By Pierre Zarokian

Can negative SEO really get your site penalized?

By Pierre Zarokian

On April 24, Google introduced its Penguin update — a change to its algorithm that attempted to rectify issues associated with websites rich in low-quality links. These low-quality links include sponsored links, links referring back to unrelated websites, and those that refer back to sites whose anchor text repeat the same keywords, for example. In essence, the Penguin update scrutinizes websites’ link profiles. A very laudable aim indeed, but the same update also makes the performance of negative SEO — it’s as bad as it sounds! — a much less challenging exercise for the unscrupulous.


What is negative SEO?

Through underhanded methods, a website’s ranking declines after someone, usually a competitor, makes it seem as if your perfectly legitimate site is in violation of Google’s quality guidelines. They do this by creating low-quality links pointing to your site, creating duplicate content of your site or hacking into your site and inserting malicious code. Negative SEO is a “black hat” technique that every site owner should be aware of.

The main techniques for negative SEO are link spamming, content manipulation, and site intrusions. If someone is bent on link spamming your site, they’ll set up a significant number of low-quality links and point them to you. The set-up makes it very likely that Google will notice the unnatural links and send out a spam alert that’s certain to kill your ranking. On the other hand, if the method of choice is content manipulation, then your site’s content will be copied again and again until Google punishes you for possessing duplicate content. Come again? Yes, even though you didn’t copy your own content, if others copy it, even without your permission, your site may be deemed in violation of Google’s rule prohibiting duplicate content. Intrusion, lastly, refers to hacking or malware introduction. All these methods have one goal: to demote your site. Let’s look at each of these techniques in more detail.

Link Spamming

The Penguin algorithm checks sites’ ratio of low-quality links to high-quality ones; if the ratio is unfavorable your site gets penalized. It’s important to keep in mind that Penguin is not run in real time. That means that if you get caught in its wake, even getting rid of the spam immediately is no guarantor that you’ll be back on top in no time; it could take weeks, in fact. To effectively topple a site’s ratio of good to bad links, an attacker must produce hundreds of negative links — not a light undertaking by any means, but also, not impossible.

Here are some examples of what Google may consider low-quality links:

  • Links from sites with too many outgoing links
  • Links from low-quality blog networks
  • Links from sites with too many consecutive links (like sponsored links)
  • Too high a number of sitewide links
  • Too many links from sites with low Google PageRank
  • Too many links from sites with related IP addresses
  • The use of a certain keyword too many times in a link anchor text
  • Links from sites with a subject that is irrelevant to your own site
  • Links from link exchange-type pages
  • Links from low-quality directories
  • Links from footers
  • Links from blog and forum comments

The best advice is to keep a healthy and robust backlink profile and to stay away from manipulative link-building. Ideally, your site will link to quality sites, have non-repetitive anchor text, and links that are diverse. Periodically reviewing your link profile is also good practice; it will give you the opportunity to identify and remove spam links. Since Yahoo’s Site Explorer went to the dustbin of internet history and Google provides nary a seam of good backlink data, third-party tools are your best bet. For backlink reviews, try SEOMoz’s OpenSiteExplorer.com and Majestic SEO — both have free versions and are highly recommended. These tools will only show you your backlinks, but to analyze what type of links you have either do it manually or you can take the backlink data from a CSV file and input them in Link Detective, which will break down the types of links, such as blog comment links, footer links, etc.

Sites that feel they were unfairly affected by the Penguin update can contact Google for a reinclusion.

Content Manipulation

When duplicate content is present on the web, Google’s algorithm takes note, and, usually, reserves a good ranking for a single version while dispensing poorer rankings to the rest. The site where the content was originally posted can be expected to get the better ranking — but it doesn’t always play out that way.

Such a site — one whose original content is duplicated by others — might get a ranking that’s lower than that of its copycats if Google indexes the duplicate content before that of the original site. Similarly, sites whose PageRank is higher might also be favored by Google’s algorithm. Beware of brazen reposting of your content; the more it’s copied, the more likely your site is to be penalized.

Content copying is often done by scraping software; automated software that will copy your content and post it on other websites. Spammers use scraping software to quickly create thousands of pages to gain quick ranking. They often copy content from high-ranking websites, in hopes that their sites will also rank high.

In early 2011 Google released the Panda update. Panda is similar to Penguin, in that it filters out all the spammy pages, but instead of targeting low-quality links, it targets low-quality content (ie scraped and duplicate content). Keyword stuffing is another thing it targets, which is basically targeting sites that use too many keyword repetitions on their pages.

How do you protect your site against this type of negative SEO? By frequently checking for duplicate content. One way to check for it is to use Copyscape.com, or another similar service. But lifting a unique sentence from your site and googling for it (don’t forget to use quotation marks) also works. For the latter, choose a sentence that’s five to 15 words long. That one or two sentences of your content have been copied usually poses no risk, but if entire content sections have been duplicated, you have grave cause for concern.

