Posted in SEO by Ben Acheson | 2 comments

There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others (Niccolo Machiavelli)

SEO WarfareDon’t try this at home kids. I don’t advocate the use of hostile SEO under any circumstances. And I’m not about to reveal anything really dangerous or secret here.

But it is important for brands to understand the nature of SEO warfare – because it’s a real threat that is out there. You need to know your enemy and know your weaknesses. If you’re smart, you’ll hire a good SEO agency to watch your back out there.

In order to help SEO warriors prepare for battle I prepared this list of six hostile SEO tactics that the bad guys are using out there right now. I’ll also look at six things you can do to defend yourself if you’re attacked.

SEO Warfare Tactics

Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster (Sun Tzu)

6 Hostile SEO Tactics

1. Anchor text over-optimisation. Google tries to automatically detect unnatural linking activity and either ignore it or penalise it. A common hostile link-building tactic is building links to the target site with gross anchor-text over-optimisation for keywords the site ranks well for. In some cases Google may penalise the site and demote their rankings.

2. Spammy anchor text. Another common tactic is to try to make the target site look spammy by building lots of links to it using anchor text related to spammy topics – such as gambling or adult industries.

3. Penalty links. Links from sites that have a Google penalty can be very harmful. Often these are established sites that suspiciously show no toolbar PageRank. Another warning sign is a site that fails to rank for obvious queries like its name. A closer look at their link profile usually reveals why the site may be penalised by Google. The worst offending sites may have been removed from Google’s index altogether. These sites won’t appear no matter what you search for.

4. Doorway sites. Even a very small number of links from certain types of doorway site can be enough to adversely affect rankings – because it looks like those sites have been set up just to manipulate Google. And who else but the site owner would go to all the trouble of setting up another website for that? Only the site owner. Right?

5. Bad reviews. Complaints about a business appearing online can be harmful to that business. A lot of serious complaints appearing in search results when people search for your brand name can be disastrous. Managing your reputation in the face of negative search results can be very difficult and is best left to the experts. Hire a good SEO agency with a senior Head of SEO. Don’t rely on your in-house SEO unless they have many years of SEO experience.

6. Bad outbound links. This kind of attack is still relatively rare, but it appears to be on the rise and it can have devastating effects that last a few months. Linking out from your website to sites that Google regards as suspicious is a very bad idea. You may not intentionally do that but other people might. Fortunately most sites are automatically protected against the most common forms of outbound link attack by the “nofollow” microformat which tells Google to ignore that link for SEO purposes. But there are still ways in which people can place bad links on your site, especially if you have a blog or a forum. A more rare – but very serious scenario – is for hackers to break into your site in order to build links. Usually this is not an attempt to harm your rankings – but it almost certainly will do. The hackers’ aim is usually to hijack your site to build links to support their own SEO campaigns – usually short-term campaigns targeting disposable temporary sites. Unfortunately, hackers often link to undesirable sites such as gambling and adult sites which make your site look suspicious to Google. Eventually the suspicious linking activity yields Google Penalties for the target sites. If you have not noticed the bad links by this stage then you’re probably now linking out to multiple sites with Google penalties, using spammy anchor text. That’s seriously bad for your own SEO. Fortunately, once the problem is discovered, your bad outbound links can usually be cleaned up quite easily. But in some cases you may need to submit a reconsideration request in Google Webmaster Tools. Just be honest and explain what happened. It may take several weeks for your rankings to recover.

6 SEO Defence Tips

SEO warfare is serious: it’s best left to the professionals. You need the protection of a really good SEO agency that understands the terrain of the battlefield. Think of them as your Special Forces escort. But there are some basic things that you can do to reduce the risk to your business too.

1. Google Alerts. Set up alerts for your brand name and your domain name (without www.) Make sure you select “All results”. Once a week should suffice for you to scan the weekly email alert to look for link problems like the ones described above.

2. Check your inbound links. Diary to check Open Site Explorer for suspicious links to your website. If you see a lot of bad links, you will soon be able to use Google’s forthcoming “Disavow Links” tool to tell Google about bad links you’re not responsible for. Bing Webmaster already lets you disavow links. From the dashboard, choose “Configure My Site”, then “Disavow Links“. It surprises me that people often fail to notice even severe outbound link problems attacks until it impacts rankings and traffic.

3. Watch PageRank. As an SEO metric it’s outdated and lacks granularity. But as a warning sign it can be useful. Most importantly, don’t build links from websites without toolbar PageRank on the homepage. Look out for a significant drop in the PageRank score of your own homepage. This could be caused by other factors, such as the natural loss of an important link. But it represents sufficient grounds for further investigation.

4. Watch traffic. In particular, look out for a significant drop in traffic from non-brand keywords. Set up Custom Alerts in Google Analytics Intelligence Events to warn you of any potentially sinister changes in activity on your site.

5. Good SEO. A healthy SEO campaign – steadily building legitimate links – could help protect your site from the effects of a small hostile SEO campaign because one of the things Google is likely to be looking for is the percentage of links that are bad. If you already have 50,000 normal, healthy links built up over several years, and somebody builds a few hundred bad ones, that’s not likely to have a significant impact because the percentage of bad links is small.

6. Security. Make sure your FTP and CMS passwords are secure. The most secure passwords contain a lot of characters and contain a mixture of random capital and lowercase letters, as well as numbers and symbols. Not real words. Make sure you have the most up to date WordPress patches installed. Block your CMS login pages to robots so hackers can’t find it in search results. It’s quite easy for hackers to use Google to find admin login pages to attack. If you’re updating your website and there is a temporary site, make sure it’s blocked to robots and check that the password is a good one. If you have a brochure site and a blog, or an e-commerce site and a blog, you may have two CMS systems. Check with your technical people and secure them both.

Signs of a hostile SEO attack often include a sharp drop in rankings and traffic, or a sharp drop in your toolbar PageRank score. If you experience all of these things then you definitely have a problem. Early warning signs include the discovery of bad links being built to your site. Sometimes bad links are built by a bad SEO agency that does not understand SEO. This is surprisingly common!

If you’re worried about a possible SEO attack, or a bad SEO agency, and would like some advice, please get in touch. I help people like you every day.

About Ben Acheson

Head of SEO and Social Media

View all posts by Ben Acheson

Comments (2)

  1. Josh Nicholas -

    Nice post Ben. I wonder whether Sun Tzu and Niccolò Machiavelli would enjoy SEO if they were still around?…the latter would be hanging out over at blackhatworld.com for sure! 😉

  2. Blair Kuhnen -

    Thanks for the article. On disavow, Matt Cutts anounced its availability last month at PubCon. However, he considers it a last resort tool and most of the SEO’s I respect have suggested a “Do Not Use” position until we learn how those compelled to use it report. Pretty scarry stuff.

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