black hatGoogle’s webmaster guidelines have just been changed, marking a move away from their statement that there’s nothing anyone else can do to harm your website in the search rankings. The same line now says “Google works hard to prevent competitors from utilizing negative SEO”. Where they have previously fought hard to combat traditional black hat SEO, it seems the black hat world has now focused on new tactics.

This is likely to be something that will affect a proportion of websites over the next few years, so we need to be aware of the tactics people may be using, in order to be aware of how to avoid problems and deal with them if they do arise.

1. The most obvious negative SEO tactic is throwing up a whole bunch of low quality backlinks to your competitor’s website. As a lot of these links now tend to be ignored by Google, the effect is often limited, but as many companies out there know, enough bad links can get you a sharp slap on the wrist from the big G.

Prevention: Keep a close eye on your backlink profile and undertake regular checking to notice for anything out of the ordinary. Popular tools such as Majestic SEO actually provide a report specifically about new links, which can be handy for monitoring this kind of tactic.

2. On the flipside of getting bad links put up, negative SEO can include getting your good links removed. Many webmasters who are trying to fight a Google penalty have complained that the only links it’s easy to get removed are the ones they want to keep. Fantastic news for those doing negative SEO.

Prevention: Once again, check your backlinks regularly. Majestic SEO also provides a report detailing the links you have lost, but as prevention is far better than cure, it’s worth doing a bit of manual outreach when you receive a link, just saying “Hey, thanks for the link, we’ve been having some problems with negative SEO, if anyone asks for this link to be removed please can you verify with us at…” and give your email. This makes them aware of the problem, and seriously increases the chance of them checking with you before a link gets taken away.

3. Abusing a brand online can not only harm your search ranks, but also your ability to sell. Tactics like optimising critical messages to appear on searches for your brand name leaves people questioning whether or not work with you, while leaving spammy reviews on websites like Reevoo or Google Places can get you banned from these services.

Prevention: Active monitoring is key. Set up a service such as Google Alerts to notify you whenever something related to your brand appears online, and keep a close eye on any services that drive you traffic such as Hibu, Thomson Local or any other the other major directories. It is also a good idea to ensure that you dominate as much of the page space as possible for your brand name, using paid ads, sitelinks, and optimising your own brand profile across the web. This way, your content shows up, leaving negative messages pushed down the list.

With the demise of traditional ‘black hat’ SEO, there will be a certain proportion of people who turn to negative SEO, to deliberately harm their competitors’ websites. If you’re in one of those niches that has seen a lot of black hat SEO, or you’re in a niche where the work of an SEO company has resulted in a penalty from Google, then the chances are you’re in a highly competitive market where people will go to extreme lengths to win the fight. If you’re in one of these markets then be extra vigilant; just as we’re coming to understand black hat SEO, this new threat is on the rise.

To prevent negative SEO from happening, careful monitoring is key. This should be happening anyway as part of an ongoing online marketing strategy, but perhaps now is the time to step things up a gear and protect your website.

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