The Invisible Threat of 'Black Hat' SEO to Your Company's Reputation

While you are diligently using good-guy tactics to boost your online presence, a malicious competitor can be undoing it all.
The Invisible Threat of 'Black Hat' SEO to Your Company's Reputation
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The internet has made it easy for companies to attract more business and grow a global audience. Social media, review sites and internet forums have allowed previously disconnected people to share their views and opinions online. It only takes one mistake for companies to find their reputation being dragged through the proverbial mud of the internet, thanks to a Facebook share or tweet gone viral.

Related: How to Protect Your Online Reputation in 2017

While the cost of such misadventures is well understood by most brands, other more malicious methods need to be accounted for as well -- negative SEO, for example. Most companies with an online presence have at least some understanding about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the process of trying to increase the visibility of your website on major search engines, but most business owners and marketing executives are completely unaware about the threat and potential impact of negative SEO.

What is negative SEO?

SEO is the practice of increasing the traffic to a company’s website through organic (non-paid) search engine results. While SEO requires a lot of investment upfront and may take several months or even years before its results are fully realized, most individuals searching online prefer clicking organic search results over online advertising.

However, while good SEO (commonly referred to as White Hat SEO) attempts to create a strong web presence naturally with high quality content, Black Hat SEO tries to manipulate loopholes in search engine algorithms to attain rankings faster.

Search engines are catching up with such Black Hat SEO practices and are penalizing websites using these tactics by either pushing these domains far away from the first page or de-indexing them altogether.

Negative SEO is essentially when someone intentionally tries to bring down their competitor’s search engine rankings by directing Black Hat techniques toward a competitor website. Since search engines have no way of knowing that the links are being published by a third party, they penalize the website they are pointing to. Here’s what negative SEO tactics are usually comprised of:

  • Pointing spammy, low quality links to a website

  • Copying and pasting your website content all over the web to create duplicate content

  • Creating fake social media profiles and spreading false information about the company

  • Pointing links from unrelated websites and blog networks to a website

While Google has said that their search engine cannot be fooled through such techniques, they have also mentioned that negative SEO isn’t unheard of. Their position evolved after the recent Google Penguin update, which penalizes low quality links or unnatural link velocity.

Should you be concerned?

Although Google has repeatedly said businesses need not worry about the potential impact of negative SEO, savvy online marketing experts know better. It’s extremely easy to find “SEO specialists” on sites like Fiverr willing to send out link blasts with millions of links for just $5. Check out this case study to see how one company ended up having to deal with costly link spam.

This was not uncommon back in the pre-Panda days when Google automatically issued penalties for spammy links. This January, however, Google launched their Penguin 4 update which chooses to devalue link spam rather than demote the site it is directed at.

In other words, irrelevant links can simply have no effect on a site’s rankings. If link spam is detected, then it may initiate a manual review of your site. This doesn’t mean that people still aren’t trying to game the system. If the spammer did a good job, then your site might be slapped with a penalty, even after a manual review.

As the search engines are evolving, so are the spammers who are now shifting their strategy to spoiling your site’s user experience to bring down competitors’ rankings. This website owner, for instance, saw that a web spammer was sending false traffic to his site which increased its bounce rate (number of visitors leaving the first page they visit). By doing so, the spammer was trying to erode the site’s perceived user experience, and thereby bring down its rankings over time.

How to know if you have been attacked with negative SEO.

The biggest issue with negative SEO is that it’s pretty hard to tell until it’s almost too late. Usually, a company’s first brush with negative SEO is when the website traffic drops suddenly, or if they are slapped with a manual penalty by Google.

Dramatic website traffic changes can happen due to any number of reasons though -- a change in search engine algorithm or an unintentional coding blunder is usually the culprit. However, there are quite a number of telltale signs your site is a victim of negative SEO. Here’s what to look for:

  • A sudden, exponential increase in the number of links to your website.

  • Links from unrelated and/or foreign sites. For example, if you have a fitness blog in English, and you suddenly start getting links from porn, gambling or websites in other languages, chances are, someone’s spamming you.

  • An unusually high number of links stuffed with keywords from unrelated blog posts or websites.

Not all unrelated links are bad. Your website will inevitably attract some unnatural links and the search engines know that. What you need to be watchful of is how quickly and how many “spammy” links are appearing.

