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Infographic: Testing Negative SEO

Does Negative SEO Really Work?

Negative SEO is an undertaking whereby a business competitor attempts to harm the search ranking position of a competing website through the procurement of junk and spam links. Our study shows that Negative SEO is very real, and can be accomplished for very little money.

Infographic: Testing Negative SEO

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<div style="width: 420px">
<a href="http://www.tastyplacement.com/wp-content/uploads/testing-negative-seo.jpg" />
<img src="http://www.tastyplacement.com/wp-content/uploads/testing-negative-seo-thumbnail.jpg"
alt="Infographic: Testing Social Signals" /></a><br/>
Infographic authored by TastyPlacement, an <a href="http://www.tastyplacement.com/">
Austin SEO</a> company, To view the original post, see the original
<a href="http://www.tastyplacement.com/infographic-testing-negative-seo">
Negative SEO Infographic</a>. </div>

About the Study: The Details

After the webmaster warnings of March 2012 and the Penguin update of April, like many in the SEO community, we wondered if negative SEO (NSEO) was now a possibility. For years Google had abided by the principle that nothing external to a site could harm it directly, ensuring that sites would be safe from the malice of competitors. Evidence for NSEO had been initially unreliable and anecdotal, so we decided to try it ourselves.

The Experiment:

For ethical reasons we didn’t use a competitor’s site, but chose an internal property, Pool-Cleaning-Houston.com, for the experiment. This site ranked well for its domain name keyword match and a number of lesser terms, and has enjoyed a stable position in its market for years. This site because it is the SEO equivalent of the proverbial “Los Angeles dog walker.” It is not a particularly powerful site, but it is positioned in a market where it could easily provide a small business owner with a comfortable living.

The NSEO:

We chose the following negative SEO techniques for our study:

  • 45,000 Comment links. Anchor text “Pool Cleaning Houston.” Cost: $15
  • 7000 double-tiered forum profile links. Anchor text “Pool Cleaning Houston.” Cost: $5
  • Sidebar blog links on four trashy blogs, yielding nearly 4000 links (although it appears that only 100 of those links have been indexed to date). Anchor text “Pool Cleaning Houston.” Cost: $20

The Execution:

The initial purchase of 45,000 comment links was a disappointment. The seller of the service had marketed the links as NSEO, but it soon became evident that few of the comments were being accepted by moderators, and even fewer were dofollow. The followup purchase of 7000 forum profile links seemed more promising. This was not billed as NSEO, but as a positive, albeit black hat, Scrapebox service. Then a week went by and our site failed to be destroyed.

We had built a relationship with the webmaster of the trashy blogs when we asked him to remove the sidebar links he had sent to one of our clients. He removed the links for a fee, and when we asked, he put on new links to Pool-Cleaning-Houston.com for a similar fee. Within a few days the links delivered a killing blow.

The Results:

The bulk of the traffic for the site comes from the search “Pool Cleaning Houston.” For a week after the blast of thousands of NSEO links, the ranking actually went up from position #3 to #2. Then we followed up with the blog sidebar links. By the next day Pool-Cleaning-Houston.com was off the front page and essentially invisible to potential customers.

Besides the primary keyword, there were another 51 minor keywords tracked during the study. 26 went down noticeably, 21 stayed the same throughout, and 5 keywords improved slightly. Taken on average, the keywords dropped about 2.5 spots (among the keywords that did drop, the average decline was closer to 9 positions).

The total rankings of all the keywords clearly shows the effects of NSEO not just on selected searches, but on the overall ranking power of the site. For a period of three days following each NSEO burst the site improved slightly in the SERPs, and then abruptly lost the ground it had gained and then some.

Conclusion:

It is now cheap and effective to destroy the livelihood of a small business. In a local market it could cost as little as $20 a month to knock a competitor off the first page of search returns. This low cost makes NSEO accessible to virtually anyone, from unscrupulous companies, to disgruntled employees, spiteful customers, or even idle pranksters. It’s too early to make a definitive claim about the exact causes of the Google algorithm penalty, but an effective NSEO campaign may include the creation of a backlinks profile with artificially repetitive anchor text, as well as links from a bad neighborhood.

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…and the thumbnail!:

Negative SEO

35 Responses

  1. Don

    Nice study.
    Question. Why aren’t you concerned about your embed code for your infographic causing you to be penalized by penguin? If the infographic goes even semi-viral you would gain 100 links with the exact match anchor text, “Austin Seo”. That certainly enough to send you into penguin hell.

