In many respects, “Negative SEO” isn’t anything new. It’s been around since SEO became a thing. Since the releases of Penguin, Panda, and Hummingbird, though, negative SEO has become a much bigger threat. So what is it and what can you do about it if it happens to you?

What is Negative SEO, Exactly?

Negative SEO is, essentially, exactly what it sounds like: it is the act of using SEO against a competitor. It is something that spammers and competitors have used against each other for years.

Right, but what does that mean?

Think of all of the things you do to promote your site using SEO. You choose positive keywords for your content. You’ve worked hard to build relationships with highly ranked websites and built a plethora of organic inbound links. You’ve got internal links between the pages of your site.

Now, imagine someone using negative keywords and linking those negative keywords to your site. Imagine someone creating tons of random and non-contextual links to your homepage and to subpages within your site. Imagine a spammer hacking into your site and creating lots of non-contextual links outward to a competitor. Imagine someone copying your content and publishing it all over the web. Imagine someone creating a bunch of terrible, spun content and linking that back to your site.

It’s All Hummingbird’s Fault

A couple of years ago, SEO was primarily a numbers game. This meant that website owners had a much easier time combating negative SEO. They could simply buy links from good sites, create lots of positive content using those positive keywords and, basically, flood the web with positivity.

Today, though, things are much different. Today the Google spiders place the biggest premiums on context and relevancy. You already know what Hummingbird is and what its changes mean for your content. Let’s take a second to look at what Hummingbird means for your links.

Thanks to the Penguin update, when you link out to someone or something, not only does the anchor text have to be relevant to the text surrounding it in your content but the site being pointed to by the link has to be relevant to the content as well. You can’t, for example, link to a site selling swimming pool filters in the middle of an article about choosing a Nanny for your children (unless you can find a way to make that section and the sales site relevant). Google checks for that now. What’s more, Google punishes for that now.

Pesky Monkey Wrench

While most site owners have adapted quite well to the smacking down of duplicate content, they are having a harder time adapting to the enforcement of contextual linking. Now, to be fair, contextual linking was more of a Penguin rule than a Hummingbird rule, but Hummingbird has really piled on the pressure.

Because Hummingbird is designed to benefit the site user (not the site builder) and it effectively builds upon the Penguin and Panda changes, Google has started paying very close attention to how the link clickers behave. In a post for Search Engine Land, Nate Dame writes “Google will notice high bounce rates, the lack of natural social sharing, and a variety of other signals no matter how many links you build…”

The context of the links isn’t the only thing demanding your attention. Hummingbird is also forcing a change to the structure of links. Links are going “long tail” .

In some ways, this is good because it helps writers (ahem) write more conversationally. The anchor text needs to be longer and include things like stop words. So, while last year content creators would have to find a way to wedge “Los Angeles rental cars” contextually into a paragraph, now writers use “find rental cars in Los Angeles.”

More importantly, site owners caught using the old system are penalized for lack of context and relevancy because the old link structure often sticks out like a sore thumb.

Bringing It Full Circle

People engaging in negative SEO are creating “old school” (aka bad, poorly written, keyword stuffed, non-contextually linked) content and aiming it at their competitors. Their goal is to flood the web, which grabs the attention of the spiders and then shoves a bunch of “bad” stuff at them. The result is that the algorithm says you’re spamming the web or trying to game the system.

Remember: Google doesn’t like it when people try to game the system and now, with Hummingbird, they have a way to shut you down.

So What Can You Do?

If you suspect that you’ve been targeted by negative SEO, don’t fight their fire with yours. Remember: SEO is not a simple numbers game anymore. There are concrete steps that you need to take to alert Google (and Bing!) to what you think is happening.

Constant Vigilance!

The best way to combat Negative SEO is to catch it early. Set up your Webmaster Tools to email you if it looks like someone is trying to hack into your site, if Google fails to index one or more of your pages, etc.

Keep track of your back links and your link profile. KissMetrics recommends as a good tool to use to help you track your back links. The site will email you whenever you gain or lose a link.

Take Action!

If you do start seeing “attack links,” you should email the linking website’s publisher immediately and ask them to take the link down. Whenever you email another site owner about links make sure you’re doing so from an email address on your actual domain. You@YourDomain.Whatever tells the person on the receiving end of that email that you are you. It also helps send up the red flag when Spammer@WebhostedEmail.YeahRight tries to convince that person that they are you and that one of your links needs to be taken down…or put back up!

Yes. People who engage in Negative SEO are just as interested in removing quality back links as they are in flooding the web with spammy backlinks.

Google Loves Tattletails (and So Does Bing)

If you can’t convince the site owner to take down the link pointing to your site or if there are too many of them for you to contact each site owner directly, don’t worry. The Google Disavow Tool was created to help you “protest” any manual penalties that you have gotten. Use the tool to create a list of links that you want to disavow and the Google Analytics team will look into them.

It’s important to understand though, that the Google Analytics team isn’t known for its speed. It can take a month or more for them to act on your disavows.

Protect Your Stuff

Make sure that your website is on a secure server and turn your security settings up to eleven. For that matter, make sure your computer’s security software is updated and turned all the way up as well. This is the Internet. People like to hack for fun. Make it hard for them!

While you’re at it, it’s a good idea to run your site through Copyscape and other duplicate content checker tools every week or so. This will help you quickly catch people who might be stealing your content and posting it on their own sites. Remember, duplicate content is a huge no-no. So is plagiarism!

Reputation Matters

If you haven’t already started monitoring your reputation, now is the time to start. Remember: negative SEO involves links and content posted anywhere. Monitoring your social media mentions and links, your reviews, etc isn’t just good for preventing negative SEO. It’s good for building your business.

Finally remember: you have far more control over your site and reputation than spammers or even Google would like you to believe. Exercise it! There is no reason to sit idly by while a competitor tries to make Google hate you.