The past month or so, I’ve been losing sleep over negative SEO. And trust me: of all the things that I could be doing other than sleeping, thinking about negative SEO is at the bottom of that list.
Maybe it’s the surge in extortion emails surfacing. Maybe it’s Google continually softening its stance on whether negative SEO actually does exist. Maybe it’s my own paranoia. Regardless, I’ve wrestled with this internally for quite some time, and it’s time to get these thoughts on paper.
First, The Basics
Negative SEO is when someone attempts to ruin your organic rankings through practices that violate the search engines’ algorithm.
It’s a real threat — especially for smaller businesses whose lifelines are their organic search rankings. When you consider that organic search makes up 51% of all website traffic, it’s something every digital marketer needs to at least be mildly concerned about.
Your backlink profile is the most common target when it comes to negative SEO, because it’s the easiest to manipulate. Unlike other forms of negative SEO, tampering with a website’s backlink profile does not necessitate hacking into the site to do the dirty work — one need only create crappy content on questionable sites with links pointing back to your site.
As the webmaster, you can’t control what sites link to your site — in fact, the majority of links you have are probably ones you didn’t “build.” And, until recently, there was nothing you could do to fight this type of backlink spam.
To Disavow Or Not To Disavow
When Google introduced its Disavow Links Tool in 2012, it made the debate for negative SEO much more real.
Now, instead of just whining about the problem but never having any solution, we finally had something we could do about it, and it quickly become clear that you were either for it or against it. Personally, I went back and forth on this for a while before feeling resolved in my decision.
I do not believe in disavowing your links UNLESS you have gotten the notification below in your Google Webmaster Tools.
The above comes directly from Google saying it has detected “unnatural links” to your site, and it “encourages you to make changes.” In my experience, when you get one of these warnings, you’re not immediately blacklisted. Google gives you some time to right the wrong. In other words, disavow some links, and all’s gravy.
Now, every site has shady links. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how ethical you are — everyone has, at one time or another, done something that is now considered against Google’s guidelines. Most likely, you’ve probably paid for some links.
What happens is that webmasters get scared (rightfully so). They get nervous. Even without getting a warning from Google, they assume someone is onto them. So they take it upon themselves to identify and subsequently remove links they think are questionable. But can they really be sure that Google considers them questionable? Can you really know if those links are hurting more than helping?
Consider This Scenario
You panic and decide to take proactive action against negative SEO. You pull all of your backlinks and analyze them, one by one, to determine what’s quality and what’s questionable based on your own standards. Maybe it’s domain authority. Maybe it’s over-optimized anchor text. Maybe it’s the source itself. Whatever your standards, once you identify potential problem links, you start disavowing them.
The problem with the above scenario is that, while we have a pretty good idea of what Google’s quality guidelines are when it comes to links, we can’t read its mind. So while you might think a particular link is terrible, Google might not — hell, they may not even know about it!
Thus, what ends up happening is that you’re removing links that actually may have been helping you all along. Even further, you’re waving a big “Look at me!” flag at Google, signaling them to scrutinize your link profile even more, which is something nobody wants.
But What If We Don’t Do Anything?
The fear of not combating negative SEO or shady links now, when you haven’t gotten a warning from Google, is that it’s going to be too late if/when that warning does come. We’re being proactive. It’s insurance just in case something happens. If you don’t do it, and you do get attacked by it, then, it’s your ass on the line, right?
I wish there was another way to put it, but it’s true. Your job as an SEO is organic search traffic. If something happens to that organic search traffic, it’s on you, and it won’t do you any favors if you knew there was something, anything you could have done to prevent it.
And that’s a big risk.
Is it my call? Of course not. You know your site better than anyone else. But before you get wrapped up in taking action against negative SEO, make sure you fully understand what’s at stake and even the likelihood that you’ll be a victim of it.
I’m not arguing that negative SEO doesn’t exist. I’m not even arguing that negative SEO doesn’t work. But I am arguing that we shouldn’t be taking action on something that may or may not even be hurting us at this point.