In recent years, Google has clamped down on link spam, with a number of major changes to its search formula. But as old ‘black-hat’ SEO tricks become obsolete, an even darker practice is on the rise: extortion emails.
With the much-discussed ‘Penguin’ link spam update making it easier than ever to cause damage to a competitor site, the threat of “negative SEO” has been on the rise.
Negative SEO involves creating unnatural links to a competitor (or blackmailed individual) with the intent of getting them caught and penalised by Google.
The practice is thankfully still fairly rare, but now even Google has acknowledged the problem. Recently, the internet giant tweaked its webmaster guidelines on the topic, changing the text from “there is almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index,” to “Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index”.
However, there have been reports in the media of several negative SEO extortion schemes looking to part less-informed webmasters from their hard-earned cash.
Several people in the SEO industry have posted the emails they’ve received from these negative SEO sites, asking for up to $1,500 in cash.
These emails often begin with phrases along the lines of: ‘this is extortion, give us your money or else’, threatening to use spamming tools such as Xrummer to blast the victim’s site with thousands of low quality links to trigger the Penguin algorithm. This would result in your site disappearing from Google’s top rankings- costing your site traffic and your business money. To avoid such a scenario, the blackmailer often demands a sum of money paid to an anonymous account.
One example email, provided by blog SEO Watch, has reportedly been sent out to many webmasters and site owners. It reads:
Subject: I Want To Buy. Please Guide Me.
Read this email very carefully.
This is an extortion email.
We will do NEGATIVE SEO to your website by giving it 20,000 XRumer forum profile backlinks (permanent & mostly dofollow) pointing directly to your website and hence your website will get penalised & knocked off the Google’s Search Engine Result Pages (SERP) forever, if you do not pay us $1,500.00 (payable by Western Union).
This is no false claim or a hoax, download the following Notepad file containing 20,000 XRumer forum profile backlinks pointing to URL CENSORED / (this is our website and go and see on this website, you will find our email address EMAIL CENSORED from which this email right now is being sent to you) :
Just reply to this email to let us know if you will pay just $1,500.00 or not for us to refrain or not from ruining your precious website & business permanently. Also if you ignore this email and do not reply to this email within the next 24-48 hours, then we will go ahead and build 20,000 XRumer forum profile backlinks pointing directly to your website.
We are awaiting your wise decision.
What Google is doing to combat negative SEO
Google has been aware of this potential abuse for years, and has built safeguards into their algorithms to prevent ‘person A from hurting competitor B’ through spammy backlink schemes.
In the above video, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, says “In my experience, there’s a lot of people who talk about negative SEO, but very few people who actually try it, and fewer still who actually succeed.” He goes on to say, “I know that there’s been a lot of people stressed about this. Whenever we dig into what’s actually going on, there’s been a lot of discussion but very little in ways of actually people trying to do attacks.”
How to fight back- The Disavow Tool
With the growing threat of non-relevant sites linking to you and hurting your rankings, Google recently released the Disavow Tool.
Initially launched in October 2012, the tool lets you ask Google to remove certain URLs or domains as a ranking factor in the indexing of your site. You do this by creating a .txt file with a list of these domains or URLs and submitting it to Google.
Watch this video from Matt Cutts explaining how the tool works below:
“Digital marketing can feel challenging to many brands because of its complexity vs simple advertising”, explains Danny Meadows-Klue, President of the Digital Training Academy. “The idea of blackmail through SEO links is simply an extra layer for brand to navigate, and one that most marketers in a business won’t be in a position to evaluate effectively. Given that negative SEO will be as impossible for most brands to identify and evaluate, it’s likely that Google will have to uncover a route through Penguin that helps mitigate it.”
But he is conscious that opportunists will move faster than most brands or Google can respond. “Unfortunately, the sharks in the industry will see the gap in knowledge and exploit it opportunistically. If you’re in a high profile brand, look out for waves of emails threatening negative SEO hitting your inbox in the second half of the year until Google or the industry finds a workable solution.”