Negative SEO Tactics the Competition Can Use Against Your Website

Mention “black hat SEO,” and many digital marketers will think of keyword stuffing, link farming, and other dubious acts that are practiced by agencies or in-house individuals charged with overseeing SEO efforts.

However, over the last few years, and more specifically the last few months, another side of black hat SEO has emerged, one that places those malicious and unethical attacks on other websites – negative SEO.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is an attempt by one party to decrease the ranking of a competitor’s website. In an age when Google has so many algorithms and controls the search environment for both key players and search users, many are left to ask if this black hat methodology actually yields results.

Can someone else really take away all your hard work and efforts?

The answer is yes, it can certainly happen. Since the Penguin update (launched in April 2012 to control spam and bad link building practices), negative SEO has been increasing.

In fact, many speculate that the increase in negative SEO is a reaction to the improvements Google has made to penalize and take control of black hat marketing.

Since Penguin made it harder for webmasters to use unethical tactics to improve their own site ranks, using a hybrid of those tactics to take down someone else’s site — clearing out prime real estate in the SERPs (search engine results pages) – presented the next best option.

6 Negative SEO Tactics That Can Tank Rankings (Beware of Unethical Competitors)

Popular Negative SEO Tactics

There are a variety of tactics that can be employed to tank your rankings, but typically, they can be broken down into two predominant categories: off-site and on-site.

When employing off-site tactics, the malicious party requires no access to the backend of your site. Conversely, on-site tactics require hacking.

Off-site Negative SEO Tactics

Spammy Backlinks

At one point, link farms were everywhere. Link farms are a group of connected websites (blogs, forums, etc.) that were solely created to increase rankings through the notion that the more backlinks a site has, the better it must be.

Google caught on, and today that’s highly frowned upon.

Originally, this approach to backlinking was something practiced by site owners in an effort to boost their own rankings, but since Penguin penalizes for that activity, it’s become a useful tool for unethical marketing agencies that practice negative SEO.

Now malicious actors can use those farms to send low-quality links (think gambling, porn, etc.) that direct traffic back to the victim’s site.

Google will see this and, acting in accordance with their policies, penalize the victim’s site, forcing them to plummet in the SERPs and ultimately decrease site traffic, which can destroy a business quickly.

Copying & Distributing Your Content

While duplicate content isn’t a recognized penalty, it can cause issues with search, specifically when it comes to Google’s ability to identify the primary source of the content or the page you want to rank in the SERPs.

When this tactic is used for negative SEO, it’s typically called scraping, or when the malicious party copies content directly from your site onto their own or other sites (i.e., those associated with link farms).

Aside from being blatant plagiarism, scraping as a negative SEO tactic can draw ranking power from your once unique content.

This is particularly true of a scraper is copying and distributing new content that hasn’t yet been indexed and determined to be the primary content.

negative seo tactics will copy paste content to spammy websites

Canonical Negative SEO

This is a fairly new type of negative SEO that was recently unearthed by Bill Hartzer and independent SEO consultant and founder of Hartzer Consulting. It’s particularly concerning, and according to Search Engine Journal, that’s because it’s “virtually impossible to detect the attacker,” which leaves little room for recovery.”

Canonical negative SEO occurs when an attacker scrapes the entire head section (i.e., title tags, meta descriptions, canonical tag, etc.) of a page and duplicates it on a low-quality page.

Since the canonical tag is included, Google assumes that the page is in fact that of the victim, ultimately resulting in, as you guessed, lower tanking rankings.

Forceful Crawling

You know what’s really bad for traffic? When your website runs incredibly slow or, even worse, just crashes. And here lies another example of negative SEO – forceful crawling.

In this case, the malicious party will use forceful crawling to overload the server and subsequently crash your site. And while that’s bad for those trying to access your site through the duration of the crash, there are additional risks associated with this.

If the crash takes place while Google is attempting to crawl (and rank) your page, then you may find your sites lower in the SERPs.

On-site Negative SEO

Website hacking is not unheard of these days, and though much of that hacking is geared towards data theft, hacking a website for SEO purposes isn’t unheard of.

If your site is the target of a hacker with an SEO vendetta, here are a few tactics they may employ.

Manipulated or Modified Site Content

In this case, someone “breaks into” a site and make changes to that site’s content, typically in the form of spammy links or content.

In some cases, the changes are so subtle that the site owner doesn’t notice. Other times, the change may be blatant but is masked using a “display: none” tag in the HTML.

negative seos will use hacks to manipulate your html


Robots.txt, a small yet mighty text file, plays a significant role in SEO efforts — it’s basically the gatekeeper for search crawlers.

Webmasters use this to tell Google how, or how not, to crawl their site. When it comes to negative SEO, the entity that infiltrated your site can disallow to a specific page, which informs Google not to crawl it -essentially removing it from your site.

Identifying & Preventing Negative SEO

You may not always be able to prevent negative SEO, but you can take steps to decrease risk by knowing watching out for common red flags and acting quickly.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Regularly monitor page rank and keep an eye out for major fluctuations.
  • Conduct regular site audits to monitor internal and external links as well as redirects and link profile growth.
  • Monitor site speeds, and if your site becomes increasingly slow or crashed, contact your hosting company to inquire further.
  • Check for scraped content through a duplicate content tool such as Copyscape.

SEO is an essential part of any marketing plan, but negative SEO can quickly sabotage your efforts. From low-quality link farms to ingenious hackers, it’s important to know what types of negative SEO exist and how you can spot them.

Keep your site safe by regularly monitoring for suspicious activity and only work with agencies that you can trust.



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