Related: Facebook Targets Low-Quality Links With Spam-Fighting AI

There are a number of tools you can use to monitor your site’s backlink profile, here are a few popular ones:

  • Google Webmaster Tools (now called Google Search Console): Gives you a sample of your site’s total backlink profile. It is also useful for knowing if your site has been hacked, infected or has received a manual penalty.
  • Cognitive SEO: Makes it very easy to see your site’s backlinks and disavow links you think are spammy.
  • Authority Labs: Gives you a snapshot of your site’s rankings for various keywords. If you see a sudden drop in rankings, chances are it may be due to a spam attack.
  • Monitor Backlinks: Sends you regular reports of new backlinks to your website making it very easy to catch link spam in the act.

What to do in case of an attack.

Fortunately, search engines have made it easy, or at least easier, for businesses to tackle negative SEO. Google has a disavow tool you can use to tell the search engine you do not want selected links included as part of their ranking algorithm for your website. So if you were to find unnatural links, you can simply disavow them.

The best strategy is to carry out regular link audits to stay on top of your site’s backlink profile. Google Search Console is the go-to solution in such cases, however it only reveals a sample of a site’s total link profile. For a complete list, paid tools such as Ahrefs, SEOMoz and Majestic SEO are better. Check out this guide for a complete set of instructions on how to conduct a link audit.

Prevention is (always) better than cure.

While some Black Hat spammers can manipulate your search engine rankings, they cannot easily displace the trust your patrons already place in you. Think of it this way -- someone may try and bring down the website search rankings of a site like ContentMarketingInstitute.com known for providing high quality content on digital marketing), but will it really affect its reputation? Highly unlikely.

Reputation is the same whether it’s online or offline, in that it’s earned. Customer service, community relations, philanthropy and marketing all contribute to a company’s brand reputation. And its rewards are lasting. An audience that places its confidence in your business is not going to allow a negative review or product recall to cause them to abandon the company, especially when you respond to the issue seriously and take responsibility toward resolving the problem.

You can start taking some immediate steps today to build an online reputation based on a rock solid foundation. An effective online reputation management strategy will adopt a holistic approach, taking into account organic search results, social media and a brand’s website. Here’s how to go about it:

  1. First, create profiles on all major social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google My Business. Other channels such as Instagram, Pinterest and SnapChat can also be considered, depending on your target audience.

  2. Next, proactively engage with people on these social channels. Don’t just leave your social media channels to gather digital dust. You should post interesting things that your audience can relate to, and start to build a community.

  3. The 70-20-10 rule is the most recommended strategy for engaging with audience online. Here’s how it works:

    • 70 percent of all the content you post on social media should be focused on providing the most relevant, helpful and interesting content to your audience. Think about blog posts, infographics, tips and tricks that relate to your target market.
    • 20 percent should be content shared from other authority sources in your industry. Don’t be afraid to collaborate with other sources. Share expert posts, and comment on these posts to engage their audience too.
    • 10 percent of all your posts should be promotional, telling everyone about your products and services.
  4. Track your brand mentions online. While Googling your business every once in awhile is always a good idea, there are a few reputation management tools that you can use here as well.

    • IFTTT: If This Then That helps you create “what if workflows” where you can trigger a response based on an event. So, a certain keyword on a certain site can trigger a mail alert to let you know your brand name has been mentioned there.
    • Me On The Web: A tool from Google, it alerts you should your name or email address be mentioned online.
  5. Encourage satisfied customers to leave you positive reviews either on your site or on your social media channels. Facebook and LinkedIn make it very easy for people to leave reviews on business pages.

  6. When a customer first purchases from your business, ask them to let you know of any problems before leaving a negative comment online.

  7. If you do get a negative review, don’t ever blame the reviewer. Ask them what went wrong politely and how you can help them. Once the problem has been addressed, ask for feedback.

Related: How to Remain Relevant in Today's 'Google It' Culture and Why That Matters

Conclusion.

While the spectre of negative SEO seems like a frightening one, the odds of someone targeting your business are low. That said, following the best practices outlined above is highly recommended so that you are able to be proactive and stay one step ahead of anyone trying to damage your brand online.

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