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Negative SEO: Are Unethical Competitors Affecting Your Business?

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Note: The following is an archived email newsletter, originally distributed on January 26, 2021. Minor updates were made as-necessary. To receive content like this before it appears in archives, subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter and blog updates.


This week's blog post on ethics creep was inspired by a conversation with Peter Bowerman relating to professional ethics in the writing community.

It also ties nicely to last week's post over on Freelance Writing Pros, where I shared a detailed look at how freelance writers can use SEMrush for competitive research.

In that post, I mentioned that I've used tools like SEMrush (also Moz, ahrefs, etc.) to find competitors, including fellow freelance writers, engaging in black hat SEO to gain an unfair advantage when it comes to building search visibility.

Why Awareness of Black Hat Competitors Matters

I know some freelance writing colleagues don't like to think much about SEO, but if you're ignoring it, you're leaving leads on the table.

And if you don't know what competitors do to some degree, it can freeze you out of search results that drive those warm leads your way.

Here are just a few examples of black hat SEO tactics services like SEMrush can help you identify:

  • Competitors buying links to manipulate search rankings
  • Large-scale link exchanges
  • Competitors engaging in other link schemes
  • Competitors running negative SEO campaigns against you

Today, let's look at that last one and what you can do about this common type of black hat SEO.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is when someone intentionally tries to damage your website's search engine rankings. Rather than try to outrank your site through their own routine SEO, they try to negatively impact yours.

Here are some ways they might do that:

  • Submit your site's link to a lot of spammy sites.
  • Republish your content to numerous other sites in the hopes of seeing you hit with duplicate content penalties. This isn't as big a risk as it used to be.
  • Hit your site with an injection attack to insert spammy links across your site. This attempts to get Google to devalue your content. While these aren't highly likely, attacks can be difficult to clean up.
  • Leave negative reviews about your services, or publishing negative content about you on third-party sites. This attempts to outrank your own site and poison your reputation.

For freelance writers, the type of negative SEO you're most likely to come across is the first example. That's where someone rapidly builds bad backlinks to your website using spammy link networks.

And with a tool like SEMrush or the others I mentioned above, this is a type of unethical competitive behavior you can easily discover.

Run backlink reports on your own site and look for any peaks in new links found.

If you see a spike in your charts that doesn't correspond to legitimate link-building you've done, then you know to dig into those backlinks further.

By looking into IPs of the sites, how and when they launched, etc., you can sometimes piece together who runs them (though it's not necessary in most cases).

Not all spammy backlinks come from negative SEO campaigns from competitors. For instance, some massive networks of "top sites" websites create spammy links to thousands of domains on a single IP address.

But no matter how they showed up in your backlink profile, you'll want to make sure these bad backlinks don't negatively impact you.

Submit the URLs or domains for those bad backlinks to Google in a disavow file. SEMrush makes it easy to identify and audit questionable backlinks, and it will even create a disavow file for you after you audit your links.

Be careful with this. You don't want to disavow legitimate links in the process. If you'd like to learn more about how to disavow links, here's a post you might be interested in from SEMrush: How to Disavow Links.

Jenn Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has over 20 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 18 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 16 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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