Negative Search Engine Optimisation

Negative Search Engine Optimisation – Are Your Competitors Shady?

There’s an old saying… “If you hear a lie often enough, it becomes the truth!”

Google used to say repeatedly that there was absolutely no way that anyone could negatively affect anyone else’s website search engine listings by under-hand means. This “truth” was believed by many. Most online marketers now know for certain what we have all known for years. Negative Search Engine Optimisation is not only possible but rife, especially in eCommerce.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is the practise of using tactics that will harm a competing website’s search engine listings purposefully, to gain a commercial advantage.

Whilst there are many online marketing companies globally willing to promote a website in exchange for money, there are arguably a faster growing number of companies and individuals willing to damage reputation, search engine listings and revenue for a fee. The easy Search Engine Optimisation gravy train is well and truly over, it seems many are turning to the ‘dark side’ in order to keep the money coming in…

Popular crowd sourcing websites like Fiverr advertise these sorts of services all the time and these sorts of ‘black hat’ techniques have been continually practised since search engines came into being.

Early Negative SEO

Those of you with long memories may remember the protracted and at times quite humorous efforts to damage the reputation of George W Bush, who was running for presidential election in 2004. The so-called “Google Bomb” campaign against Mr. Bush ( ) utilised Google’s algorithms to promote several George W Bush related websites and pages for terms including “miserable failure” and many others which were not quite so broadcast-able!

The Google Bomb technique employed link building to rank a page for any terms the attacker wished. In the past (before Google updates designed to deflate this technique) it was possible to use targeted linking to rank websites and pages for some very competitive terms, however this loophole has all but been closed by the Google Penguin update in 2012 and further refinement of ranking algorithms.

That doesn’t mean negative SEO is dead and buried, current techniques make a bit of political name calling pale into insignificance, especially for eCommerce retailers…

Modern Negative Link Building

Google Penguin and later inclusion of the technologies used in Penguin into Google’s core algorithms were designed to penalise both paid and spammy link building techniques. Using targeted anchor text, it used to be possible to rank a page or entire website in Google’s search results for very competitive, money rich keyphrases using anchor text manipulation alone.

As initially Google started to penalise those using spammy, manipulative link building of this type to promote websites gave rise to negative link building, where a competitor would deliberately build links with exact match anchor text to a competing website in order to trip Google’s spam filters.

Google’s Gary Illyes has publicly stated that Google no longer penalise for spammy links, but instead devalue those links, here is what he said:

“Traditionally, webspam algorithms demoted whole sites. With this one we managed to devalue spam instead of demoting AND it’s also more granular AND it’s realtime.”

This should mean that negative link building won’t work going forward however from first hand experience on our own client sites I can tell you it does… sometimes with great effect and sometimes having the opposite effect and promoting the website in search results. In any case, as the owner of an eCommerce website you really should be monitoring external links to make sure nothing ‘fishy’ is going on…

Paid tools like Moz and Majestic SEO are better at highlighting negative link building techniques than Google’s own search console, but if you have a limited budget you should look at inbound links in Search Console anyway, this can definitely give you indications that something nefarious is going on.

Cracked Website?

Websites infected with spam, viruses or trojans are dangerous and Google really hates them. Allow your website to get cracked by a competitor and your eCommerce business is immediately in a World of pain!

Even if the attacker who has managed to access critical areas of your website doesn’t do irreparable damage to your website content or server setup, many businesses have gone under in spectacular fashion purely because of the reputational damage caused by a cracked website.

Google search console is your ally here. Google monitor the safety of websites cached in their index very closely and if your website has been cracked by someone and rogue code inserted then you will get a notification pretty quickly.

What can you do to protect against this sort of attack on your business? Well going fully secure (using the https protocol) throughout your site is the first step, this helps with ranking in Google as well. Unfortunately, eCommerce sites especially those based on popular platforms are prone to intrusion unless both the structure of the eCommerce framework and any plugins are secure. Hosting technologies employed also need to be geared towards security.

First thing to remember here is that you must make sure website, database and server setup is backed up regularly. In many cases of this type of intrusion, this is an eCommerce website owner’s only defence against permanent damage, however do bear in mind that Google has a pretty long memory… better that you don’t let anyone get into your website in the first place!

Negative Review Spam

The first thing many people do nowadays before purchasing anything online is to look at reviews of the company they are buying from. Having a good review profile can in many cases be the difference between clinching a sale and a potential buyer going elsewhere. Negative review spam is now big business and something you should monitor very carefully!

Again, there are companies offering mass negative reviews to damage reputation and reduce click/purchase rates on competing websites. The damage caused by these types of attacks is immeasurable and long lasting. The only way to protect against these types of attacks is to choose a review system that has verification of purchases from the reviewed store or business. Trustpilot do this very well as do a couple of others.

Whatever you do… be vigilant. Take professional advice if you suspect an attack on your eCommerce website and act quickly. Doing an Ostrich impression is definitely not an option!


David Fairhurst

Head of eCommerce

Intelligent Retail

David has been involved with Search Engine Optimisation and web development since 1999 and has spoken at many different retail and SEO conferences including Spring Fair and SES London