PRmoment Leaders PRCA PA Mediapoint PA Assignments PRmoment Awards Winners North ESG & Sustainability Awards 2024 PRmoment Masterclass: Agency Growth Forum

Why you need to know about negative SEO

There is a secret war going on in PR land right now, well, not so secret if you work in online public relations, and this is the rise of negative SEO recovery campaigns. This is a bit more than your average “moving something negative about a brand out of sight in Google” and more about the practice of trying to feck over a competitor by doing some nasty online things to them. 

PR does good
To be clear, our industry is helping brands recover from this and not actually carrying out the dodgy activities. Here is the skinny on how it works:

No matter what people say, getting a website to rank higher in Google depends largely on the number of other, credible (such as news sites) websites that link to it (there are other factors, I know, this isn’t my first rodeo!). To keep this simple, there are good links – like the high-authority news sites, such as BBC, HuffPo, Yahoo News, and then there are not-so-good links – low-authority scraper sites: crap/spammy blogs and relatively new domains.

Toxic links
And then there are “toxic” links – porn sites, stolen passport, stolen credit card websites. You don’t want the toxic links coming to your site.

In this negative SEO example, Brand A hates Competitor B. Brand A goes off and finds a website or provider who deals in selling the toxic links and buys some and points them at Competitor B. It sometimes also do some other sneaky stuff that I won’t go into, to try and hide these links.

Google’s role
Google is very quick in spotting these new links and, in one client example, its rankings had dramatically dropped down to page four, five or six, from a starting position of page one, within a few weeks of this happening. In another example, a client was losing £50m PER WEEK, from one of these campaigns.

Then comes the clean-up and this is where PR and SEO folk can work hand in hand. The SEO team will ensure the site is technically okay and then tell Google to ignore these toxic links. Sadly, Google is not as quick to do that, as it is to mark a site down for having these toxic links.  

In another frustrating area, Google does not always give you a true picture of the problem. This has become such a big issue that there are now tools dedicated to spotting this happening and helping to fix it, such as Kerboo and (both not clients!).

Rebuilding confidence
In a growing number of cases the SEO team has to resort to telling Google to disavow ALL the links a site has ever got… well, the vast majority, and this is where the PR people come in. The affected company needs to rebuild some nice clean links (preferably from big-value news and media sites) and we public relations folk are best placed to do this.

Getting these links is a whole different article.

Growing problem
The real issue is that this kind of negative SEO campaign is growing. Seven years ago we worked on our first campaign of this nature and it was the only one that year.

Fast forward to 2018/2019 and we probably get four or five briefs of this nature per month. Google is doing all that it can to try and prevent a site being affected by this kind of toxic campaign, but it feels to me like the issue is growing month on month.

I am not sure about the criminality side of this kind of toxic links campaign and I know that some clients have tried talking to the police about it, but it goes nowhere. It is very hard to trace back to the people who have done it.

We need you!
This is costing brands millions of pounds in lost revenue; just with the clients we help alone. As an industry I feel we need to really lift the lid on what is going on to try and reduce the number of businesses, big and small who are being hit hard by negative SEO. It is our chance to make a difference.

Written by Andy Barr, head of PR agency 10 Yetis

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for free to our twice weekly editorial alert.

We have six email alerts in total - covering ESG, internal comms, PR jobs and events. Enter your email address below to find out more: