What Happens if You’re the Target of an SEO Attack?

Learn about negative SEO attacks, unethical strategies that harm competitors' website rankings, and how to recognize and mitigate these tactics to protect your website.
  • Headshot of a cheerful man in striped hoodie, clear background.
    Ryan Maake Marketing Operations
    Author block right corner shape
  • October 25, 2023
  • 9 min. read


In the world of digital marketing, SEO (search engine optimization) stands as a cornerstone strategy to achieve online visibility and traffic acquisition. But, as with most marketing channels, it has a dark side – this is where negative SEO attacks come into play.

As a disclaimer, many of these SEO attacks are identified and handled by search engines like Google behind the scenes. But, there are unethical companies out there that still do their best to leverage these attacks against competitors.

The unfortunate truth is that negative SEO is a real threat, and a well-constructed strategy can have devastating effects on your website if you’re not equipped to handle it.

What is SEO?

Before we delve into the negative aspects, let’s briefly define what SEO is. Simply put, SEO is a set of strategies aimed at improving the visibility of a website on search engine result pages (SERPs).

It involves optimizing web content with relevant keywords, enhancing page loading speed, improving website design for user-friendliness, and much more, all in the name of increased organic traffic to your company’s website.

The overall goal of a comprehensive SEO strategy is to make your website easy for search engines like Google to crawl, to increase the visibility of your content by way of demonstrating trust signals to search engines (primarily in the form of backlinks from other websites), and to build a content pipeline that allows you to continually publish high-quality, authoritative content which will drive ongoing traffic, leads, and success to your business.

The dark side of SEO: Negative SEO attacks

Unfortunately, just as SEO can be used to boost a site’s rankings in the SERPs positively, it can also be wielded to more nefarious ends.

This combative, antagonistic approach to SEO is what digital marketers often call “negative SEO” or “adverse SEO.” These are tactics used to sabotage a competitor’s rankings in search engines, instead of improving one’s own standing.

In this post, we’ll take an in-depth look at:

  • What constitutes a negative SEO attack
  • How these negative SEO attacks work
  • The implications they carry for your website
  • What to do if you’re the target of a negative SEO attack

By understanding the mechanics behind these attempts at sabotage, you can better prepare yourself to proactively recognize and mitigate adverse SEO efforts.

What is a negative SEO attack?

At its core, a negative SEO attack is one (or more) of several unethical strategies employed to harm a competitor’s website ranking status in search engine results.

Unlike standard SEO practices which focus on boosting your site’s visibility, negative SEO aims to drag others down.

Common negative SEO tactics

Negative SEO encompasses several tactics that are meant to sabotage a competitor’s search rankings. These include but are not limited to:

1. Building low-quality links

This involves adding numerous spammy or low-quality backlinks pointing to a competitor’s site, tricking search engines into thinking that the targeted site participates in suspicious activities.

2. Content duplication

Here, content from the targeted site is copied and pasted across various other platforms, causing search engines like Google to penalize the original website for duplicate content.

3. Website hacking

In more extreme cases, negative SEO attacks can involve hacking into a website and changing its content or metadata to negatively affect its ranking.

4. Creating fake social profiles

This involves creating false profiles on social networks pretending to be the targeted company and spreading misinformation about it.

The impact of negative SEO attacks

The primary aim of these attacks is to lower the target’s search engine rankings. When successful, these attacks can damage a company’s reputation, lead to lost sales and conversions, and create an uphill battle for recovery.

In extreme cases, a successful negative SEO attack can get a website dropped entirely out of a search engine’s index, effectively turning it into a dead or invisible website until remediated.

The mechanics of negative search engine optimization

The mechanics behind these adverse SEO tactics can be complex and varied, but understanding them can help protect your website from such attacks. Catching an SEO attack as early as possible is extremely important to deal with it effectively.

We outlined some common negative SEO strategies above, and here we’ll go into more detail about how these approaches work.

Link farms and spammy backlinks

One common tactic used in negative SEO is sending tons of spammy backlinks to a competitor’s site. These links are often low quality and unrelated to the target site’s content, which can lead to penalties from search engines.

The process typically involves:

  1. Identifying the target website.
  2. Using automated SEO software to create numerous low-quality backlinks pointing at the target site.
  3. Waiting for search engine algorithms to detect these suspicious activities and penalize the target site.

The goal of this approach is to make it look like the targeted site is knowingly participating in “black-hat” SEO by way of backlink manipulation, which most search engines will penalize for.

Content duplication

Content duplication is another widely-used method in negative SEO. It involves taking original content from the target website and republishing it across multiple platforms without permission. Search engines like Google might then flag your content as duplicate, which can harm your ranking.

