This article is a summary of everything I could find that was a statement from Google in regards to negative SEO. Do they admit that it can happen? Is it a common occurrence. In a few places in this article I have given my opinion or commentary, but the majority of the article is quoted from Google employees. You might be interested in similar articles:
This article was written in order to complement my Moz post that goes into greater detail discussing whether negative SEO actually happens, whether you should worry about it, and what you should do if you suspect it is happening.
The majority of the quotes in this particular article come from Google employee John Mueller in his Webmaster Central Hangouts. But there is some information from head of webspam, Matt Cutts as well.
Can someone affect your site by building unnatural links to it?
John Mueller: “With negative SEO, most people mean that a competitor is creating bad links for your website...we work really hard to prevent these things from causing any problems. We work hard on our algorithms to try to recognize these kind of problems and catch them ahead of time. In practice I rarely see any issues around that and when I do see an issue where I think that maybe this is created by a competitor then usually the team is willing to look into the details and see what happened there and make sure that this isn’t an issue that is artificially causing problems for a website.”
Question: “How do you identify whether it is something that is created by another website?”
John: “Sometimes that’s tricky. Other times it’s a little bit easier. It really depends on the individual cases. In the forums we’ve seen things like people saying, ‘Oh...a competitor is doing negative SEO on my site. Look at these links!’ and then when we look into the details it’s something that has been happening regularly for the past 7 or 8 years. So that’s something where if this is really a competitor that has been promoting your website for the past 7 or 8 years that seems strange that suddenly this is something that you’re not wanting to be associated with. It’s something where we really try to look into the details….In many cases where we see a people saying, ‘Oh look, my competitor went and bought 1000 links on this site’, we look into that and say, ‘Well, our algorithms are ignoring these links already so it’s not something that we need to worry about.’ From a practical point of view I think it’s a good idea to keep on top of what is going on with your website but for the most part it’s not something where I see issues in practice.”
Marie's comments: This seems to be a common thread in Google's discussions on negative SEO. If they see a pattern of unnatural linking that goes back several years then they are likely going to assume that you were the one responsible for the bad links.
Question: “Let’s suppose my competitor is piling up 1000 or 2000 bad links every day and it would be very difficult for a person to remove those links manually. In that case, what should a company do?”
John: “What you could do is put those domain names in a disavow links file and take them out on a domain level. So, if there are 10,000 links on one site then just adding an entry to the disavow links file will essentially take care of that. It’s not something that you can’t handle at all but really in the cases where you think that this is really a significant problem I’d go to the disavow links file to resolve it there. But in most other cases when we see this just randomly happening to websites usually that’s something that our algorithms notice anyway and not something that you need to handle on your side.
Marie's comments: The point here is that in most cases Google's algorithms should be able to recognize when a massive attack of spam links happens. But, just to be sure (because no algorithm is 100% perfect) it's not a bad idea to disavow unnatural links that you see.
Can a competitor use the Penguin algorithm against you?
Question: “People are finding ingenious ways to play with the Penguin algorithm. I don’t think the negative SEO thing has ever not been a problem. The guidelines have changed from saying it’s not possible, to ‘it could be possibly but not likely’ and who knows what in the future.”
John: “It’s something that we work really hard on - making sure that you can’t randomly cause problems for other websites. To a large extent many of the cases that have been escalated in that area are weird situations where when we look at the details it seems that the webmaster’s active on some blackhat forums and maybe they’ve been building these links that they say their competitor has built over the course of the last 7 or 8 years. We’d say, ‘OK. A competitor is probably persistent but maybe not that persistent.’ There are a lot of situations where we look into the details and try to figure out exactly what happened there as much as we can and we see that the stories don’t match up. Of course, it’s always possible that there are individual stories that we get wrong and we’d love to have that feedback to see what we can do there to make sure that, on the one hand our algorithms are doing the right things there and on the other hand that from a manual point of view we make sure to keep those things outside of any situation where they would cause problems.”
“If you see examples of where you think we’re getting it wrong, that’s definitely something we’d want to take a look at. This is something where we spend a lot of time making sure that our algorithms are kind of secure against this kind of manipulation and from a manual point of view that we do the right thing in regards to those kind of things. In some cases what we do is just discount those specific links and say, ‘OK. It looks like the webmaster didn’t have anything to do with this. This is something we can completely discount.’”
