The latest shakeup in the SEO world was ushered in when Google debuted their Penguin update this spring. Alongside the continuously evolving Panda algorithm, it’s certainly stirred the pot in recent months. SEOs are now having to work smarter and harder than ever to maintain top SERPs rankings for their websites. As a consequence of Penguin’s crackdown on so-called unnatural links, it’s imperative that SEOs utilize only relevant, organic links to and from quality websites. Unfortunately, the increased emphasis on link quality has inadvertently allowed Black Hat SEOs to use a technique called negative SEO for their own nefarious ends.
What is Negative SEO?
When Google’s many competing algorithms are attempting to determine the value of a website, they take into account the quality of links pointing at it. Many high-quality links from sites with high authority will pass along that link juice and benefit the target site. You can theoretically pollute a site’s “link profile” by linking to it from a number of low-quality, spam-laden domains with bad reputations. In other words, the primary objective of negative SEO is to downgrade competitors’ sites and consequently elevate your own in the organic rankings for any given set of keywords.
Why Negative SEO Fears are Misplaced
All of that may sound pretty frightening at first, but the reality on the ground is less sensational. Negative SEO isn’t a new tactic, but it has taken on added significance since Penguin rolled out a few months back. Fortunately for all of us, it’s not in Google’s interest to make this easy to do and it’s my belief that there is a rapidly developing algorithm to try and prevent this from being an issue.
It’s still worth keeping an eye out for suspicious referring links using Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics to alert you to negative SEO attack efforts though. I had a recent incident involving an unscrupulous competitor and was able to track the attempt from inception to, ultimately, its utter failure to make any impact on my site.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Despite the safeguards put in place by Google to prevent the bad guys from abusing the system, it’s still possible for less than reputable SEOs to hurt your sites in the SERPs. A concerted effort by your competition will damage your site’s link profile in the short term, but you’re likely to receive an unnatural link warning from Google apprising you of the situation. The reality is that you’re more likely to hurt yourself with unnatural links than others are, as the returns just aren’t worth the effort for Black Hat SEOs.
Google’s Official Negative SEO Stance
SEO heavyweights have been raising objections to Penguin’s impact on negative SEO since day one. Quite a few webmasters have brought up the idea of a Link Disavowal Tool similar to Bing’s bad link utility for disowning spam connections. While Google’s management tends to remain mum on algorithm matters, SEO overlord Matt Cutts often weighs in on community concerns if they become pressing. While Google has backtracked somewhat on their position that negative SEO isn’t a concern at all, the truth is that things like 302 hijacking are probably a bigger threat in real world scenarios.
The Real Deal
When all is said and done, negative SEO is less of a danger to most webmasters than the fear mongers would have you believe. Although it is possible to be downgraded to some extent in the SERPs by malicious linking efforts, it’s not really something that the average person needs to worry about too much. Just keep an eye on your incoming links via Google Webmaster Tools and focus the majority of your time producing great content and building great links; the more of those you have, the less likely you are to be impacted by any attempted hit.