Imagine a competitor using Google's Panda and Penguin updates against your site. Imagine your rankings crumbling into ashes because someone else has it in for you. Imagine your traffic and conversions rates plummeting not because you engaged in any iffy SEO practices, but because someone else wants you to fail so they can succeed.
That's the hypothetical world we're going to talk about.
What is Negative SEO?
In December of 2012, Google's Matt Cutts released a video that explained Negative SEO from his perspective.
As Cutts explains, most 'negative SEO' comes in the form of bad (spammy, irrelevant, paid do-follow) backlinks. This entails a competitor building ghastly links to your site on spam directories, irrelevant sites, link farms and other questionable outlets.
Negative SEO comes in other flavors as well. In February, Amanda DiSilvestro of Higher Visibility tackled a few other forms of negative SEO. She explained,
"If you don't have the proper security, someone could easily hack into your site and block the Google bots from crawling your site altogether... Google allows websites to contact them about any spam issues. A competitor could easily contact Google and claim your website is full of spam. This is usually the last step in a negative SEO operation... In rare cases, competitors will actually create fake emails and email all of your good partnerships and tell them to take down links to your site. This isn't common, but it's something to consider."
Cutts goes on to say that small businesses don't need to worry, and that it's usually the smaller niches that are hit by Negative SEO. He specifically cites online gambling and casino operations. He also notes that not many people even attempt negative SEO and that there are "few people who actually succeed."
Those are just words, and words are of small comfort to a webmaster worried about Negative SEO.
Fortunately, Google has a solution for that-their Disavow Links tool. It's a simple tool that allows webmasters to upload a text file of links they want Google to ignore. Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan interviewed Cutts about the tool in October of last year. In the interview, Cutts explains the intricacies of the tool. It's a good read, and it contains valuable information for any webmaster that plans to use the tool.
Google makes sure to mention that you should manually contact webmasters to remove unwanted or spammy links, because the disavow tool can't do everything. The text on the page reads,
"If you believe your site's ranking is being harmed by low-quality links you do not control, you can ask Google not to take them into account when assessing your site. You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn't enough."
User experiences with the Disavow Links Tool are abundant, and some of those experiences combined with Google's "isn't enough" phrasing put many webmasters back to square one.
The Front Line is Everywhere
Square one is, of course, a state of paranoia. "What if there are people out to get me and lower my search rankings?"
That's what we're here to talk about. Simply put, if Negative SEO existed on a large scale, it would be World War III.
Google gives ordinary people the ability to report paid do-follow links (all advertisements and sponsored posts, according to Google's guidelines, are required to carry the no-follow tag) at any time. Reporting your site or the links you've built as paid links is one way someone might attack you. That report could damage your rankings, even if you didn't pay for those links-until you sort the whole mess out.
There are even companies who build bad links in the name of negative SEO. So a competitor could easily pay some money to an outside firm, who will then build spammy links to your site.
Imagine a world where one good turn deserves another-Webmaster A hires a firm to build bad links for Webmaster B's site. Webmaster B's rankings plummet, so he hires a firm (possibly the same one) to build bad links to Webmaster A's site. The cycle continues, with both webmasters putting all of their time and energy into engaging in negative SEO and disavowing links. It becomes a warzone where no one is safe, particularly businesses that inhabit very specific niches. Small niches are easier to target.
Then there are hacking campaigns and the aforementioned fake emails. It gets ugly at light speed.
The Reality of Negative SEO
Now that we're all scared and paranoid, let's take a step back into reality. Yes, negative SEO companies do exist. They don't even do anything that's actually illegal, so no one can really stop their operation. That seems like a cause for concern, but in the real world it's not a huge deal.
Very few webmasters have the time to worry about negative SEO. Everyone is just trying to scrape by and earn a living. Most people don't have the time to build bad links to your site, hack you or otherwise drag your SERP rankings down. They also don't have the money to throw at negative SEO firms just to hurt a competitor.
It also helps that Google is actively trying to fight against negative SEO. Cutts' web spam team is dedicated to keeping the peace and preventing this hypothetical SEO World War III. They're one step ahead.
As Cutts puts it in his negative SEO video, "at worst it's an annoyance."
He goes on to say that it's a "much better use of your time to do something productive" instead of engaging in negative SEO, and that's the point. Most webmasters consider positive SEO practices a good use of their scarce time. They want to help themselves, not hurt you.
Yes, negative SEO attacks do happen, but not on a large scale.
Negative SEO on a huge, warlike scale is something that will probably never happen. There's just not enough time and money in the industry for many webmasters to focus on it. If it does happen, there are protections in place. If, by some small chance, you're the victim of a negative SEO it's going to be an inconvenience for a while, but you can pull out of it. Chances are that it will never happen in the first place.
If you think you're the victim of Negative SEO, check your backlink profile. Make sure that you're not your own worst enemy (those old, irrelevant links that were common practice a few years ago can come back to hurt you).
Negative SEO does exist on a small scale in shadowy pockets of the internet, but at the end of the day everyone's just trying to get by-it's highly unlikely that anyone has the time, resources or contempt to wage war against your site.