    1. Two answers: checking our anchor text profile in SEOMoz’ Open Site Explorer, we know that our incidence of “Austin SEO” is actually quite low. Now, if it rises too much, we’ll change the embed code to something more natural, like our business name, “TastyPlacement”, or even a raw link like TastyPlacement.com.

  2. Spikes in inbounds links generate movement in serps. I’m wondering where that site will rank in a few weeks… Weaker sites tend to fall and rise when new links appear.

  3. Interesting. There are a lot of other factors to consider here. What did the backlink profile look prior to the NSEO bomb? It seems that the driving force was links associated with spammy blogs, as was likely the case with the WPMU story. Were you using a specific anchor text, such as “Pool Cleaning Houston?”

    This can be devastating news for SMB’s for sure, but IMO there’s no way that this stands the test of time. If NSEO becomes prevalent in the marketplace, then the pendulum will likely shift and the algorithm will focus on different factors.

  4. Hey Michael,
    Great study and I’m appreciative of this information. Unfortunately, we’ll probably see some of this going on. People don’t always fight fairly.

    I am wondering though, if the results would have been the same on an active website where the blog was being updated on a regular basis. This site, although very keyword rich looks a little thin. Do you have any insight into whether you believe the strength of an established website would matter? Things such as domain age, current posts, and number of “good” backlinks. Will these kinds of things help?

    1. Sure, an active site would probably enjoy some immunity from negative SEO. But our whole point was that there are a lot more small business websites out there than premium, active websites. So, we thought this would be illustrative of what a small business person would face should a competitor start to play dirty. It’s very unfortunate that this was so easy.

    2. Excellent point, Leigha –

      There really is no substitute for an active, well-developed site.

      Way too many small business owners still operate under the premise that a simple 5 page “brochure site” is going to deliver boat loads of traffic and new customers to them every month.

      Appreciate the eye opening post! :) *Shared*

  5. Interesting data and thanks for sharing! I wonder how frequency and type of link impacted whether Google detected and ignored, or detected and acted upon the links found. So… perhaps they already had rules in place that would ignore a massive influx of comment spam or forum links (created in a set period of time) entirely.

    1. The sidebar links were from some guy in Indonesia that picked up old domains and put up spam blogs. I’d rather not give the sites, but I know at least one isn’t up anymore. The outbound links on those sites were all very nasty gambling, viagra links, etc.

  6. This is very interesting stuff, but the bigger question, is what can one do to stop this if you’re getting attacked? Just say I wanted to knock out my competitors for, say, photography, I could spend a few hundred bucks on a few targets, but can they do anything to fight back / vice versa

  7. Great study. It is something that our team has discussed to great depths and voiced concerns over being SEOs.

    I just hope the future of SEO is not beating each other with sh**ty sticks over and over until one gives in to be replaced by another using the same tactic. I’ve only just started my new career and enjoying it, but this kind of stuff, I’ll be out of the door and declaring SEO is dead ;)

  8. Nice post & infographic, Michael. Interestingly there still seems to be a big debate as to whether or not negative SEO is really a problem. See this recent SEOmoz post, for example.

    http://www.seomoz.org/blog/were-you-hit-by-negative-seo

    If there is a cheap and easy way to hurt competitors and increase their own online leads and sales, you know there will be a minority of unscrupulous SMB owners and SEOs who will capitalize on this. There are tools and spam lists out there (I won’t mention them) that can have a substantial negative effect for as little as $5! I really wish Google would implement a disavow links feature similar to the one Bing has in its Webmaster Tools.

    I pinned the infographic to this Pinterest board: http://pinterest.com/pin/20055160811422559/

    Please let me know if you would like me to change attribution or remove the pin.

  9. Well it’s been almost a year since Penguin was unleashed on webmasters and the panic has appeared to die down, but there still seems to be occasional discussion of negative SEO. I’ve seen firsthand the effects it can have, especially on small/new/thin websites, which unfortunately makes up most small business sites.

    Many hoped that Google would, by now, revise their algo update and “scale back” the penalty for off-site factors that could potentially be out of the webmaster’s control. I don’t see this happening. I believe the only real protection is to build up such a good/strong backlink profile that your site essentially becomes “immune” to NSEO attempts. Obviously lots of great content that gets shared, combined with highly active visitors will help shield any site, but I think all webmasters should really focus on building up a VERY diverse, quality backlink profile.

  10. Negative SEO till now seemed to be myth but thanks to you this horror has come out in real. I am really aghast by seeing the results. Any one can pull you down. What do you suggest to counter this ?

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