Negative SEO: Can Competitors Harm Your Ranking on Google?

Can competitors harm your ranking?

Many law firms are concerned with competition intentionally harming their websites ranking. Can this happen? The short answer from Google is yes. However, if you suspect this is happening to your firm, it is unlikely at the time this article is being published.  Negative SEO isn’t in it’s infancy as many believe. A better analogy is that it just hit puberty. Negative SEO has existed since the mid 1990s but has recently become a popular topic because Google has modified its ranking algorithm to give low quality spammy links a penalty score when they believe them to be unnatural, thus opening Pandora’s box to manipulation by anyone with $45 and a few minutes on their hands. This change allows many people with mediocre knowledge of SEO to execute a Negative SEO attack.  This new tactic is called competitive Google bombing and has only existed since approximately the release of the Penguin update.

Are you at risk?

Most law firms are not at risk to be targeted with negative SEO. However, where there is economic incentive to cheat, someone may decide to put their morals aside in the name of increasing shareholder wealth. New websites with limited authoritative links and reputation are more likely to be affected by negative SEO tactics. On the other hand, well-established law firm websites that have established a strong brand, goodwill within the community, and an authoritative backlink profile of reputable websites would not likely feel the pinch of a negative SEO attack, as Rand Fishkin’s challenge to black hat SEOs demonstrated. Websites with established credibility and brand recognition should be able to survive an attack. However, most law firm websites do not fit this profile.

What are the signals of Negative SEO?

The signals that will notify you and your team that you have been affected by negative SEO will come from an immediate drop in rankings and traffic, typically after a short jump in rankings and traffic caused by over optimization of your backlink profile. However when a company believes that they are the victim of negative SEO, it’s much more likely that Google simply caught them for their own misdeeds and has finally enforced their terms of service penalties for attempting to game their algorithm. That doesn’t mean that they are a bad person, it can happen to anybody. Especially if you have a limited knowledge of SEO and have a difficult time validating a potential SEO’s skills, background and surprisingly most important, their ideology.

The smoking gun, however, is recent voluminous unexplained backlinks from low quality sources. If you are not currently monitoring your backlink profile. I recommend using  SEOMOZ’s Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, and Google Webmaster Tools, All of those programs allow you to view the links that are pointing to your website, including malicious ones. There are other more complex examples of negative SEO which go even further to ruin a company’s reputation. They do this by posting on forums about products and methods that violate search engine terms or service using username or identities associated with the target firm. Before the attack begins, if a manual review of the service occurs, it’s unlikely that a search engine representative would believe the victim as their reputation would be questionable without a large amount of previous good will.

Don’t Be Evil

Many publishers are lucky that Google isn’t evil and has offered a type of Black Hat “SEO Amnesty” through their Disavow Link Tool. This tool allows companies to remove low quality links from their firm’s backlink profile. It doesn’t matter if the links are from a “black hat” SEO that the firm negligently hired, or if the firm was the target of a negative SEO attack. This isn’t a promise that your website will rank as well as it did before. It’s an act of good faith put forth by Google to give publishers that are affected by the Penguin update relief.  Use this tool sparingly and wisely. Do not abuse the disavow link tool.

What can law firms do to prevent being attacked?

You can take pre-emptive action against a negative SEO attack by practicing the best practices of building a great law firm; develop a brand, reputation, and overall good will. There is no sure protection against negative SEO, especially for a small law firm website. But having a great reputation on and off the web is a great start.

Get involved in your local community, become an authority in your practice area through speaking engagements and publishing great content, build a real life network of respected peers, clients and community leaders to develop strong word-of-mouth referrals. Often these brick and mortar best practices translate into great content, links, ranking, and traffic online.  Oh, and considering it’s typically the firm’s own actions that cause signals of negative SEO to appear, be aware of what your marketing department or vendors are doing as it’s your name, firm reputation, and income on the line. Good luck.

In Short:

  1. Yes. Your competitors can harm your rankings.
  2. It’s an inside job. Negative SEO signals are most likely caused by the firm itself.
  3. Practice Brick and Mortar Firm Building. Build more than a law firm, build a brand.
  4. Don’t Cheat.
  5. Pay attention to what your marketing department and vendors do on your behalf.