affected.

What is Negative SEO?

Let’s start with some housekeeping. Negative SEO is a set of activities that are designed to undermine the search engine rankings of a competitor. the most common and the most talked about form of negative SEO are link attacks that knowingly deliver highly spare me, unnatural links to a competitor as a way of triggering a Google penalty.

Services like Fiverr and other freelance worksites have given rise to a slew of low-quality links sellers who can potentially cause harm. In most cases, these links are purchased by websites who are looking to positively impact their search presence (perhaps, naively). However, in other cases, these links sellers are being used by Blackhat marketers who are looking to improve their own search presence by negatively impacting a competitor.

How Did We Get Here?

Negative SEO can be broken up into two very distinct eras. Pre-Penguin update, and post penguin update.

In April 2012, Google rolled out its Penguin update which meant that for the first time ever they would be taking action against sites that were clearly trying to manipulate rankings with unnatural links. The goal of the Penguin update was simple, Google wanted to improve the user experience by removing websites that had unfairly gamed their way to the top of the search engine results.

By removing these sites, Google would be able to deliver more relevant content to users. As a result of Google implementing punitive measures on websites who were attempting to game the system, they unknowingly gave rise to negative SEO link blasts.

Prior to the Penguin update, Google would simply ignore links that they deemed to be unnatural when evaluating the quality of a web page or website. The problem with this system was that webmasters could purchase thousands or even millions of links and reap the rewards of good ones without worrying about the consequences of bad ones. In the post Penguin era, Google scrutinises all incoming links.

How Common is Negative SEO?

There is a multitude of factors that can impact the possibility of your website being attacked with negative SEO. The truth is, if your rankings have suddenly dropped off, the most probable cause is that you have unknowingly implemented changes that have negatively affected your rankings.

While there is a lot of chatter about negative SEO becoming more common, in the last 12 months, we have only worked with two clients who we can say for certain have been affected by a negative SEO attack from a competitor. If we were to put that as a percentage, that’s less than 2% of websites that we have worked with.

negative SEO attack example

At the end of the day, it really comes down to how vindictive your competition is, how competitive your niche is, and a bit of bad luck. Happily, negative SEO isn’t a death sentence for a website. There are plenty of things that you can do to recover your rankings and consolidate organic traffic.

Types of Negative SEO

Negative SEO can be broken up into two distinctive categories: on-site SEO and off-site SEO. That is things that happen on your website that negatively affect your rankings, and things that happen off-site. On-site SEO typically happens when your website has been hacked or you have given access to someone to who is doing things to harm your website (knowingly or otherwise).

This story has been floating around the SEO community for a number of years and details the experience of a client who was scorned by an SEO Agency who decided to disallow their pages and prevent indexing when they dumped them as an agency.

Most negative SEO occurs from off-site attacks because they are a lot easier to implement and harder to trace. Here are a few of the most common off-site negative SEO tactics that we have seen.

Low-Quality Links

Google is pretty good at determining and ignoring unnatural links. Having a few spammy links will not adversely affect your website rankings. As such when a negative SEO attack hits it usually involves hundreds or even thousands of low-quality links all pointing to a few pages on your website.

In most cases, these links will come from low-quality websites with high spin scores and feature keyword rich anchor text. Over the last few years, Google has been particularly hard on websites with a high number of exact match anchor text inbound links, as such having a high number of exact match anchor text from low-quality websites could be viewed by Google as the owner trying to manipulate rankings.

Here is a screenshot of one client that we worked with that was inundated with more than 100 exact match anchor text links from Moore than 50 different domains. As you can see the result was a dramatic drop in rankings. Almost overnight the keyword went from ranking on the first page of Google to obscurity.

The recovery process for this attack was quite simple. Once the link side showed up in Google Search console, we downloaded all of the links into a CSV file and manually combed through for any unnatural links. From there we updated the disavowal tool with a text file of these links. Within a few days rankings return to normal and actually saw a slight boost afterwards.

Content Scraping

Content scraping is the original negative SEO. Well before the penguin update was penalizing users with unnatural link profiles, websites were being affected by content scraping. when Google finds duplicate content across multiple websites it makes it very difficult to know the original source and who should be ranked for the content.

In most cases, Google is able to tell where the original piece of content came from by the date of origin. However, sophisticated content scraping tools mean that content can be stolen within seconds or minutes of being uploaded which makes it difficult for Google to trace back and credit the true owner.

Unlike linked attacks, you can’t upload websites that are scraping your file into a neat text file to let Google know what is happening. The first course of action when you find that content has been scraped from your website is to contact the webmaster. In many cases, the webmaster will remove the content, however, in other cases, these websites are being run by bots which makes it impossible to trace back a human contact. The next course of action would be to flag the website using Google’s copyright infringement report.

Negative Reviews

Negative reviews are not only bad for your SEO, but they’re also bad for business. Negative reviews to your Google my business listing or Facebook account are almost impossible to prevent and just as difficult to have removed. Unfortunately, businesses who are seeing their competitors prosper may view reviews as an easy way to negatively impact their competitor.

negative reviews example

The most important thing that you can do is keep a close eye on your Google my business listing. Fake reviews are in direct violation of Google’s guidelines which state that users should not post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent their identity when reviewing a place. If you are receiving a negative review from someone that you have never done business with or who has created an account solely to leave a negative review, you can flag them with Google.


While there is nothing that you can do to prevent a negative SEO attack on your website, there are definitely steps that you can take to monitor and remove anything that negatively affects your sites search visibility or reputation. If there is one thing that you are going to take away from this article it should be that you need to constantly check Google search console, Google Analytics, and Google my business for any unnatural activity. Working with an SEO Agency like Safari Digital can make things a little easier. We’ve businesses who have been affected by negative SEO attacks and Google manual penalties to recover, consolidate, and prosper.

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