If your duplicate content check turns up just a few sites, contact each one of those site owners and request that the copied material be removed; or send a cease-and-desist letter. When these tactics prove unproductive, a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) complaint filing is in order.

Google has a reporting tool that can help you deal with web search problems. You can resort to it if problematic material surfaces in places like Google Plus pages or YouTube. However, when the volume of duplicates is too overwhelming, the most straightforward method to overcome its ill effects is to conduct a thorough content rewrite.

One last word to the wise: keep an eye on the content “borrowing” of affiliates. If an affiliate program is part of your business strategy, making sure that pre-designated, pertinent content about your business is available for their use can be a winning solution. That content should be related to your business but be separate and distinct from what appears on your own website. The overarching idea, here, is to update your content regularly in order to avoid being a victim of negative SEO. Updating your content monthly and staying close to Google’s good-quality content guidelines will keep you on the right track.

Site Intrusion

A web server hacking or the implantation of malware constitutes site intrusion. If malicious code is entered into your HTML source code by hackers, your site can be delisted by Google, which has no trouble detecting malicious code. You probably would not know this code was inserted into your site, until after Google alerts you via email in your Webmaster Tools account or someone alerts you that they saw a notice from Google about your site containing malicious code.

To avoid this scenario, your web server should be kept up to date. Do that by installing patches as they’re released, and watching out for foreign code. Free tools are available online that can help you with all this. After you’ve purged the malicious code, it can take Google days or weeks to reindex your site — how long it takes will depend on your site’s popularity, but to speed it up you can use Lindexed, which uses several indexing techniques to speed up the process.

If you don’t have a Webmaster Tools account, make sure to sign up and enroll your site, since Google may use it to communicate site removals.


  • Really good information I haven’t seen much elsewhere. FYI, your link to Majestic SEO has a comma after the “www” so the link doesn’t go anywhere.

  • I work for a web company, and they don’t really keep up on their server so we just got hit with this “Site Intrusion” thing. It is a pain to try and fix.

  • Great article Pierre.

    A small error that I came across you mention ” SEOMoz’s Majestic SEO and OpenSiteExplorer.com ”

    OpenSiteExplorer is SEOMoz’s property but Majestic SEO is owned by Majestic-12 Ltd operated out of UK.

  • Nice post Pierre. I did not realize the extend of the back link issue until the NY Times article on JC Penny having used an SEO company to boost their visibility only to realize later that this was achieved by way of many, many low rank link exchange sites. The scary part is that a competitor can really wreak havoc on your business.

  • Pierre,

    A really informative article. I was particularly interested in the concept of low quality links.

    What bearing does this have on directory listings? I’ve observed that a common practice by SEO agencies for off site SEO strategy is to list with lots of directories, which could mean:
    * Lots of outbound links
    * They are unrelated
    * Repetitions of anchor texts and keywords
    * Links from sites with consecutive links

    Do I draw from this that this isn’t such a great idea. That being the case then I guess that efforts should be made to list in industry specific directories and wherever possible seek to be included as a link.in some sort of editorial?

    Cheers, Alex.

  • Jo

    The backlink points are very interesting. What is the situation and the advice to web design companies who signed their websites in the footer with their link, something like “Site designed by…”? The websites they make usually have nothing to do with their business and don’t necessarily rank well if they are small sites. Worst, the owners usually don’t necessarily work great quality content. So can web designers be penalised?

    With all the designers and site makers who follow this blog, I would be interested to know what is your practices.

    • Paul

      @ Jo You bring up a very good point. From now on, I may only put my link in a sidebar. It doesn’t make sense to me if the website with links must be related. When google puts adsense in a page, it doesn’t have to relate to the content of the page. It relates to the user’s profile. Google seriously sucks on this point. They made a rule that no-one can break, but they break it all the time.

  • Thanks for this very useful information.
    What can be done about low-quality links pointing to a website ? I’ve recently noticed several low-quality directories linking to our site – these directory entries were not requested by us.

    I’ve also noticed several websites (eg search-ebook.eu etc) which are publishing our product data sheets (PDF format) – without our permission. These have been discovered using Google Webmaster Tools – the backlinks (corrupted) these sites provide are producing 403 errors.

  • Boki

    excellent article. thanks for the links to the free tools!

  • Hiii
    Its nice and gold information i m a job in SEO So i follow you article and i know i really succeeded in my work thanks for sharing
    keep it up.
    thank you.

    Nice and fantastic information about SEO I m a do doing SEO so i follow your article because its give me more idea about search engine optimization (SEO) I really information get about negative SEO.

    thank you!!

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