“Sometimes we see an example of where someone is trying to do reputation management...’Ah, I found a nice little article about me. I’ll buy a lot of links and point them at this article so that it ranks high.’ From our point of view that’s not something that you’re doing to artificially promote your website but at the same time it’s skewing our web results so what we might do there is take manual action specifically on those links and say, ‘This is something we’re not going to count in our algorithms. You don’t have to do anything about it. This is something we’re removing from causing any kind of effect.’”
Question: “People are going into forums and buying up old accounts and then going back many years...going back to a post that is five years old, edit it and show that the webmaster was buying links five years ago.”
John: “That’s something we would see. That’s something where, if competitors are spending so much time doing that, then more power to you because they’re not competing with you. They’re just spending time doing stuff that doesn’t make any sense.”
Marie's comments: So, if Google admits that they look at a long history of manipulative linking as a sign that you have built these links themselves, one tactic people have attempted for negative SEO is to change pages published years ago to make it look like you have been building your own links for a long time. It's interesting that John says that Google's algorithms should pick this up. This may be related to something that Barry Schwartz posted on Search Engine Round Table this summer quoting a Google employee who stated that when the anchor text of a link changes Google may trust this link less. It's certainly possible that Google can determine that if an old page is suddenly changed so that a link is added (and this is not a normal thing for this page) then they would just ignore that link.
Can an innocent site be affected by negative SEO?
Question: “Our site fell victim to massive spam attacks. We did a disavow, removed links etc. yet we still received messages about unnatural links. Why does Google ignore the fact that we aren’t guilty?”
John: “We do work very hard to make sure that third party effects like that don’t play a role within the search results. It’s something we can’t absolutely guarantee that we’ll always get it right. So, if you’re seeing something like this you’re welcome to let us know about that. But, in most of the cases that we’ve looked at we’ve noticed that there are also a lot of other issues involved that go back a lot further that are essentially something that maybe a previous SEO did. But if you’re absolutely sure that this is essentially just from this third party attack that you’re seeing then I’d definitely love to know about that and see if there is something that we need to do differently there.”
At the 52 minute mark a user asks, “How do you know that it’s someone else purchasing the unnatural links?”
John: “It’s a tricky situation and not something where I’d say that we can guarantee that we always get it 100% right. But, from the cases I’ve looked at I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”
Marie's comments: It's interesting that John admits that the algorithms are not 100% accurate. I do believe though that the vast majority of cases of suspected negative SEO that they investigate really aren't negative SEO. I have seen many many sites where the site owners claimed negative SEO but in reality the links were ones that they had built, a previous SEO had built or were just odd looking links that weren't actually unnatural ones. I also believe that it is true that Google investigates reports of negative SEO and tweaks their algorithms to make them more resistant to these attacks. However, people are always coming up with new ingenious ways to get around the system so there will likely always be sneaky ways to attack sites.
Can negative SEO be done via a 301 redirect or canonical?
Question: “If the disavow file is built just for links, does it mean that negative SEO can be done via 301s or canonicals?”
Marie's comments: To clarify this question, the user is pointing out that you can't disavow a redirect or a canonical. So, if I get a site penalized and then I redirect that site to your site, will that cause your site to be penalized? Or, if I create a duplicate of your page and canonicalize it to yours and point then spammy links at my page, those links can't be detected by you and can't be disavowed.
John: “Theoretically there are a lot of things that could go wrong in our systems but essentially we work really hard to make sure that this kind of abuse or misuse of our systems of the links that we find or rankings in general are kind of handled really well on our side automatically. That’s not something I’d worry about that much.”
Marie's comments: I wonder how Google does this. Barry Schwartz reported recently that John Mueller said that they had never seen a case where a 301 redirect was responsible for a clean site getting penalized. But, at the same time, he has reported in the past that Google has said that redirecting your old penalized site to a new site can pass on a penalty. Additionally, John Mueller has said in webmaster forums that a Penguin issue can pass via a redirect. Here is what he said when asked if a Penguin hit site redirected to a non-Penguin hit site would pass the penalty: "If one of our algorithms has picked up on issues with regards to your site then just changing that url doesn't necessarily make those issues go away. If there are problems with the links to your site and you are 301 redirecting to a new domain then essentially we'll follow that redirect and forward those signals as much as possible."
