A version of this post first appeared on the Forbes.com. Forbes contributor, Joshua Steimle, wrote about Expedia, Negative SEO and Google Penalties last week. Christoph C. Cemper, founder of LinkResearchTools who covered the Expedia penalty, disagrees with Joshua and here’s his response.
The SEO casualties are mounting and accusations are flying. “Negative SEO” is the main culprit, but what is it? What forms does it take? And how does it even exist? Google is involved, but so is an overlooked player: your saboteur within.
Big Brand Google Penalties
We have seen big brands drop in Google rankings every month: Interflora, RapGenius, Expedia and recently the big retail bank Halifax, just to name a few. It shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, Google is clear that tactics outside their Webmaster Guidelines are considered “Black Hat SEO” and will be punished. But this has not always been the case.
Why Does Google Penalize Sites?
Google has been fighting manipulation of their algorithm for years. The head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, has long preached against buying links and building low quality links to manipulate their algorithm.
However, it worked, and so everyone did it. Actually, a whole industry (Search Engine Optimization (SEO)) emerged and flourished because Google did not strictly enforce their terms. Many companies built their business model on manipulating Google’s algorithm to get a lot of traffic at low cost.
That all changed in 2012 when Google finally cracked down on exploitation of their algorithm. They launched a new anti-spam algorithm called “Penguin” that punishes artificial and toxic links to a website. Cheap tricks suddenly stopped working. Overnight, it caused tens of thousands of websites to drop from Google search results like dead flies.
Today (and three Penguin updates later), it’s clear that not even big brands are immune anymore. Once standard SEO loopholes are gone; perennial link-building tactics have drastically changed; and “shortcut SEO” is now deadly, capable of crippling your brand.
Expedia and Brand Inequality at Google?
When Expedia dropped from search results, we investigated their link profile. In our analysis we found that Expedia used a lot of old and outdated SEO tricks, and it was even worse for Halifax. Both got away with their tricks for too long.
One reason they evaded being caught was because their tricks blended into a huge backlink profile that also contained a lot of natural links.
Another reason is that Expedia is – or was – one of those big brands that was “too big to fail.” Their branded terms (ex. – Expedia) are dwarfing their artificial money terms (ex. – “Cheapest Flights”), giving them the appearance of a healthy link profile.
In contrast, small or medium sized businesses often only have a handful of links, with most being unnatural links from some Asian SEO sweatshop, and few brand mentions. That lack of brand building makes a big difference.
Three Types of Negative SEO
#1 – Intentional Negative SEO by Competitors
When you read about Negative SEO, it’s usually in the context of a super-powered competitor using their time, money and energy to kill their competition’s rankings rather than investing time into their own marketing.
Unfortunately, in some industries, Google’s algorithmic changes have made it cheaper to hurt a competitor rather than to help their own website.
#2 – Low Quality SEO Internally Initiated and Prolonged
Internal low quality SEO is the second and most popular type of negative SEO by the saboteur within – your CMO or CEO. These managers often feel their brand is entitled to a lot of free traffic from Google – a common and deadly misconception still alive in thousands of responsible minds today.
These accidental saboteurs often initiate manipulative tactics and then simply forget about algorithm changes. Soon, their link profiles are bloated with spammy links and in Google’s crosshairs. Even as a C-Level executive you should know your average Link Detox Risk score, just like you should know the value per visitor to your website as a key performance indicator.
The age of “cheap link building” is long past, although we still often get enticed by some unsolicited mail. Today, one wrong purchase from such a vendor could kill your website’s Google traffic if you’re a small business.
#3 – Collateral Damage Negative SEO
The third and final Negative SEO type is automated spam websites. Without you ever sensing it, they build toxic links to your website. As a side-effect, these links increase risk in your link profile. This threat can be mitigated by practicing safe SEO and link risk management.
How the SEO Game Has Changed
SEO has changed a lot in the last two years. To illustrate, let’s say SEO is like surgery. Until 2012 it was perfectly acceptable to have a dozen doctors slicing around inside, removing pieces, adding others, and then, at some magical moment, one of the doctors implants the right piece and everything is perfect. Nothing could go wrong.
Sounds absurd? It is. This was how simple and reckless SEO was. I’m surprised how long it worked. This phase is over, but most SEO agencies are still offering what I would call “malpractice” today. It’s shocking. Managers responsible for website traffic are under pressure to deliver results, but they MUST NOT ignore how SEO rules and attainable results have changed.
Doing SEO the right way is more important than ever. On paper, an SEO campaign that uses cheap and manipulative tactics may look attractive, but it’s sacrificing the long term health of your brand and website for unsustainable short term gains. Now is the time of practicing safe SEO and link risk management.
How to Tackle ALL types of Negative SEO
- Make SEO risk a C-level KPI.
- Perform ongoing link audits for all your domains, even the redirected ones.
- Focus on building quality links, not quantity.
- Automate your link risk management. Nobody can manually examine thousands or even millions of links.
- Perform ongoing link disavows and removal outreach. Get rid of toxic links fast with tools like Pitchbox for automating outreach, tightly integrated with your SEO tools likeLinkResearchTools.
Negative SEO is a very real and present threat to many companies online. But this threat often comes from your own past marketing efforts. Lack of transparency and ignorance to perform link audits and risk management can kill your business overnight, or at best reduce your website’s traffic by double-digits. Heeding Google’s guidelines and practicing safe SEO would have helped Halifax and Expedia avoid their costly penalties. Expedia learned their lesson the hard way and recently confirmed that they now audit their SEO methods. Now all marketing executives should put this question at the top of their agenda: “How toxic is our website’s backlink profile?”