Negative SEO Basics
Negative SEO, (previously known as "Google Bombing") is the process of lowering a third-party's website rankings in different search engines through direct "attacks" on the site. This isn't through hacking, or Denial-of-Service attacks (which are crimes) but rather by trying to portray to the search engines that the site is not worthy of its ranking, usually by trying to trigger certain "flags' about the site that the search engines associate with poor quality sites. Although it has long been debated whether or not negative SEO really exists, Google has seemed to confirm numerous times that, in theory at least, it can be done, but is incredibly difficult.
Why Attempt Negative SEO?
You may be wondering why someone would want to attempt Negative SEO. There are two main reasons. Businesses use negative SEO to push down web pages that have negative content about the product. Doing so helps the company look better and thus increases sales. This is usually more closely related to a close cousin of Negative SEO, that being "Reputation Management" where the lowered rankings of negative sites are achieved by "boosting up" sites that speak positively about the site in question, rather than actually attacking the negative content sites.
The second more obvious reason why people use negative SEO is to simply penalize their competitors. While this may seem shady to some, certain niches are incredibly cutthroat and Negative SEO is all too common. The value to a site that ranks second or third of knocking the #1 position off its perch can be the difference between a comfortable income and retiring early to a tropical island. Where competitive terms are in play, huge money is in play too, and many sites would expend vast amounts of time, effort, and expense to overtake a competitor in the race to the top of the search engine rankings.
How to (Allegedly) Perform Negative SEO
To perform negative SEO effectively, you have to do a variety of things. You cannot just send spam links to a site and hope search engines penalize the site. Here is a common list of things that many believe you can do to penalize a site:
Copying content - Search engines rate websites based upon having quality, unique content. It has long been known that there are duplicate content penalties for having copied content. While search engines have gotten smarter to people stealing content, a duplicate content penalty can still be given by doing something like this:
Search engines index content at different rates for each website. Some websites have content posted on their website much quicker than others. So, to get a duplicate content penalty, the offender would have to post the target website's content on a website that will be indexed before the "clean" site.
In the past ,this was often done by simply scraping the target's website every hour or so to search for new content, then posting that content to a different site that would be considered "first in time" to the search engines, thus leaving the actual original site looking like the copier if the offending site was indexed faster. Some recent algorithm updates seemed to be aimed at offsetting this specific effect, indicating that the search engines are exceedingly aware of the risk of giving ranking "credit" to the copying website, while punishing the innocent original website that published the content.
Link to "bad neighborhoods" - Search engines look to rank sites that have relevant backlinks from trusted websites. If you link the target site on thousands of unrelated "spammy" pages this can trigger a spam alert. This is what is considered to be a "Google Bomb." Likewise, linking a target's website to pornography or other adult websites may also trigger a spam warning as well. While the SEO community remains sharply divided over whether you can truly "negatively optimize" a 3rd party site, the consequences to competing sites, as well as trust in Search Engine's ability to truly "rank" websites, becomes a matter of serious concern.
With most of what was considered "Google Bombing" now being an outdated thing of the past, the latest efforts at negative SEO tend to focus on attempts to create an over-optimized, unnatural-looking link profile from low-quality sites that is then pointed at the negative SEO target. As the search engine results become increasingly competitive, and more and more website owners recognize the value in not only optimizing their own rankings but also making an effort to adversely effect the competitive sites that stand between them and the top of the search engines, Negative SEO will become an increasingly important piece of the search engine wars.
For a timely and comprehensive look at the debate over at least one "negative SEO" attempt, take a look at this discussion on a negative seo case study.