So here is how I reconcile these differences. It depends on whether you are redirecting from your own site or trying to do damage by redirecting to a competitor's site. Google has a number of signals that they apparently use to try to determine whether you are building unnatural links or whether it's an attack from a competitor. So, they likely use those same signals when trying to determine whether to pass the link signals through a 301 redirect.
How often does Google see true cases of negative SEO?
Question: “Should we be concerned about negative SEO or not? Can a competitor harm us on purpose?”
John: “From our point of view, we are really good at recognizing these kind of things and making sure that they don’t cause problems. For the average website I definitely wouldn’t worry about these kind of things. When we see reports of sites that are saying that they’re seeing negative SEO we try to look into the details to make sure that it’s really not something on our side that we have to fix, that our algorithms are picking things up properly, that from a manual point of view we’re handling things appropriately. From going through those things it’s really, really, really rare that there’s something where I’d say, ‘OK, this looks a bit edgy and maybe there’s something a bit problematic here that we could be doing better and that’s something that I’d pass to the webspam team or the quality team so that they look and see if our algorithms are doing the right thing. But really, the largest part of the cases where I see mentions around negative SEO, we’re already handling appropriately. We can see that this has been happening for the last five years, and if a competitor has been promoting your site for five years now, they’re pretty busy. It’s probably not something that would happen like that.”
“I think overall it’s something that a lot of people talk about but in practice it’s not really a problem after all. For the average website it’s not something I would worry about. If you do see things like weird links to your site and you think, ‘Oh, this might be negative SEO’ you can just put them in your disavow file...If they’re disavowed they’re taken out and that’s it."
Can Google pick up on negative SEO attacks via pingback spam?
Question: “One of our sites has been hit by negative SEO with lots of pingback and blog comments. However, most of them are nofollow already. A few of them are dofollow. Do we need to disavow the domains which have dofollow links?”
John: “Technically speaking we pick up on this kind of thing automatically. But, if you’ve been noticing that already by yourself and you want to be absolutely sure that they don’t really cause any problems then I’d just put them in a disavow file with a domain directive and then you don’t have to worry about this any more.”
Can someone take down a site by sending thousands of bad links to it?
Question: “My competitor sends thousands of links to my blog. My blog is punished by Penguin.”
John: “In a case like that, if you’re looking at the links in Webmaster Tools for example I might go ahead and submit a disavow file for those links. In general we do recognize these kind of situations and handle them appropriately. But, I’d also take a look at the other things that you’re doing. Are you building links yourself? Are you running multiple blogs and linking them between each other? Are you going to forums and posting things there? Are you commenting on other sites just to get a link back? All of these things are things that essentially are seen as unnatural links that could be problematic as well.
Marie's comments: There are two possible explanations for what John is saying here: 1) It's possible that the thousands of spammy bad links were not the problem at all, but that the site had its own issues with unnatural links. Or, 2) It's also possible that the site had some small issues with unnatural links but that the spam attack was enough to push the site on to Google's radar, or in other words the straw that broke the camel's back. I don't know if this can actually happen, but I think it's theoretically possible. If this is true then negative SEO may possibly be effective against sites that already have a small degree of webspam on board.
Can a site be penalized by a spammy link attack and then quickly recover by use of the disavow tool?
Question: “I get negative SEO attacks. Page A loses ranking. I see new spammy links and even bad 302 redirects pointing to it. I disavow those urls with the domain directive and the ranking for that page pops back up in 3-4 days. Is this actually working?”
John: “You’re probably seeing something different than anything involved with negative SEO or with those specific links because it generally takes a bit of time for us to actually crawl and reindex and reprocess all of that information. So, if you’re seeing the ranking pop up and down within a couple of days then that’s probably something different. Usually that happens when our quality algorithms are kind of on the edge and they don’t really know is this a great page or is this a middle quality page and it’s kind of fluctuating between those variations. What I’d recommend doing there is just really making sure that your website is as high quality as possible so that we don’t fluctuate back and forth between thinking it’s a great site and thinking maybe it’s not such a great site….If you see problematic links you’re welcome to disavow them but you generally wouldn’t see effects within a couple of days.”
