Good SEO is like the people who offer small samples of free food outside of restaurants to encourage you to buy a main meal. If the food is worthwhile the main meal might be a good idea. Negative SEO is akin to offering bad samples outside of a competitors business. There is no question that this is unethical. Most people are more worried about whether it is easy to detect.
For several years the distinction between white hat and black hat SEO techniques was the main concern when increasing a sites rankings. White hat techniques were valid ways of making a site better, thereby impressing Google and boosting the rankings. Black hat techniques were underhanded ways of just looking better and increasing your rankings by artificial means. Google didn’t take to this underhanded black hat method, which relied on loopholes and tricks, so it quickly took to penalizing the offender’s sites as soon as the tricks were discovered. Only some unethical souls found a way to exploit this.
Negative SEO is using the Google penalization against a competitor. It is possible to affect a competitor’s site with things like suspect links and fake reviews. It is also quite possible to duplicate a site’s content and post it elsewhere, thereby making it seem unoriginal. As Google openly penalizes many of these thing the site falls in the rankings, and the competition rises by default.
Of course the Google Company is quite aware of this, and is no more happy about it that anybody else affected. They do offer a Disavow tool to deal with questionable links, but this reportedly takes 2 – 4 weeks to function. It does works on all the questionable links together, but a few weeks lower in the rankings can have a major impact on business. This assumes that you actually recognize when a Negative SEO attack has occurred.
The general consensus is that the Negative SEO phenomena is quite real, but not a widespread as thought; the reports are exaggerated. People who pay attention to Google Webmaster tools should already receive notification when attacked by malware, or when there is anything else suspicious. People not already using Google Webmaster tools should access it immediately.
As one popular negative SEO technique is making low quality backlinks. There are tools, such as MonitorBacklinks.com., that will notify you by email if your backlinks are altered. As these services work in a matter of minutes you can be notified of any issues before you Google ranking is altered. This has the added advantage of notifying you if any good links are altered. It is possible for hackers to get Google to remove valid links to your site by pretending to be you and using the disavow tool, though Google tend to be reasonably savvy to this.
Duplicate content problems can also be handled with a tool, in this case called Copyscape.com. This can also be achieve manually by searching for a paragraph of your website’s text. In any case the publication of the original text is usually known by Google, so proving authorship isn’t too difficult as long as the original has been indexed first.
Negative SEO is basically sabotage. In short, site managers need to watch for:
– Dodgy backlinks made to your site, especially links to cheap advertising.
– Good backlinks being removed from the site by Disavow. A serious problem!
– Fake reviews being posted to the site, made to look like self-made reviews.
– Servers being overloaded by repeated crawling, causing crashes or slow access.
– Content from your site being duplicated and deemed unoriginal, especially a problem if it had not been indexed.
It might well help if Google altered their algorithms so that quality links are still credited but with poor links being ignored rather than penalized. A site would only be ranked well if it has good quality links; who cares if it has bad quality links as well. A site with only bad links would (appropriately) do quite poorly, and a site that has poor links added by an unscrupulous rival would not be penalized. I would be surprised of this has not occurred to anybody else; perhaps there is an unseen limitation.
Google spokespersons claim that they work hard to prevent this kind of abuse, that underhanded SEO can be detected most of the time, and that most sites should have no cause for concern