In recent years, the marketing world has been shaken by a new phenomenon that has become a dirty word: Negative SEO or NSEO. The other words associated with NSEO are “De-ranking” and “de-indexing” or, in more common parlance, the “disappearance” of your link from search engine pages. Many people are wondering how real the threat of NSEO is, and what its concrete impacts on a company’s online business can be. We should start by explaining that SEO is the optimisation of your website’s visibility and by extension its position in the search engine result pages; this is done by discovering and using a number of criteria that are factored into search engine algorithms. The more closely your site matches the criteria used by search engines to determine whether content is relevant, the more other sites will post links to your site, and the higher your website will rank in the search results. This basically amounts to raising your site’s visibility without having to pay for advertising space. When a content marketing projet goes online SEO must be performed quickly to gain a top spot in search engine results in order to secure a large audience and make a quick and lasting marketing impact. This is precisely the time when the site is at risk of an NSEO attack that could cause it to lose its high ranking. But before going on to further describe and analyze NSEO, here is a bit of historical background.
The Birth of the Internet: from a mere gadget to an essential tool
At its inception (1995-2000), the Web was used by individuals and academics solely for the purposes of sharing information and communicating globally. The idea of individuals creating a website, inventing a concept and being able to put it online quickly was novel at the time.
Efforts to implement a high-quality content strategy can be destroyed by one NSEO attack. Hence the importance of being vigilant and protecting your website from such attacks.
From the year 2000 on, as interest in this new communication medium grew, more and more people began to use the Internet, and consumers especially became interested in exchanging information about products and services; it was at this time that price comparison websites appeared. Companies came into direct competition due to this new and unanticipated use of the Internet.
Around 2005, marketing departments started telling management that it was important to be present on the Web, although at that time the commercial side (sales of new products, before and after-sales service, etc.) was not yet part of that presence. With sites like eBay and PriceMinister, exchanges and sales of secondhand goods developed exponentially. Marketing departments quickly realized that it was to their advantage to use Internet too: there were opportunities for product advertising and promotion, for using new marketing tools, maintaining customer databases, tracking customer behavior, etc.
As the Web and especially the social networks developed, marketing departments kept control over the company website without necessarily working with their IT departments, although they were in charge of DATA and network services. They gradually turned their sites into sophisticated and highly customised marketing machines that became the chief source of data on customers’ online behavior in addition to data from their retail outlets. Social networks also made it possible to communicate directly with customers.
Today, the situation can be described as follows: the company website has become the cornerstone of sales and marketing activity for companies across all sectors. Another interesting fact is that IT departments are often not part of the team when projects are being implemented, although they should be included not only in the technical side (hardware, back and front office software), but also in Web security in order to protect the investment made by the marketing department.
The aim is not to pit company departments against each other, but to show that historically Internet has arrived in businesses from an unexpected direction and responsibility for Internet activity sits between two departments with different cultures and ways of working. Therefore, website security and NSEO attacks were not necessarily on the marketing department’s radar screen, especially when they were under pressure from the sales department which was following its own agenda. This created a kind of no-man’s land between SEO as it was understood from a marketing standpoint and Web security as seen by the IT department.
While this situation still exists today, the website is now critical to the life of a company. In addition, the fact that the Web is global and totally open has resulted in the appearance of techniques designed to thwart the sales and marketing strategies used by marketing departments on the corporate website; these techniques are questionable (if not outright dishonest) and extremely devious, and one of them is NSEO.
What exactly is NSEO and what are its impacts on content marketing?: information or disinformation?
In the keen global competition that companies encounter on the Web, some may be tempted to harm their competitors by using means that verge on the illegal. These damaging tactics are nearly impossible to trace and have a direct impact both on the company’s turnover and share price. Expedia appears to have been the victim of precisely such tactics in the U.S. in January 2014.
NSEO includes two different types of action which can be used together: malicious use of SEO techniques with the intent of causing damage to a competitor, and exploiting weaknesses in a website with the aim of making it disappear from search engine result pages. Finally, we will address these two types of NSEO action from the perspective of the search engines themselves.
Malicious use of SEO techniques
Positive and negative SEO techniques are no secret (Google and other search engines provide information on them) and are both based on the criteria established by the search engines. Therefore, all it takes is to subvert or misuse the criteria to penalise a website or new content marketing platform.
For example, one SEO technique entails getting your site link onto other websites that are influential or have high confidence ratings by Google’s algorithm. The search engine analyzes these links and determines that your site (or more precisely your pages) is of interest because it is mentioned on other sites. Therefore, the search engine algorithms will feature your website more frequently and in a more prominent place in the search results.
Now turn this technique around. Go to sites that are illegal or have a bad reputation and add links to URLs found on the target website. The search engines will register the bad reputation acquired by the target website due to this association and will downgrade it, i.e. put it in a lower position in the results or even relegate it to page 17. For all practical purposes, the site will disappear from the Web. Google Penguin is one of the most sensitive to such unsavory associations and one of the harshest in its response (this has become known as the “Google Penguin penalty”).
Attacking a website’s vulnerable spots
If we take the example of a content marketing project, the website developed for the project is often finalized and approved at the last minute. It is then put on line quickly, perhaps too quickly. When this happens, the site may have vulnerable areas that are easy to target. There are several types of weak points that make it possible to: steal customer data, change webpage content, or completely take over your platform or site. You may be wondering what connection there is between the risk of attacks on a website’s weak points and NSEO?
The aim of NSEO is to cause damage to the website as such, therefore its vulnerabilities will not be used to steal use data or hack into your user database, but to destroy your website’s reputation on search engines, thus cancelling out all the hard work you put into it. In addition, it is possible to alert search engines to website vulnerabilities using the forms they make available to Internet users. When they receive such alerts, one response by search engines is to simply take down the website from its pages. Getting re-indexed does not happen automatically and proof that the site has been secured must be provided before the website can be re-introduced into the website index by the Search Quality Team.
What is at stake for search engines?
Among the many criteria and rules used by search engines, some focus on relevance and quality while others gauge how secure a website is. Whatever the case, it is crucial to observe the rules if you want your project to be successful.
What purpose do these rules serve for the search engines themselves?
It is important to point out that search engines serve their own interests first and foremost, and those interests are primarily financial and/or related to their own brand reputation. A search engine’s audience is highly volatile (in fact, this is true of any website today) and can change quickly: a newcomer offering a new functionality (killer app) or a new, innovative interface can rapidly gain a large market share at the expense of Google, for example.
This is why search engines will be particularly attentive to the behavior and opinions of their own customers/website users and will refuse to feature results that could harm them. A site with very poor SEO (e.g. due to an NSEO attack) or one which has dangerous vulnerabilities that could pose a threat to its users will simply be blacklisted or de-ranked to ensure that the users do not in turn fall victim to an attack or theft, and thus associate a bad customer experience with the search engine.
It is therefore important to follow the recommendations of your SEO expert and to keep abreast of alerts sent by search engines to the interfaces to avoid having a vulnerable website. The alerts also enable you to correct errors you may have missed when you launched your project.
Yes, NSEO is now a very real practice and it targets those who are unfamiliar with the rules of SEO and the languages used to created a website. Instances of companies being blackmailed are increasingly common. Others go so far as to offer NSEO services, so you can pay to destroy your competitors.
Arthur and Lehmann, where he is currently Vice Director fights against NSEOs, and is specialised in the strength and the optimisation of websites.