In the same hangout, at 35:00 the following was asked: “If Google can detect unnatural links, why do we still need to disavow them instead of Google ignoring them automatically. I read that competitors are doing negative SEO.”
John: “I think the whole negative SEO thing is something we’ve talked about a lot in some of the previous hangouts so I’ll skip that part. In generally we do tend to recognize unnatural links, but we understand that we can’t catch all of them. The big problem here from our point of view is we see a lot of problematic links or maybe a lot of problematic things that maybe you are doing on your website our maybe outside of your website and that leads us to generally maybe not trust your website as much as we would otherwise because we don’t know if all of the other signals that we’re seeing from your website are really unique and compelling and really authentic signals that maybe we should be able to trust. It’s something where we see these problematic links and we don’t really know how we should react to that. It’s not that we can just close our eyes and say, ‘Oh well...we can recognize these problematic links and ignore them. It’s more that we don’t know what we should do with all of the other signals that we find attached to your website.”
Marie's comments: This gives credence to the idea that perhaps negative SEO via links can be effective if the target is a site that already has its own issues. It may be that Google can't tell which links are attack links and which ones are self made, especially if the site is one that has been participating in webspam for a long time.
Matt Cutts on negative SEO in October of 2012
“We try really really hard to design algorithms that are robust and resistant to that kind of thing. In any algorithm that we’ve done in recent years that the webspam team has worked on, we do try to walk through those cases and try to make sure that we’re resistant against that sort of thing. So, at the same time, as Google has gotten better at assessing the quality of backlinks and taken stronger action on a lot of link networks, especially both public and private link networks earlier this year, a lot of people are thinking about their backlinks, how do they clean up their backlinks. And some people are asking about, ‘Well, what if people try to do negative SEO?’ which is Google bowling or they try to point links to a site to make that site rank lower. “
“So again, most people don’t need to worry about this. If you’re just a regular mom and pop, you’re a small business, this is not the type of thing where you are likely in any way, shape or form to run up against this. In my experience there’s a lot of people who talk about negative SEO but very few people who actually try it, and fewer still who actually succeed. For the people who are in maybe super competitive poker, casino, whatever kind of niches and they’re worried about, ‘OK, what if someone is trying to do some ill will towards my site’ we’ve just released a new tool called disavow links. And what that does is basically you upload a list, a text file to Google and say, ‘I would like Google to ignore these links to my site’. So, if you’re in a reconsideration request type of situation or if for some reason you’re worried because some porn site is linking a bunch of stuff to you, it’s very easy to say, ‘OK. Here’s a list of links...’”
He goes on to describe how to use the disavow tool. And then he says, “Whenever we dig into what’s going on, there’s been a lot of discussion but very little in ways of people actually trying to do attacks. And so, now, all those people who might still try to do attacks there’s a very simple way to diffuse that, and that’s the Disavow Links.” “We try really hard to make sure that one person can’t hurt another person...Again, if you’re an average mom and pop. If you’re just doing regular sorts of business, negative SEO is not something that you’re likely to encounter.”
Marie's comments: The point here is that Matt is saying that *if* negative SEO was possible it would really only be a concern for sites in super competitive niches and even then, as long as you disavow the bad links that you see pointing at you there really shouldn't be a problem at all.
I have written this article to be a complement to my Moz article on whether or not you should be worried about negative SEO and what to do about it. My point in writing this article on my site was to quote everything that I have seen Google representatives say about negative SEO. Now, many will say that Google is lying or just telling people what they want to hear. But, I do believe that true cases of negative SEO are rare. Can it be done? I do believe that there are people out there who can find ways to reduce a competitor's search engine rankings. Is it done often? I think that it is attempted often in very competitive niches, but that the vast majority of sites do not need to worry.
There is so much more that can be written about negative SEO. This is why I have written this article as well as the Moz one. I urge you to jump on over to Moz to read about my thoughts on things that look like negative SEO but are not and also my advice on what to do if you feel you are being attacked by negative SEO.
I welcome your comments.
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