This strategy is most effective when leveraged against an “underdog” competitor that may have a weaker website to begin with. The larger, more established, and stronger a website is, the more often that website will get crawled by search engines like Google and Bing.

These stronger websites can leverage that authority by tracking less-established competitor sites, reposting their content as soon as it gets published, and getting their version of said content crawled, indexed, and ranked before the original website.

Duplicate content issues typically won’t get your website penalized outright, but if Google sees your version of the content as the duplicate version (even if it is your original content to begin with), it likely won’t get ranked.

Website hacking

In more extreme cases, negative SEO attacks involve hacking into a website and modifying its content or metadata to negatively impact its search engine rankings.

Hackers might inject malicious code, change the robots.txt file to block search engines, or alter content to include inappropriate keywords or links.

Fake Social Profiles

Creating fake social profiles is another tactic used in negative SEO attacks. Perpetrators build false profiles on social media platforms pretending to be the targeted company, then spread misinformation or engage in harmful activities that damage the company’s reputation online.

Social profiles are not directly related to the SEO performance of your own website, but they can damage your brand all the same.

For example, if a competitor makes several fake social profiles pretending to be your brand, then loads them up with fake, bad reviews or inappropriate content, these profiles may pop up on the first page of Google when customers search for your brand.

How negative SEO attacks impact your website

Negative SEO attacks can have far-reaching implications for your website, affecting not only your search engine rankings but also your online reputation and ultimately, your bottom line.

A decline in search engine rankings

The most immediate impact of a negative SEO attack is a drop in your website’s search engine rankings. Since these attacks often involve tactics that violate search engines’ guidelines, they can lead to site-wide penalties that result in lower rankings.

A decrease in web traffic

Lower search engine rankings inevitably lead to reduced visibility for your site, resulting in decreased organic traffic.

Since organic traffic often accounts for a significant proportion of website visits, this can lead to fewer leads and potential customers.

Damage to your online reputation

Adverse SEO can severely damage your online reputation by way of the fake social profile strategy we mentioned earlier.

It doesn’t matter how good your own website looks and performs if potential customers are bombarded with bad press whenever they go to look up your company.

Increased costs and time investment

Dealing with negative SEO attacks can be costly and time-consuming. You might need to hire experts to clean up spammy backlinks, file reconsideration requests with search engines, or even rebuild your site from scratch if it has been hacked.

All these factors combine to highlight the serious consequences of negative SEO attacks and the importance of being prepared against them.

Recognizing and mitigating adverse SEO tactics

Recognizing the signs of a negative SEO attack and knowing how to mitigate its effects are essential skills for any website owner or digital marketer.

Recognizing the signs

Here are some common signs that your website may be under a negative SEO attack:

  • A sudden drop in organic traffic: If you notice a sudden, unexplained decline in your website’s organic traffic, it could be due to a negative SEO attack.
  • A decrease in search engine rankings: A sudden drop in rankings, especially for keywords that previously performed well, might indicate a negative SEO attack.
  • An increase in backlinks from low-quality or irrelevant sites: An unexpected surge in backlinks from spammy or unrelated websites is another red flag.

Mitigating adverse SEO tactics

If you suspect your site is the target of a negative SEO attack, there are several steps you can take to mitigate its effects:

Regularly monitor your backlink profile: Use tools like Google’s Search Console to regularly monitor your site’s backlink profile. Look out for an unusual increase in low-quality backlinks and disavow them if necessary.

  • Set up Google Search Console email alerts: Enable alerts on Google Search Console to get notified about any issues related to indexing, server errors, or manual penalties affecting your site.
  • Keep your website secure: Regularly update your website platform and plugins, use strong passwords, and consider adding additional security layers like two-factor authentication to protect against hacking attempts.
  • Monitor social media for fake profiles: Regularly check social media platforms for fake profiles pretending to be your brand and report them when found.

By staying vigilant and proactive against adverse SEO tactics, you can minimize their potential impact on your site. The faster you identify and start working against a bad actor, the less effective the attack will be.

SEO attacks in 2024 and beyond

Negative SEO attacks are a real and potent threat in today’s digital landscape. These attacks can have significant impacts on your website’s search engine rankings, traffic, online reputation, and ultimately your revenue.

However, by understanding what a negative SEO attack entails and its potential effects on your web presence, you can be ready and waiting to handle malicious efforts like a pro.

Remember that the key to combating negative SEO lies in vigilance and proactive measures.

Regularly monitoring your backlink profile, staying alert to unusual changes in web traffic or rankings, securing your website against hacking attempts, and managing your online reputation can all help you fend off these attacks before they’re able to do too much harm.

In the ever-evolving world of digital marketing, staying informed is key.

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